by Bidish Sarma. Sarma is an attorney who represents individuals sentenced to death and other harsh punishments including life without parole. He previously worked as a clinical teaching fellow at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic and staff attorney and Deputy Director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans
Given all of his “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and crime-related fear-mongering on the campaign trail, it is no surprise that President Trump—primarily through his attorney general, Jeff Sessions—has doubled down since taking office. What we have seen so far suggests that the Trump-Sessions brand of justice has at least two core components: an aggressive charging strategy (consistently charging the most serious offenses) and the continued exploitation of unfettered prosecutorial power. Blessed with extraordinary power himself, AG Sessions is acting on his bizarre and unfounded belief that prosecutors are somehow disadvantaged in the criminal justice system. For months, commentators have wondered aloud whether the judiciary—most importantly, the Supreme Court—will stand up to the executive branch and act independently to protect constitutional norms. The Court’s weighty travel ban order issued last week provides a metric ton of tea leaves on this question for those inclined to read them. Less obvious, but nonetheless significant, are two recent decisions the Court has made regarding the due process obligation prosecutors possess to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants. Inspiring concern, these decisions point to the possibility that the Court (or a near-majority of the justices) will sign off on the administration’s expansive view of prosecutorial authority.
Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Turner v. United States. This was a fact-intensive case that I wrote about for the ACSblog here back in March. As several court-watchers anticipated, the Court decided the case in a narrow fashion; it took the opportunity to—as I characterized it three months ago—use its familiar and “well-worn minimalist approach in the Brady due process context.” What was surprising, however, was the outcome. Amy Howe, a wise spectator at SCOTUSblog, wrote in an oral argument preview that it appeared the “justices granted review to reverse the men’s conviction.”