October 23, 2012

Case Highlights 2005-2006 Term

Following are case highlights for the topic areas of Death Penalty, Disability Law, and Due Process. To access other case highlights for the 2005-2006 Term or previous terms, or to return to the main Case Highlights page, use the Topic Area menu to the right.


Brown v. Sanders
Docket No. 04-980
Reversed: The Ninth Circuit

Argued: October 11, 2005
Decided: January 11, 2006
For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 14

Did the presence of invalid special circumstances render the jury's imposition of California's death penalty unconstitutional in Sanders' case?

No. In California, the "special circumstances" are the eligibility factors designed to satisfy [the Furman v. Georgia (1972)] narrowing requirement. If the jury finds the existence of one of the special circumstances, it is instructed to "take into account" a separate list of sentencing factors describing aspects of the defendant and the crime.

From the opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas):

We think it will clarify the analysis, and simplify the sentence-invalidating factors we have hitherto applied to non-weighing States … if we are henceforth guided by the following rule: An invalidated sentencing factor (whether an eligibility factor or not) will render the sentence unconstitutional by reason of its adding an improper element to the aggravation scale in the weighing process unless one of the other sentencing factors enables the sentencer to give aggravating weight to the same facts and circumstances. … The issue we confront is the skewing that could result from the jury's considering as aggravation properly admitted evidence that should not have weighed in favor of the death penalty. … As we have explained, such skewing will occur, and give rise to constitutional error, only where the jury could not have given aggravating weight to the same facts and circumstances under the rubric of some other, valid sentencing factor.

Dissenting: Justice Stevens (joined by Justice Souter)
Dissenting: Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg)

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Hill v. McDonough, et al.

Docket No. 05-8794

Reversed: The Eleventh Circuit

Argued: April 26, 2006

Decided: June 12, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 409

Must the petitioner's challenge to the constitutionality of Florida's method of execution be brought by an action for a writ of habeas corpus under the statute authorizing that writ, 28 U. S. C. § 2254?

No. Because the petitioner's claim is comparable in its essentials to the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action the Court allowed to proceed in Nelson v. Campbell (2004), it does not have to be brought in habeas, but may proceed under § 1983.

From the opinion by Justice Kennedy (for a unanimous Court):

[W]e conclude that Hill's § 1983 action is controlled by the holding in Nelson [ v. Campbell (2004)]. Here, as in Nelson, Hill's action if successful would not necessarily prevent the State from executing him by lethal injection. The complaint does not challenge the lethal injection sentence as a general matter but seeks instead only to enjoin the respondents "from executing [Hill] in the manner they currently intend." … Hill concedes that "other methods of lethal injection the Department could choose to use would be constitutional" … and respondents do not contend … that granting Hill's injunction would leave the State without any other practicable, legal method of executing Hill by lethal injection. … Hill's challenge appears to leave the State free to use an alternative lethal injection procedure. Under these circumstances a grant of injunctive relief could not be seen as barring the execution of Hill's sentence.

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House v. Bell

Docket No. 04-8990

Reversed: The Sixth Circuit

Argued: January 11, 2006

Decided: June 12, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 187

Was the petitioner's new evidence, though presenting at the very least a colorable claim of actual innocence, as a matter of law insufficient to excuse his failure to present that evidence before the state courts?

No. Because the petitioner has made the stringent showing required by the actual-innocence exception, his federal habeas action may proceed.

From the opinion by Justice Kennedy (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer):

In Schlup [ v. Delo (1995)], the Court … held that prisoners asserting innocence as a gateway to defaulted claims must establish that, in light of new evidence, "it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." For purposes of this case several features of the Schlup standard bear emphasis. First, although "[t]o be credible" a gateway claim requires "new reliable evidence—whether it be exculpatory scientific evidence, trustworthy eyewitness accounts, or critical physical evidence—that was not presented at trial," … the habeas court's analysis is not limited to such evidence. … The court's function is not to make an independent factual determination about what likely occurred, but rather to assess the likely impact of the evidence on reasonable jurors.

Concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part: Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas)

Taking no part in the decision or consideration of the case: Justice Alito

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Kansas v. Marsh

Docket No. 04-1170

Reversed: Kansas Supreme Court

Argued: December 7, 2005

Decided: April 25, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 154

Is a Kansas law constitutional when it requires jurors in capital cases to impose a death sentence if they conclude that mitigating evidence and aggravating evidence are equal?

