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January 12, 2016

SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment

The big news from SCOTUS this morning was a big (and notably short) ruling declaring unconstitutionally Florida's death penalty procedure via Hurst v. Florida, No. 14–7505 (S. Ct. Jan. 12, 2016) (available here).  Here is how the opinion of Justice Sotomayor for the Court gets started and ends:

A Florida jury convicted Timothy Lee Hurst of murdering his co-worker, Cynthia Harrison. A penalty-phase jury recommended that Hurst’s judge impose a death sentence. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Florida law required the judge to hold a separate hearing and determinewhether sufficient aggravating circumstances existed tojustify imposing the death penalty.  The judge so found and sentenced Hurst to death.

We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional.  The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough....

The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury.  This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.

Six Justices joined in Justice Sotomayor's opinion, and SCOTUS-watchers ought to have little trouble figuring out which justice concurred only in the result and which Justice dissented.

January 12, 2016 at 11:34 AM | Permalink


Justice Sotomayor just made up that doctrine. I will now demand that a jury determine my speeding fine, and will cite Hurst.

It is also quite wasteful, since there is a high level of agreement between decisions made by a judge and those made by a jury.

This is nitpicking.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 12, 2016 11:46:50 AM

Doug, as you know, I believe the decision was a foregone conclusion and will be very significant.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jan 12, 2016 12:09:10 PM

Just an obnoxious opinion--disrespectful in the extreme, e.g., "Without contesting Ring's holding, Florida offers a bevy of arguments for why Hurst's sentence is constitutional. None holds water. Given the Florida's capital sentencing scheme was specifically approved by the Supreme Court, one would think that the Court's opinion would be more circumspect in its criticism of the state, but no, we get the dismissive "None holds water." Additionally, the short analysis of Florida's "additional protection" is egregious. Ring and the Florida precedent have coexisted for 13 years. Perhaps, Florida's argument gives a functional equivalent of Ring, perhaps not, but it seems unfair to yank the rug out like this. And it's particularly egregious for people like Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsburg to do this--the First Amendment rights of completely blameless state employees are to be sacrificed for an unequal enforced bargain, yet these guys will turn square corners to hook up a capital murderer who got sentenced according to Supreme Court precedent applying made-up law. Stunning that.

Then "Florida launches its second salvo at Hurst himself"--well, um yeah. Given the brutality of the crime--that seems logical. I'm sure whatever liberal clerk put together that sentence is oh so proud of him/herself, but in the real world it falls flat. Hurst is a brutal murderer. And the state is trying (understandably) to preserve a well-deserved sentence--given the fact that the state was simply trying to save a judgment pursuant to a scheme that tried to comply with made-up law (i.e., the Court's capital punishment "jurisprudence") that was specifically approved by the Supreme Court. To describe the state's reasoning as a "salvo" against Hurst really is too much to bear. It paints Hurst as some sort of unjustified target, which, given the appalling nature of the crime is simply sick.

The annoyance that clearly comes through from this opinion is undignified and unjustified. Given that the proximate cause of this opinion is the Supreme Court getting things wrong, one would think that some circumspection is warranted. What the Court really is doing here---it's sending a clear message that states are the problem here and that capital punishment here in America will require a continual "Mother may I" approach.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 12, 2016 12:10:45 PM

Federalist, your favorite Justice, Sotomajor writes the opinion! I know your hair is on fire. And to think, your beloved Scalia and Thomas joined her. Just Alito is on your side. Here's a thought: the eight in the majority are right; and you (and Alito) are wrong.

Posted by: lawyer2 | Jan 12, 2016 2:16:03 PM

Good for the Supreme Court. Florida's system was dreadful.

Posted by: observer | Jan 12, 2016 2:17:06 PM

Supremacy Claus,

The fact that at a given time it just happens that Florida's judges' sentences largely overlap with (I might point out-skewed by death qualification) juries' is irrelevant. If the state believed it did not have a significant power that it might one day wish to exercise very differently than juries would, then it would not have wasted everyone's time trying to usurp the jury's well-established fact-finding authority.

That said, the situation in Florida differs greatly from that in Alabama, which also has judicial override. According to the Equal Justice Initiative:
"Of the 33 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment. Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury verdicts 111 times. Although judges have authority to override life or death verdicts, in 91 percent of overrides elected judges have overruled jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty."

"There is evidence that elected judges override jury life verdicts in cases involving white victims much more frequently than in cases involving victims who are black. Seventy-five percent of all death sentences imposed by override involve white victims, even though less than 35 percent of all homicide victims in Alabama are white.

Some sentencing orders in cases where judges have overridden jury verdicts make reference to the race of the offender and reveal illegal bias and race-consciousness. In one case, the judge explained that he previously had sentenced three black defendants to death so he decided to override the jury’s life verdict for a white defendant to balance out his sentencing record."
Reference: http://www.eji.org/deathpenalty/override

In a state with a significant history of racial strife, not just culturally but institutionalized in the laws, policies, and practices of the state, to call literal life and death decisions about when to allow the state to commit premeditated murder "nitpicking" is, well... inaccurate and not respectable, to put it politely.

Posted by: Kirsten Tynan | Jan 12, 2016 2:32:26 PM

of course, lawyer2, you cannot engage on specific points, but hey, whatever . ...

Posted by: federalist | Jan 12, 2016 3:05:30 PM

S.c. writes "This is nitpicking." Who lives and who dies--some nit!

Posted by: observer | Jan 12, 2016 3:50:11 PM

The Hurst decision is very interesting indeed. Another cog in SCOTUS' sixth amendment jurisprudence wheel, beginning with Blakely. Does anybody believe if Hurst undermines the US Circuit Court's dependence on Ring to undercut Blakely retroactivity? What about the judges (almost all) who are in favor of Hurst? What do y'all think of the court's leanings in sixth amendment jury trial right now?

Paralegal and law student. I have studied sixth amendment jurisprudence since 2002.

Posted by: Sean Patrick | Jan 13, 2016 10:49:59 AM

Kirsten. I support mandatory guidelines to the death penalty. They should eliminate the sentencing disparity based on the race of the victim. Because of the high correlation between judge and jury verdicts, neither is reliable especially in the case of a death penalty. Both were raised in the same local culture, and both may be racist. See the appalling black jury that set OJ Simpson free, because he was black, and his victims were white. It is a human weakness, racism, and blacks are the biggest racists of all because lawyers protect their racism.

Hand made car. Yugo. Robot made car: Lexus. You decide which to drive. machines have always been 100 times better than humans in any performance you wish to name. Sentencing is no exception.

The guideline scoring could be set and reflect the intent of the legislature, to be amended every 5 years as more knowledge and experience is accumulated. One feature of deterrence is certainty of punishment. I agree the death penalty is not deterring. My theory is that it is not administered in a sufficient dose. But its uncertainty is a factor in its failure to deter. If discretion is removed from the prosecution, from the judging and from the sentencing, the death penalty would serve the living better.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 15, 2016 11:56:10 AM

Observer. Do you have any words for the future murder victims of your LWOP client?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 15, 2016 11:57:51 AM

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