ACSBlog

  • March 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society Foundations

    I have spent over 25 years working on criminal justice reform issues and the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, co-hosted by an unlikely alliance of Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, was absolutely colossal. Who would have imagined that a huge hotel ballroom would be packed as early as 8:00 a.m. with federal and local legislators, high administration officials, policy experts, criminologists, researchers, faith leaders, academicians, formerly incarcerated people and millennials – all from both sides of the aisle? The event was an ambitious undertaking – a full day jam-packed with featured presentations, panel workshops, video presentations, and luncheon keynote conversations, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal all sharing their words of wisdom on criminal justice reform. Democratic Members of Congress spoke at the Summit in person, and Republican Members, along with President Barak Obama, made remarks via video. 

    As I sat in the audience, I reflected that criminal justice was no longer the lightening rod it was two decades ago, thanks to a more recent, huge paradigm shift.  Twenty years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike were horrible on criminal justice issues.  Candidate Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally challenged man in Arkansas. Every year or so during the early 90s we fought against unwieldy omnibus crime bills, culminating in the “granddaddy” of all the crime bills – the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1994.  This bill expanded the federal death penalty to a level unprecedented in modern times, gutted habeas corpus reform, eviscerated the exclusionary rule, allowed for the prosecutions of 13-year olds as adults, and refused to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity, while implementing a slew of additional mandatory minimum sentences and offering monetary incentives to states to lock up more and more people for longer periods of time in exchange for loads of money to build more prisons. 

  • March 27, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    On Thursday, the White House announced two new United States District Court judge nominations. John Michael Vazquez is a nominee for the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and Paula Xinis is a nominee for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

    The Judicial Crisis Network may not be well known, but their money works to help elect the judicial, legal officers, and senators who will approve future nominees. The Daily Beast profiles the organization and how it is using dark money and advertising to impact the U.S. courts system.

    As the Senate takes its time with judicial nominations, Senators continue to debate the future of the filibuster. Support for the filibuster has steadily eroded, and it looks likely that it will be “eliminated or seriously curtailed in the near future” according to Vox.

    Senate delays on President Obama’s nominees are setting new records, reports The Washington Post. Loretta Lynch’s nomination is set to break records, and delays on judicial nominations are following a similar trajectory.

    There are currently 55 vacancies, and 23 are now considered judicial emergencies. There are 16 pending nominees. For more information see judicialnominations.org.

  • March 27, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    In the Huffington Post, Geoffrey Stone takes a look at the Texas license plate case and the intriguing First Amendment question it poses.

    The Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times argues that the Supreme Court must protect the EPA’s authority to set new limits on pollutants.

    Sam Stein of the Huffington Post discusses how those challenging the Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court lack any significant paper-trail to support their claims.

    In USA Today, Richard Wolf argues that the Supreme Court has increased its power significantly over the last three years.

     

    Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News reports that the recent Supreme Court ruling on Alabama redistricting is a partial victory for Democrats and black lawmakers.

  • March 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sarah Hunger and Meredith Kincaid, Associates at Jones Day.  Jones Day represents The National Association of Black Veterans, Swords to Plowshares, Veterans Defense Project, and The Constitution Project in an amicus brief that the authors filed in support of Mr. Lockhart.  Mr. Lockhart is represented by Equal Justice Initiative.

    In 2010, an Alabama jury voted unanimously to spare the life of Courtney Lockhart, an Iraq war veteran facing the death penalty for a murder he committed while suffering from combat-related mental health issues.  Several months later, and upon consideration of evidence never shown to the jury, the elected judge overseeing Mr. Lockhart’s case sentenced him to death.

    In Alabama, the jury’s role at capital sentencing is merely advisory, and the imposition of the death penalty hinges upon specific, written findings of fact made by elected judges.  Under this regime, Alabama courts are empowered to make these factual findings “based upon information known only to the trial court and not to the jury.”  Adhering to this doctrine, Mr. Lockhart’s sentencing judge overrode the jury’s unanimous recommendation of life based upon information never presented to the jury, including evidence deemed inadmissible in a suppression hearing.

    In January, Mr. Lockhart filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing that his death sentence, as well as the Alabama regime that authorizes it, violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.  The Supreme Court’s review of this important and recurring issue is long overdue.  In the past decade, at least 28% of death row inmates in Alabama were sentenced via judicial override, and more than 100 inmates now sit on death row because of its use.  Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has not reviewed Alabama’s death penalty regime since 1995, well before it announced in Apprendi that the Sixth Amendment precludes judges from making findings that authorize an increase in the maximum punishment.

    Most notably, as Mr. Lockhart and amici assert, judicial override as practiced in Alabama deprives defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury by making the heightened punishment of death dependent upon judicially found facts.  This means, in other words, that Alabama defendants are not eligible for the death penalty until the trial judge makes sufficient findings of fact to support it – a remarkably clear-cut Apprendi violation.  Alabama’s death penalty regime, which gives judges the unilateral power to impose death sentences on individuals that juries have voted to spare, should no longer go unchecked.  The Court should grant Mr. Lockhart’s pending petition.

  • March 26, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    In The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker examines the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Young v. UPS.

    At the National Partnership for Women & FamiliesJudith L. Lichtman provides a statement on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Young v. UPS, calling it “good news” for pregnant workers.

    John Eligon writes in The New York Times about a clash between the judicial and legislative branches in Kansas as the state debates a school financing plan.

    Josh Gerstein of Politico writes that a federal appeals court has set arguments on the question of whether to stay the order blocking President Obama’s executive action on immigration.

    The Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times argues that a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was wrong in saying that Seattle’s transit agency could bar ads related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Jenna Portnoy reports in The Washington Post that a federal appeals court will hear a challenge to the Maryland’s 2013 ban on assault weapons.