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October 17, 2005

SCOTUS speaks to Atkins capital procedures

My SCOTUS sentencing cup runneth over.  In addition to the big news that the Supreme Court has granted cert. on Blakely harmless error, SCOTUSblog also notes that the Court today, in a two-page unsigned opinion, has spoken to the procedures to be used to consider claims by capital defendants that they are mentally retarded and thus exempt from execution after Atkins.  Here is Lyle Denniston's report on the decision:

In a two-page, unsigned opinion, the Court ruled that states must be given a chance to develop their own ways of deciding whether a convicted murderer is mentally retarded, and thus cannot be executed. It overturned a Ninth Circuit decision that ordered the state of Arizona to let a jury decide the retardation issue. "Arizona had not even had a chanced to apply its chosen procedures when the Ninth Circuit preemptively imposed its jury trial condition," the Court said. There were no recorded dissents in Schriro v. Smith (04-1475).

UPDATEThe Supreme Court's opinion in Schriro v. Smith, No. 04-1475 (S. Ct. Oct. 17, 2005) is available at this link.  Here is the heart of the Court's holding and analysis:

The Ninth Circuit erred in commanding the Arizona courts to conduct a jury trial to resolve Smith's mental retardation claim.  Atkins stated in clear terms that "we leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences." 536 U. S., at 317 (quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 416-17 (1986); modifications in original).  States, including Arizona, have responded to that challenge by adopting their own measures for adjudicating claims of mental retardation.  While those measures might, in their application, be subject to constitutional challenge, Arizona had not even had a chance to apply its chosen procedures when the Ninth Circuit preemptively imposed its jury trial condition. 

Because the Court of Appeals exceeded its limited authority on habeas review, the judgment below is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Here is the AP story on Schriro v. Smith.

October 17, 2005 at 10:31 AM | Permalink


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It's important to keep in mind what Smith does and does not hold. Smith merely chastizes a federal court for interfering with state procedure, reminding us that federal habeas procedures rest in comity for state governments, and federal courts should not step in where state courts have not yet trod. Smith does not hold that Atkins claims should not be tried before juries. Presumably Smith's lawyers will press precisely that claim before the Arizona courts.

Posted by: keith | Oct 17, 2005 5:21:46 PM

That's absolutely right, Keith, and an important point that the AP story does not handle especially well.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 18, 2005 12:13:54 AM

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