by Meagan S. Sway, Associate, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
On Monday, Justice Sotomayor illuminated what many Alabama defendants and their lawyers have long known: the closer it gets to election season, the less the Sixth and Eighth Amendments matter in capital cases. While only Justice Breyer joined Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, the practice of granting elected judges power to override jury sentences in capital cases should trouble all nine justices, as Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme undermines our entire justice system.
While a majority of the justices do not appear to accept that Alabama’s sentencing scheme violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the defendant is not the only player who loses as a result of granting a judge the power to override a jury’s recommendation—jurors also suffer. The Supreme Court has recognized in its Batson jurisprudence that discrimination against a veniremember deprives the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to a jury and also denies the individual veniremember his “most significant opportunity to participate in the democratic process.” Powers v. Ohio (1991). Alabama’s judicial override system has the same problem. As shown in Bryan Stevenson’s mini-multiple regression analysis, there is a statistically significant relationship between a judge facing an election year and his exercise of judicial override. Thus, a person who serves on a jury, whose judge is facing an election, will see her vote count less than a person serving on a jury whose judge is not. This has the additional negative effect of causing jurors to lose faith in the system, because of the sense that whatever decision they reach it is subject to apparently arbitrary review (and potential reversal) by a judge. A juror may well ask herself, why bother?
The Court should be concerned with the startling appearance of impropriety that results from Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme. Judges are – and should be – supremely concerned about guarding against any appearance of impropriety, as it undermines society’s trust and confidence in the justice system. The Second Circuit’s recent sua sponte removal of Judge Shira Scheindlin from New York City’s stop-and-frisk litigation comes to mind. There, the court removed Judge Scheindlin because she directed related cases to her docket and granted media interviews while the stop-and-frisk litigation was pending. Judicial overrides in Alabama provide much more damning evidence of judicial impropriety: Stevenson’s analysis demonstrating an overwhelming correlation between judicial elections and overrides; 92% of all judicial overrides result in death sentences; states where judges are not elected but have the power of override do not exercise that power; and Alabama judges themselves have admitted that elections have influenced their decisions to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence.
by Ryan P. Haygood, Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, and part of LDF’s litigation team in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. LDF Special Counsel Debo P. Adegbile will present oral argument on behalf of defendant-intervenors in this case, including LDF’s clients, five Black ministers and Councilman Ernest Montgomery. In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan that was rejected by the Department of Justice under Section 5, leading to the loss of the city’s sole Black councilman, Mr. Montgomery. Because of Section 5, however, the Department of Justice required Calera to redraw its electoral boundaries in a nondiscriminatory manner and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Shelby County v. Holder.
The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, one of the most important voting rights cases of our generation.
In the case, Shelby County seeks to tear out the heart of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5. The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the most successful piece of civil rights legislation -- if not any legislation -- ever passed. It is for this reason that the Supreme Court, through an unbroken line of cases, has four times over four decades upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.
At oral argument, the Court will focus on two key questions: (1) whether voting discrimination persists to a degree that Section 5 is still needed; and, (2) whether that discrimination remains concentrated in the places covered by Section 5.
The answer to both queries is yes for two reasons.
First, in reauthorizing Section 5 in 2006, Congress identified the areas of the country with the worst histories of voting discrimination -- those places where persistent and adaptive discrimination has continued from the past through to the present and, which has proven particularly difficult to dislodge over time through case-by-case litigation.
During the 2006 reauthorization review, Congress assembled a virtually unprecedented legislative record that closely examined the evidence to determine whether Section 5 is still needed. This analysis was careful, detailed, and included a wide range of views. Congress received more testimony and information about the voting experience, both in and outside the places covered by Section 5, than it had during any of the previous reauthorizations. Over 10 months in 2005-2006, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings, received testimony from more than 90 witnesses—including state and federal officials, litigators, scholars, and private citizens—both for and against reauthorization, and compiled a 15,000 page record. Representative James Sensenbrenner, then-Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, described the record as “one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with in the 27 ½ years” that he had served in Congress.
Alabama officials seeking to gut the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 claim racial discrimination in voting is no longer a problem in their state. Specifically officials in Shelby County, Ala., a largely white county, are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to find Section 5, the law’s major enforcement provision, unconstitutional.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF), representing voters in Alabama, is waging a vigorous defense of what many consider one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights law. In its recently filed brief, the group urges the high court to uphold Section of 5 arguing that “racial discrimination in voting is ‘not ancient history.’” The Court will hear oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27.
