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November 13, 2006

First SCOTUS opinion of OT '06 a capital split ruling

At least in the arena of the death penalty, the Roberts Court is already looking a lot like the Rehnquist court.  As SCOTUSblog reports here, today the Supreme Court released its first decision from an argued case for October Term 2006, and the ruling is a 5-4 split with the so-called conservatives in the majority upholding a death sentence that had been reversed by the Ninth Circuit.  Here are details from SCOTUSblog:

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday found that California's special "catchall" instruction to juries in death penalty cases provides enough opportunity for jurors to consider all favorable evidence for the accused.  The instruction, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, goes far enough to assure that the jury will not only consider favorable evidence about the crime itself, but about evidence that the individual would not be dangerous in the future if his life were spared. The ruling in the case of Ayers v. Belmontes (05-493) was the only opinion on the merits issued Monday.

The Ninth Circuit Court reversed the death sentence of Fernando Belmontes for the second time after the Supreme Court had returned the case to it.  The Circuit Court said the Supreme Court's prior review of the catchall instruction ("factor k") had only found that it was sufficient to cover mitigating evidence about the accused's culpability for the crime, and not evidence about his capacity to adjust well to life in prison.  Kennedy's opinion reversing the Circuit Court was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and by Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

Here now is a trivia question for Supreme Court historians:  when is the last time the Court's first full opinion of the Term was a 5-4 ruling?  I have to believe this split is quite unusual in modern times.  But then again, we all know that death is different.

UPDATE:   Here is the link to the opinion in Ayers v. Belmontes.

November 13, 2006 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

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» Ayers v. Belmontes from StandDown Texas Project
Let's go straight to SCOTUS Blog for the U.S. Supreme Court's first capital ruling in the term. Lyle Denniston reports. LINK In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday found -- for a third time -- that California's special [Read More]

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Comments

All the blogs I've found on this case call this the first opinion of the season, but the Supremes reversed a Ninth Circuit panel in Purcell v. Gonzalez on October 20, 2006. Have I missed something? Is there some reason this case doesn't count?

On the topic of Ayers, I think it's a little early in the game to make predictions about whether the Roberts court is like the Rehnquist court, but the court seemed surprisingly unified last year, even after Alito took his seat (obviously with notable exceptions: see e.g. Hamdan).

Also on the topic of Ayers, rarely have I seen such an unprincipled (and ineffective) appeal to emotion as the vast bulk of Justice Stevens' dissent.

More here: http://sobekpundit.blogspot.com/2006/11/scotus-season-california-death-penalty.html

I am a Nevada attorney (civil litigation only, but I read all SCOTUS and Nevada opinions as a hobby).

Posted by: Sobek | Nov 14, 2006 12:15:40 AM

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