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August 22, 2016

Would the "the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation" really reshape the criminal justice system in the United States?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Vox article headlined "How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America." Interestingly (and appropriately?), the article talks a lot and at length about sentencing issues, and thus it is this week's first must-read. And here are excerpts:

Odds are that very soon, the Supreme Court will become something it hasn’t been in nearly 50 years: made up of a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.

Ever since Abe Fortas’s resignation in 1969, the Court has either been split down the middle or, more often, made up primarily of Republican appointees. Some of those Republican appointees nonetheless turned out to be liberals, but even taking that into account, the Court hasn’t been majority liberal since 1971, when William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined....

The unfilled vacancy of Antonin Scalia’s seat combined with a Hillary Clinton victory in November could set the Court on a new course. Merrick Garland, nominated by Barack Obama in March, has yet to face a vote. But though Senate Republicans have denied they’ll confirm him in the lame-duck session this winter, should Hillary Clinton win they might be tempted to confirm him lest she name a more liberal nominee. Either way, the result is a moderate to liberal justice in Scalia’s seat, moving the Court appreciably to the left.

Clinton also stands a good chance of replacing the moderate-to-conservative Anthony Kennedy (who recently turned 80) with a reliable liberal, and keeping Ruth Bader Ginsburg (83 and a two-time cancer survivor) and Stephen Breyer’s (78) seats in liberal hands. The result would be a solid 6-3 liberal majority of a kind not seen in many decades....

A liberal Court could end long-term solitary confinement. It could mandate better prison conditions in general, making it more costly to maintain mass incarceration. It could conceivably end the death penalty. It could uphold tough state campaign finance rules and start to move away from Citizens United. It could start to develop a robust right to vote and limit gerrymandering. It could strengthen abortion rights, moving toward viewing abortion rights as a matter of equal protection for women....

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest thing that could happen under a liberal Court, perhaps even a Court where another conservative replaces Scalia: the end of long-term solitary confinement. In 2015, Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, a death penalty case in which the Court (joined by Kennedy) sided against the defendant. Nevertheless, Kennedy used his concurrence to unleash a bracing jeremiad against the evils of solitary confinement, in which the defendant had been held for most of his more than 25 years in prison....

The implication was clear: Kennedy wanted advocates to bring a case challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He basically dared them to, and suggested that if such a case reached the Court, he’d be inclined to limit the practice. With four reliable liberals already on the Court and likely to join him, it’s quite likely that such a case would end with solitary confinement sharply limited....

Solitary confinement is perhaps the most shockingly cruel condition of imprisonment in the United States, but the sheer scale of mass incarceration is also an issue in need of addressing. And because federal courts have the ability to affect policy at both the federal and state level, they can have considerable influence on the incarceration rate going forward.... "The new focus of prison conditions, which could be a real game changer in my view, is the intersection of overcrowding with mental and physical health burdens. The real game changer in terms of the current prison population is how disease-burdened it is," [Professor Jonathan] Simon says. "That could be pretty far-reaching because states have to contemplate the consequence of incarcerating so many aging prisoners."...

One way in which the courts could be more receptive to directly challenging sentences, she says, is by starting to take "collateral consequences" into account. That’s the technical term for the myriad ways that criminal convictions, and in particular sex crime convictions, can hamper defendants’ lives in the long term. That includes restrictions on where they can live after they’re released from prison, bans on government employment and benefits like public housing, inclusion on sex offender registries, bans on gun purchases and voting, and so forth....

Almost as explosive as Kennedy's 2015 concurrence was a dissent filed by Stephen Breyer and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that same year. The case, Glossip v. Gross, resulted in a 5-4 ruling affirming that the particular drug cocktail Oklahoma currently uses in executions doesn't violate the Eighth Amendment. One dissent, by Sonia Sotomayor and joined by the Court's other three liberals, narrowly argued against the specific drugs. Breyer's dissent took aim at capital punishment as a whole....

It’s telling that neither Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan, the two other liberals on the Court, joined Breyer’s opinion. And it’s hard to imagine Merrick Garland, who was one of the prosecutors who successfully sought to see Timothy McVeigh executed, declaring his own past actions categorically unconstitutional. But if Garland’s nomination fails and Clinton picks a less tough-on-crime nominee for Scalia’s seat, or if Kennedy leaves the Court during her presidency, it’s conceivable there would exist five votes for outright abolition of the death penalty.

"I would not be surprised to see Sotomayor and Kagan supportive of [abolishing the death penalty]," Simon says. "Kennedy is a harder call. The reason I'm somewhat optimistic about including Kennedy goes back to his interest in dignity. The strongest of the opinions in Furman" — the 1972 case that briefly abolished capital punishment — "was William Brennan's, and Brennan based it most directly on human dignity. He argued the Eighth Amendment bans any punishment you can't carry out without respecting the dignity of those being punished." Kennedy leaned heavily on the importance of dignity in Brown v. Plata, the California prison overcrowding case....

One other death penalty–related case Simon thinks the Court could amend or overturn, which could have widespread implication outside this specific issue area, is McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 case in which the Court ruled 5-4 that a death sentence for a black defendant could not be overturned due to the state of Georgia's hugely disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on African Americans. The effect of that was to foreclose challenges to the criminal justice system premised on its discriminatory effect — the Court required that plaintiffs show that discrimination was intended, not merely that the system was in effect discriminating against African Americans.

"It's been terrible for equal protection law generally. Criminal justice is run through with very disproportionate racial practices that are very difficult to prove as discrimination," Simon says. "Overturning McCleskey, and a companion case a few years later, could be a really important change agent both in unleashing the potential for trial court challenges to racially disproportionate criminal justice practices of all sorts, and perhaps ending the death penalty in those states where it seems most firmly rooted, like Texas and Florida."

August 22, 2016 at 10:03 AM | Permalink

Comments

It will also end up destroying local police forces, whom will have to deal with the huge increase in violent crimes, in which the police will not have the ability to respond. The Supreme Court will then demand the federalization (with its inherent militarization) of law enforcement agencies, in which civil rights are going to be eviscerated in less than 20 years.

Very scary times indeed.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Aug 22, 2016 3:21:41 PM

"DEWEY WINS"....give us a break and stick with your
Sentencing comments.

Posted by: Shurnuff | Aug 22, 2016 5:52:58 PM

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