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June 1, 2015

Via similar 7-2 rulings, SCOTUS narrows reach of federal criminal and deportation statutes in Elonis and Mellouli

Via excerpts and links from this post at How Appealing I can effectively summarize the interesting Supreme Court work on criminal justice issues this morning:

The Court today issued four rulings in argued cases.

1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court in Mellouli v. Lynch, No. 13-1034. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined....

4. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Elonis v.United States, No. 13-983. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. And Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion....

In early news coverage, The Associated Press has reports headlined "High court throws out conviction for Facebook threats";... "Justices reverse deportation of man over minor drug crime"; ... Richard Wolf of USA Today reports that "Violent threats on Facebook may be OK, justices rule"; ... and "Justices sock it to Justice Department over drug deportations."

As the title of this post suggests, there are considerable similarities between what the Justices did in both Melloni (a low-profile immigration case) and Elonis (a high-profile federal criminal case). In both setting, via a 7-2 vote with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the Court adopted a norrower construction of an applicable federal statute based on concerns that the federal government's (and lower courts') interpretation goes too far (for deportation purposes in Melloni, for criminal prosecution in Elonis).  The rulings and opinions are quite limited in both cases, and Justice Alito's dissent in Elonis fittingly laments this reality at its outset: 

In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803), the Court famously proclaimed: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Today, the Court announces: It is emphatically the prerogative of this Court to say only what the law is not.

I hope and expect to have more to say about the lengthy opinions in Elonis in future posts, although I suspect that the ruling will ultimately prove more consequental for what it failed to do and say than for what it actually does and says.

June 1, 2015 at 10:59 AM | Permalink


There is a per curiam involving liability regarding someone who committed suicide in prison with some criminal justice implications.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 1, 2015 4:01:16 PM

Also today, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed the way that Miller would be implemented and found that it was not retroactive. https://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Court_Probation/Supreme_Court/Opinions/2012/12SC932.pdf

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 1, 2015 7:48:19 PM

Another Colorado Supreme Court decision today on the same topic is here:


This has the effective of leaving relief for juveniles with LWOP sentences in the hands of the current Governor (Hickenlooper) and future Governors. I discussed some of these issues with a representative of the Governor in 2009. http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com/2009/07/governors-office-makes-clemency-case-to.html

There were 46 juveniles sentenced to LWOP in Colorado before it was repealed, although a few lucky ones had cases that were pending on direct appeal when Miller was decided, allowing them to benefit for it without regard to the retroactivity issue. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other juveniles have had their sentences commuted to date.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 1, 2015 7:52:52 PM

Elonis is depressing because Alito is correct, sadly. Sad because the reality is that there is no majority on the court to say what the law is so better to say what the law is not than the court to look stupid with its umpteeth splintered decision.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 2, 2015 2:12:48 PM

Alito might be right that the majority should have been clearer but if you are sympathetic to Elonis, Alito's clarity would help prosecute him. If the guy was prosecuted on a wrong theory, appellate courts are not necessarily wrong to say so without answering all the possible questions regarding application of the law in all cases. SCOTUS has more of a duty here to clarify the law but the contours there is quite debatable. The narrow ruling in some case very well might be the best option available.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 2, 2015 4:24:17 PM

Posted by: garrish27 | Jun 4, 2015 12:40:08 AM

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