« Federal prosecutors group propounds "The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing 'Reform'" | Main | Many notable passages in recent sentencing reform speech by DAG Yates »

July 24, 2015

Looking ahead to SCOTUS 2015 Term's sentencing cases on its criminal docket

Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this terrific new post highlighting that 11 of the 35 cases already on the Supreme Court's docket for its next Term involve criminal law cases. Here is an except from the start of this post, along with the description of a few of the coming SCOTUS cases that have at least one sentencing fan especially revved up:

Eleven of the cases in which review has already been granted for the next Term are criminal-law or related (under my generous standards).  The Eighth Amendment portends to be a particular focus: four cases involve the death penalty, and a fifth involves juvenile life without parole.  The other interesting note is that, so far, not a single case granted for next Term involves the Fourth Amendment.  I can’t recall a prior Term where that was true at the end of the prior Term.

 Finally, five of the eleven cases in which review has been granted are from state supreme courts, suggesting that at least some of the Justices realize that waiting for a criminal case to come to them via a later federal habeas petition can obscure the legal question presented, due to the highly deferential standards now embodied in the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the 1996 AEDPA amendments).

Here are brief descriptions of the criminal-law questions presented in the cases granted so far:

1. Hurst v. Florida:  Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme, which permits a judge to find aggravating factors to impose death (and which does not require a jury to determine mental disability or to be unanimous in their findings or sentence) violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona.  (Florida Supreme Court)...

3. Montgomery v. Louisiana:  Whether Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively. (Louisiana Supreme Court)

4 & 5.  Kansas v. Carr (along with another case with the same caption but a different case number) and Kansas v. Gleason:  (1) Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled; and (2) whether the trial court’s decision not to sever co-defendants for sentencing in a capital case violates an Eighth Amendment right to “individualized sentencing.”  (Kansas Supreme Court)....

8. Lockhart v. United States:  Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)

July 24, 2015 at 07:23 AM | Permalink


With due respect to Professor Little, if you read the Supreme Court's AEDPA cases, I think it is clear that almost all of the Justices realize that -- if they want to review the merits of a criminal law issue -- they have to do it on appeal from the state courts (whether on direct review or on state post-conviction review) rather than waiting for the federal habeas petition. Whether they take an issue depends upon whether the Justices feel that the issue is currently "cert worthy." If not, they are willing to live with the state court results on an unresolved issue of law.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 24, 2015 9:39:05 AM

Lockhart v. United States: more craziness and prosecutorial vindictive sentencing.

Posted by: Nate | Jul 24, 2015 2:08:33 PM

Hurst intrigues me. I'll be somewhat depressed if they don't find a Batson violation in Foster, but I'm sure AEDPA will give them the wiggle room they need.

Posted by: Erik M | Jul 24, 2015 2:50:54 PM

I thought Foster was a direct review of state post-conviction.

Hurst is a bit of a black hole as to what they are going to do. My hunch is that they will say that parts of the Florida scheme is unconstitutional (not giving the jury the proper screening role) but leave most of it intact.

Lockhart will be canons of construction vs. legislative history on steroids.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 24, 2015 6:03:52 PM

Hurst is the case I am watching closely. I think the Florida death penalty scheme will be declared unconstitutional, but the question is how far the opinion will go to make clear that "murder simpliciter" as Justice Scalia calls it, plus an aggravating factor is a separate and greater crime from just murder simpliciter. Part III of Justice Scalia's opinion in Sattazahan was not joined by a majority of the court. Now, maybe his greater offense theory will be the view of the majority. Minus, Alito who just can't understand what Apprendi was all about.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jul 25, 2015 10:24:50 AM

The Court changed the question limited to if Florida's scheme violates the 6th and 8th Amendments with regards to Ring v Arizona.

Posted by: DaveP | Jul 29, 2015 9:47:40 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB