« Basic elements of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 | Main | "Retributive Desert as Fair Play" »

October 1, 2015

SCOTUS grants review in 13 new cases, including capital and federal sentencing appeal issues

As reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, the Justices of the US Supreme Court today officially added a baker's dozen of new cases to its merits docket via this order list.  One of the grants is a capital case from Pennsylvania that is already garnering media attention, and these excerpts from the SCOTUSblog posting suggests there is a lot of interesting new matters for criminal justice fans to consider:

The judicial disqualification case the Court will hear (Williams v. Pennsylvania) will give the Court a chance to clarify when the rights of an individual are violated when a member of a state supreme court joins in ruling on a case in which that judge has been accused of bias because of a former role in the case.

Four years ago, in its decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Court ruled that it violates constitutional due process when a member of the West Virginia Supreme Court cast the deciding vote in a case in which the judge had accepted large campaign donations from the mining company involved in the case.

One of the issues that the Court agreed to consider in the new Pennsylvania case is whether that precedent on judicial qualification also applies when the challenged judge did not cast a deciding vote. The judge involved — then Pennsylvania’s chief justice, Ronald D. Castille (who has since retired) — joined in a unanimous ruling by the state supreme court that reinstated a death sentence for a Philadelphia man, Terrance Williams.

Williams, then eighteen years old, was convicted in 1986 of murder, robbery, and criminal conspiracy in the killing of Amos Norwood and was sentenced to death. Williams contended that Norwood was a sexual predator who had preyed on underage boys, including Williams at the age of thirteen.

Later, when Williams case went before the state supreme court, his lawyers sought to have Chief Justice Castille disqualified, arguing that he had as a Philadelphia prosecutor authorized the decision to seek a death sentence for Williams, voiced strong support for the death penalty when running for a seat on the state supreme court and cited Williams’s case as an example of his “tough on crime” record. The case before the state’s highest court involved a claim that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have aided in Williams’s defense. The state court rejected that challenge. The chief justice denied the recusal motion without explanation, and refused Williams’s request to refer it to the full court.

The commonwealth government of Puerto Rico gained Court review Monday of its claim that, since Congress gave it self-governing powers in 1950, it has the power to pass its own laws as a sovereign government, like any state in the Union. Thus, it argued, its legislature has full authority to pass criminal laws. And, as is important in this case, it has the independent right to prosecute someone for a crime even if the federal government has already prosecuted that same crime.

That argument was rejected by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court, which concluded that Puerto Rico and the federal government were part of the same sovereignty — that of the United States. Puerto Rico, it decided, gets its power to legislate from Congress. Because the two governments are not separate sovereigns, the court declared, it would violate the Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy for a person to be tried by both Puerto Rico and federal prosecutors.

The case (Puerto Rico v. Valle), although focused on the double jeopardy issue, will apparently required the Court to decide just what constitutional significance to assign to the 1950 law on which Puerto Rico based its claim of sovereign powers....

In the other nine cases that the Court accepted for review, the questions are summarized as follows:

Utah v. Strieff — if police learn about an outstanding arrest warrant during a street or traffic stop that turns out to have been illegal, does the Fourth Amendment bar the use of any evidence obtained as a result of a search at the time of the arrest....

Duncan v. Owens — does it violate federal habeas law for a judge during a criminal trial to state a position on the accused person’s motive, based on evidence not introduced at the trial.

Taylor v. United States — must the government in a case under the Hobbs Act prove that robbery of a drug dealer does actually affect interstate commerce.

Molina-Martinez v. United States — what effect should a federal appeals court give to a district court’s ruling applying the wrong Sentencing Guideline range to a convicted individual.

October 1, 2015 at 02:20 PM | Permalink

Comments

As far as the Pennsylvania case goes I do think the judge likely should have recused given the prior involvement, however given that the decision was unanimous I am surprised that SCOTUS took it.

For PR I would think the situation in DC would be illustrative, can DC prosecute independent from the federal government? My initial feeling on it is that Congress can not grant sovereign power by statute but if DC can prosecute when the feds already have then I would suspect that PR likely can as well.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 1, 2015 2:43:55 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