Yes. The Court earlier held that a state death penalty statute may give the defendant the burden of proving that mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances. Therefore, Kansas' death penalty statute may constitutionally direct imposition of the death penalty when the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigating factors do not outweigh aggravating factors, including when the two are equal.

From the opinion by Justice Thomas (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Alito):

The dissent's general criticisms against the death penalty are ultimately a call for resolving all legal disputes in capital cases by adopting the outcome that makes the death penalty more difficult to impose. While such a bright-line rule may be easily applied, it has no basis in law. Indeed, the logical consequence of the dissent's argument is that the death penalty can only be just in a system that does not permit error. Because the criminal justice system does not operate perfectly, abolition of the death penalty is the only answer to the moral dilemma the dissent poses. This Court, however, does not sit as a moral authority. Our precedents do not prohibit the States from authorizing the death penalty, even in our imperfect system. And those precedents do not empower this Court to chip away at the States' prerogatives to do so on the grounds the dissent invokes today.

Concurring: Justice Scalia

Dissenting: Justice Stevens

Dissenting: Justice Souter (joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer)

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Oregon v. Guzek

Docket No. 04-928

Vacated and Remanded: Supreme Court of Oregon

Argued: December 7, 2005

Decided: February 22, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 148

Can a state limit the innocence-related evidence that a defendant can introduce at a resentencing hearing to the evidence he introduced at his original trial?

Yes. Such a limit is constitutional.

From the opinion of the Court by Justice Breyer (joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter and Ginsburg):

[T]he federal question before us is a narrow one. Do the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments grant Guzek a constitutional right to present evidence of the kind he seeks to introduce, namely new evidence that shows he was not present at the scene of the crime. That evidence is inconsistent with Guzek's prior conviction. It sheds no light on the manner in which he committed the crime for which he has been convicted. Nor is it evidence that Guzek contends was unavailable to him at the time of the original trial. And, to the extent it is evidence he introduced at that time, he is free to introduce it now, albeit in transcript form. … We can find nothing in the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments that provides a capital defendant a right to introduce new evidence of this kind at sentencing.

Concurring: Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas)

Taking no part in the consideration or decision of the case: Justice Alito

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United States v. Georgia et al.

Docket No. 04-1203

Reversed and Remanded: The Eleventh Circuit

Argued: November 9, 2005

Decided: January 10, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 65

May a disabled inmate in a state prison sue the State for money damages under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990?

Yes. Insofar as Title II creates a private cause of action for damages against States for conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment, Title II validly abrogates state sovereign immunity.

From the opinion by Justice Scalia (for a unanimous Court):

[The Americans with Disabilities Act] provides that "[a] State shall not be immune under the eleventh amendment to the Constitution of the United States from an action in [a] Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction for a violation of this chapter." … We have accepted this latter statement as an unequivocal expression of Congress's intent to abrogate state sovereign immunity. … [I]nsofar as Title II creates a private cause of action for damages against the States for conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment, Title II validly abrogates state sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Circuit erred in dismissing those of Goodman's Title II claims that were based on such unconstitutional conduct.

Concurring: Justice Stevens (joined by Justice Ginsburg)

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Jones v. Flowers et al.

Docket No. 04-1477

Reversed and Remanded: The Supreme Court of Arkansas

Argued: January 17, 2006

Decided: April 26, 2006

For Case Analysis: See ABA Preview 207

When a certified mail notice of tax delinquency is returned to government offices as undelivered, must governments take additional steps to give notice to property owners before seizing property?

Yes. When mailed notice of a tax sale is returned unclaimed, a state must take additional reasonable steps to attempt to provide notice to the property owner before selling his property, if it is practicable to do so.

From the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer):

There is no reason to suppose that the State will ever be less than fully zealous in its efforts to secure the tax revenue it needs. The same cannot be said for the State's efforts to ensure that its citizens receive proper notice before the State takes action against them. In this case, the State is exerting extraordinary power against a property owner—taking and selling a house he owns. It is not too much to insist that the State do a bit more to attempt to let him know about it when the notice letter addressed to him is returned unclaimed.

Dissenting: Justice Thomas (joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy)

Taking no part in the decision or consideration of the case: Justice Alito

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