Criminal Justice

  • February 20, 2014
    Guest Post
    by John H. Blume, Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School
     
    On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Hall v. Florida. The narrow but important question the Court must decide is whether persons who have been clinically diagnosed with mental retardation (now commonly referred to as intellectual disability) can nevertheless be put to death if they cannot satisfy the rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 established by the Florida Supreme Court—a cutoff clearly inconsistent with the commonly agreed upon definition of mental retardation embraced by the Court in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia which all but a handful of outlier states use.     
     
    In Atkins, the Court recognized that a “national consensus” had developed against executing persons with mental retardation and concluded that the practice is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Prior to Atkins, Florida courts had determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” One would think this is a simple case. It should be. Yet, Hall is at risk of being executed. How could this be? 
     
    The Atkins Court relied upon the clinical definitions developed by the two premier professional organizations in the field: the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD); and, the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Both definitions have three prongs: significantly subaverage intellectual functioning; adaptive functioning deficits; and onset during the developmental period. Only the first prong is at issue in Hall, and without getting too “deep in the weeds,” significantly subaverage intellectual functioning is understood as an IQ of approximately 70. The question is—at bottom—a simple one: is Florida free—post-Atkins—to adopt a definition of intellectual functioning for capital cases, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the professional consensus regarding the use of IQ tests?
     
  • February 19, 2014
     
    In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish, Daniel Webster—Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research—discusses the grave consequences that followed Missouri’s 2007 repeal of a law requiring background checks for gun buyers.
     
    President Obama continues to face criticism concerning the diversity of his judicial nominees. MSNBC’s Adam Serwer reports on growing liberal concern surrounding the president’s judicial nominees in Georgia.
     
    Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic reflects on the Jordan Davis murder, eloquently identifying racism in America as “not merely a belief system but a heritage.”
     
    A group of legal organizations are using television advertising to push the issue of court transparency at the Supreme Court. Josh Gerstein of Politico has the story.
     
    At CAC’s Text & History Blog, Tom Donnelly shares “six reasons to keep an eye on the Greenhouse Gas Cases.”
     
    Matt Bodie at Prawfs Blawg argues in favor of incentivizing cheaper law school course material.
  • February 18, 2014
     
    In an article for the The Orange County Register, Erwin Chemerinsky, Faculty Advisor for the University of California Irvine School of Law ACS Student Chapter, explains why the upcoming decision of Harris v. Quinn could pose a threat to public employee unions.
     
    Volkswagen workers at a Chattanooga, Tennessee plant announced their decision last Friday not to join the United Automobile Workers. Steve Greenhouse of The New York
    Times reports on the possibility of a German-style works council in 
    Chattanooga and what it could mean for Volkswagen and the UAW.
     
    At the CPRBlog, Thomas McGarity and Matt Shudtz examine the legal concessions made by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in a policy proposal that protects workers from silica dust exposure.
     
    Writing for The Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie discusses the Michael Dunn murder trial and the racial consequences of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
     
    Mark Sherman of The Associated Press notes how President Obama’s judicial appointees are shaping the discussion on same-sex marriage in Virginia.
     
    Writing for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains why the race of a mythical princess continues to play a role in the study of black history.
  • February 14, 2014

    by Jesse Grauman

    Attorney General Eric Holder this week offered welcome support for ending the practice of felony disenfranchisement. Arguing that “permanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system,” Attorney General Holder called for “clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”

    While the degree of felony disenfranchisement varies by state, eleven states permanently disenfranchise at least some formerly incarcerated persons unless the state’s government approves the restoration of voting rights on an individual basis. Three of those states – Iowa, Florida and Kentucky – permanently disenfranchise all formerly incarcerated persons with felony convictions absent individual rights restoration.  An additional 24 deny the right to vote to those who have been released from prison but remain on parole, and 20 of these states disenfranchise those on probation as well.

    As a result, approximately 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, with nearly one in 13 African-American adults barred from voting, including one in eight African-American men nationwide and one in five African-Americans in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia. 

    These disparate impacts are not only due to the massive racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system. Rather, many such laws were passed in the aftermath of Reconstruction as a means of denying the franchise to African-Americans. Eleven states passed felony disenfranchisement laws for the first time, or significantly expanded existing laws, in the decade after the Civil War, and states with larger proportions of nonwhites in their prison populations have been more likely to pass such laws. Indeed, in 1985, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a felony disenfranchisement provision in Alabama’s state constitution in Hunter v. Underwood, finding that the provision, although neutral on its face, was enacted with discriminatory intent. As the Court noted, “the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 [when the measure was passed] was part of a movement that swept the post-Reconstruction South to disenfranchise blacks” and the president of that convention stated that its goal was “to establish white supremacy in this State.” 

  • February 11, 2014
     
    According due process of the law to death row inmates in Missouri is apparently a difficult constitutional mandate to embrace, at least for some state attorneys charged with carrying out death penalty sentences.
     
    In a piece for The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen detailed the execution of Herbert Smulls earlier this year, where state officials ignored repeated requests by defense attorneys to wait for the appeals process to expire before executing Smulls. The defense attorneys’ efforts were futile. As Cohen reports the state initiated the “lethal injection protocols” before the U.S. Supreme Court took action on Smulls’ final appeal for a stay of execution. “Smulls was pronounced dead four minutes before the Supreme Court finally authorized Missouri to kill him,” Cohen reported.
     
    Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told ACSblog, “I am deeply concerned that the State of Missouri executed Herbert Smulls before the Supreme Court could rule on his claims. It gives the impression that justice plays second fiddle to getting it over.”
     
    Rust-Tierney’s concern is well grounded. As Cohen notes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit Judge Kermit Bye, as well as other federal court judges, have previously raised concerns about Missouri’s history of carrying out the death penalty.
     
    In late December, Judge Bye lodged a stinging dissent to an amended order in a case involving Missouri’s execution of Allen L. Nicklasson. A petition for the entire Eight Circuit to consider a stay of Nicklasson’s execution was declared moot, since the litigant, Nicklasson, had already been executed.