In our criminal justice system, we ask jurors to make incredibly difficult decisions about life and death, guilt and innocence, all without much training, preparation or support. One day you are a mother, father, employee, ordinary citizen; the next, you are deciding whether someone should be executed by order of the State.
This is the American system. Citizens become jurors and are suddenly entrusted with the most important decisions a society is required to make. Jurors are elevated to a constitutional role and given more power than ever before, all in the name of keeping the democratic legitimacy of citizen representation in our criminal justice system.
Just not in Alabama when it comes to the death penalty.
For the ninety-fifth time, a duly constituted local Alabama jury spared the life of a defendant facing the death penalty. In Woodward v. Alabama, the jurors voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Dion Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A single judge overrode the decision and sentenced Mr. Woodward to death.
In her dissent from a denial of certiorari, Justice Sonya Sotomayor raised significant Sixth and Eighth Amendment concerns about the practice of allowing judges (facing the political pressure of reelection) to impose the death penalty because those judges disagree with the jury’s assessments of the facts. Such reasoning runs directly against the logic of Ring v. Arizona and may violate the constitutional rights of the accused.
However the Supreme Court ultimately decides the constitutional issue, I see a broader problem focusing not on the accused but on the citizen. Simply stated, a judicial override process devalues civic participation and threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the jury system. By disrespecting the jury verdict, the judge is disrespecting the juror’s role in the criminal justice system.
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.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing bloc appears ready to seriously weaken the integral enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder, all of the court’s conservative justices as SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein reported appeared “committed to invalidating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and requiring Congress to revisit the formula for requiring preclearance of voting changes.” (Section 5 requires certain states and towns, mostly in the South, to obtain “preclearance” for any changes to their voting laws and procedures to ensure they do not harm minority voters.)
The New York Times’ Adam Liptak in a piece on today’s oral argument noted that Justice Anthony Kennedy asked attorneys arguing in favor of Section 5, how much longer states like Alabama must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.” Liptak also noted that Justice Antonin Scalia took a shot at Section 5 saying it produces a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” The Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly expounded on Scalia's commentary, noting that the justice flippantly said Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 because, who could vote against a bill with such a "wonderful" name.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli whether the Obama administration believes people in the South “are more racist than citizens in the North.” The Associated Pressreported that Verrilli said no.
As Liptak noted in a piece earlier this morning, it has long been clear that the Court’s conservative wing views with great skepticism the formula Congress has used in determining what states should be covered by Section 5. He noted the 2009 opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, in which Roberts said Congress should revisit the formula. Congress, however, took no action. Liptak continued that the conservative justices “could stop short of striking down Section 5 itself.” Instead, Liptak said the high court could call for an end to the use of the formula, meaning Congress would need to revise it for “preclearance” to continue to be useful. (During the 2012 elections cycle, Section 5 was used by the Department of Justice to halt potentially discriminatory voting procedures from taking effect in several of the covered jurisdictions, such as Texas, Florida and South Carolina.)
Goldstein also wrote that it appears “unlikely that the Court will write an opinion forbidding a preclearance regime. But it may be difficult politically for Congress to enact a new measure.”
Supporters of Section 5 argued in a slew of briefs before the high court that Congress via the 14th and 15th Amendments has great discretion in crafting proper legislation to ensure that states do not violate the rights of minorities, including particularly the right to ensure states do not discriminate in voting. It appeared during oral argument that the court’s five right-wing justices believed Congress has not done its job properly.
by Leslie C. Griffin, William S. Boyd Professor of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law
The preventive care provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which include coverage of women’s reproductive health, took effect on January 1. To date, the thirteen district courts’ and three appeals courts’ decisions involving secular, for-profit companies’ challenges to the ACA’s contraceptive insurance mandate are all over the map. They lack a coherent rationale and reasoning. Instead, the courts should rule consistently that the exemption requested by the plaintiffs violates the Establishment Clause.
According to the contraceptive coverage mandate, employee group health benefit plans must contain preventive care coverage that includes FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. Numerous secular, for-profit companies and their Catholic, Christian or Mennonite owners challenged the mandate as a violation of their constitutional free exercise rights and the statutory protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.”
Among the plaintiffs in the secular, for-profit lawsuits are Weingartz Supply Company, which sells outdoor power equipment; Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store; Mardel, Inc., a bookstore and educational supply company; Hercules Industries, which manufactures and distributes heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC, which mines, processes and distributes refractory and ceramic materials and products; Tyndale House Publishers, a Christian publishing company; American Pulverizer Co., Springfield Iron and Metal, LLC, Hustler Conveyor Co., and City Welding, businesses engaged in scrap metal recycling and manufacturing of scrap-related machines; Korte & Luitjohan Contractors, a construction business; Domino’s Farms, a property management company owned by Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza; Sharpe Holdings, Inc., a non-bank holding company including farming, dairy, creamery, and cheese-making; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a cabinet and wood specialties company; Grote Industries, which manufactures vehicle safety systems; Triune Health Groups, which helps injured workers reenter the workplace; and Autocam Industries, which provides automotive parts.
During yesterday’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court over legal challenges to recently redrawn electoral maps, the justices, according to Adam Liptak, appeared “frustrated” as they grappled with how to resolve the matter, which could have a major impact on which party controls the House of Representatives.
“The justices,” Liptak, The New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, wrote, “in essence must choose between two sets of electoral maps, or at least tell lower courts how to do so. The maps concern the two houses of the Texas Legislature and the House of Representatives.”
Prompted by the 2010 census – which reported that Texas gained more than 4 million new residents, most of them Latinos – the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature created new electoral maps that public interest groups criticized as failing to reflect minority population growth. Texas, because of its history of discrimination against minority voters, is one of the states that must get “preclearance,” pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, from the Department of Justice or a federal court before any electoral changes can take effect. While Texas officials sought preclearance from a federal court in Washington, a federal court in San Antonio created its own electoral maps as a substitute, which state officials challenged. That three-judge court in San Antonio found that the Legislature’s redistricting sharply reduced the number of minority voting opportunities.
During oral argument, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested the Texas Legislature’s maps could not be used in the state’s primaries, because the maps had not been approved pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“I don’t see how we can give deference to an enacted new map,” she said, “if Section 5 says don’t give it effect until it’s been precleared.”