Section 5 requires certain states and localities, mostly in the South, with long histories of racial discrimination in voting to obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. for changes to elections procedures. LDF, in its brief, says Section 5 “remains essential to safeguard our democracy from racial discrimination. The record documents hundreds of examples of persistent unconstitutional efforts by covered States and localities to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, including widespread efforts to circumvent remedies imposed for prior VRA violations, which were only blocked by Section 5.” (Click picture to enlarge to show covered jurisdictions of Section 5.)
Earlier this month, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange filed a brief in the Shelby County case supporting the County officials. The state still grapples with “race relations issues, but they are the same kind of issues every state currently is endeavoring to solve,” Strange argues in his brief.
LDF’s brief states there is ample evidence “of ongoing voting discrimination in Alabama specifically, and the covered jurisdictions generally, exceeds, by many orders of magnitude, that in the non-covered jurisdictions. Shelby County studiously avoids this evidence; instead, it selectively points to individual jurisdictions outside of Alabama that it asserts should not be covered.”
SEIU, which represents millions of workers nationwide and more than 100,000 in Alabama, has lodged a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations urging it to press the federal government to move on immigration reform.
SEIU and its affiliate, the Southern Regional Joint Board of Workers United, state in their complaint before the U.N. that Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, H.B. 56, “denies fundamental civil rights to immigrants and minorities and impacts trade union activities between and among union members, inhibiting freedom of association ….”
In a press statement announcing the complaint, SEIU says, “Only federal legislative reform can stop the proliferation of laws like Alabama’s H.B. 56 that penalize unauthorized immigrants who apply for jobs or work; fine anyone who transports or harbors an undocumented immigrant; and prevent courts from enforcing contracts that involve a person without legal status …. Such provisions jeopardize the ability of workers to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively.”
Authors of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, which The New York Times has dubbed the harshest in the nation, are pushing some revisions to it that aides to the state’s governor claim will significantly improve its treatment of undocumented immigrants. (The federal government has challenged in court several provisions of the law, saying they interfere with the government’s effort to create one national law on immigration. In March, a federal appeals court blocked some of the law’s provisions.)
For example, Lyman notes, a proposed revision would allegedly soften the law’s controversial section requiring public school officials to check and report on the immigration status of students. A proposed revision would require “state schools superintendent to file an annual report on the fiscal impact of undocumented” immigrants on the school system.
Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley, in a press statement, however, said the proposed revisions would not undercut the “essence of the law …. Anyone living and working in Alabama must be here legally.”
Civil rights and other public interest groups have argued that H.B. 56, and other harsh immigration laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, allow authorities to engage in racial profiling and discrimination against people based on how they look and speak. Those groups, moreover, point out that the individual state laws can create a confusing patchwork of laws that endanger constitutional freedoms.
Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Arizona v. United States, the case challenging Arizona’s SB 1070, the “attrition through enforcement” law that seeks to drive undocumented immigrants from the state.
Many people will pay attention, but few will do so more closely than those of us in Alabama. Here, SB 1070’s ideas metastasized into HB 56— a law that goes even further than Arizona’s in making the state simply inhospitable for undocumented immigrants. The law acutely harms the state’s most vulnerable people, its economy, and its reputation. Alabama’s experience exposes the reality of the anti-immigrant laws now at issue in Arizona and elsewhere: they largely fail to deliver on their promises and instead render needless damage and suffering.
I’m a part of a team at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which along with our co-counsel and allies, is challenging HB 56’s constitutionality. There is a lot for us to challenge. Alabama’s law reaches both more broadly and more deeply than its counterparts from other states. Like SB 1070, HB 56 criminalizes the failure to carry alien registration papers and authorizes law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of any individuals stopped. However, it also includes provisions that:
Prohibit and criminalize “business transactions” between undocumented immigrants and state agencies;
Instruct courts to regard any contract to which an undocumented person is a party as unenforceable;
Denies bail to detained undocumented immigrants; and
Requires schools to inquire into the immigration status of every newly enrolled student and his or her parents.