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May 1, 2006

Today's notable SCOTUS action

As well reported at SCOTUSblog and How Appealing, the Supreme Court started off May with a little criminal justice action.  Specifically, Justice Alito's delivered his first opinion, for a unanimous court, ruling in favor of a criminal defendant's right to introduce evidence alleging another person's guilt in Holmes v. South Carolina, No. 04-1327 (S. Ct. May 1, 2006) (available here).  The AP's account of the ruling can be accessed here.  [UPDATE: Orin Kerr discusses Holmes at some length here.]

More notable for sentencing folks is the additional news that the one cert grant today, Ornaski v. Belmontes (05-493), concerns California's death penalty jury instructions.  As Lyle Denniston explains here, in this case SCOTUS will "try again to clarify the constitutionality of a California jury instruction, a 'catch-all' instruction on consideration of evidence favorable to an accused in a death penalty case.... The Court had ruled twice before on the so-called 'factor k' instruction." 

As regular readers might predict, I find quite aggravating the Supreme Court's decision to take a third look at the 'factor k' instruction when, as outlined long ago in this post, there are so many post-Blakely and post-Booker questions that merit the Court's attention.  Grants like this only further encourage my endless kvetching about excessive energy devoted to death penalty when there are so many other sentencing issues that ought to garner attention (consider, for example, posts here and here and here and here).

UPDATE: Here is Tony Mauro's account of the work of Justice Alito's work in Holmes.

May 1, 2006 at 12:27 PM | Permalink


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There are a number of simple answers to the amount of time the Supreme Court spends on capital cases that would provide Doug with kvetch relief. One would be to recognize that the Court's entire "procedurally cruel and unusual punishment" jurisprudence is illegitimate and throw it out. Another would be to throw out capital punishment altogether. Anyone holding his or her breath for either of these alternatives is likely to be blue for some time.

Another possibility is to remove sentencing procedure issues from habeas corpus. All the rules the Supreme Court has promulgated to date have now been incorporated into state procedures, and the state courts enforce them. The issues that arise on habeas, like this one, are on the margins of a body of jurisprudence that is far removed from any genuine constitutional issue and completely irrelevant to questions of actual guilt or innocence. Given that the defendant is a sane adult properly convicted of capital murder, the maximum penalty he can receive is a just punishment for the crime he chose to commit. We can (and, IHMO, should) simply decide that one full review of the procedure used to impose that punishment is enough, and we do not need the extraordinary additional step of collateral review in the federal courts.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 1, 2006 2:13:14 PM

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