On February 29, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Williams v. Pennsylvania. Terrance Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed Williams’ conviction and sentence, and his initial attempts to obtain state postconviction relief failed. His subsequent petition for federal habeas relief also failed. He again sought post-conviction penalty-related relief in state court and prevailed in the Court of Common Pleas on a claim of unlawful evidence suppression. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the grant of relief and lifted the stay of execution (though a temporary reprieve was later granted by the governor for other reasons). The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille--who had joined the opinion reversing the grant of relief to Williams--had also been the District Attorney for Philadelphia during Williams’ trial, sentencing, and appeal. In that capacity, Castille had authorized his office to seek the death penalty for Williams. Williams had moved to have Chief Justice Castille recuse himself from hearing the appeal of post-conviction relief, but Castille declined to do so.
The question now before the U.S. Supreme Court is twofold: (1) Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated where a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself in a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against the defendant in his prior capacity as an elected prosecutor and continued to head the prosecutor’s office that defended the death verdict on appeal, and where he had publicly expressed strong support for capital punishment during his judicial election campaign; and (2) whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multi-member tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive.
To discuss the case, we have Cassandra Burke Robertson, who is Professor of Law, Laura B. Chisolm Distinguished Research Scholar, and Director, Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
On April 18, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Welch v. United States. Gregory Welch pleaded guilty to the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of federal law. Because Welch had three prior felony convictions, the district court determined that the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) required that he be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. Welch appealed, arguing that his conviction for robbery in Florida state court did not qualify as a predicate offense for the purposes of ACCA because, at the time he was convicted, Florida state law allowed for a robbery conviction with a lower level of force than the federal law required to qualify as a predicate offense. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, however, affirmed the district court’s judgment, concluding that the minimum elements for conviction under the Florida law established a “serious risk of physical injury to another” and therefore qualified it as a predicate offense for purposes of ACCA. Welch’s subsequent attempt to obtain habeas relief from the district court was denied, and the Eleventh Circuit rejected his appeal, but the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The two questions before the Supreme Court are: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015)—which held that the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague—announced a new “substantive” rule of constitutional law that is retroactively applicable in an initial motion to vacate a federal prisoner’s ACCA-enhanced sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255(a); and (2) Whether petitioner’s conviction for robbery under Florida state law qualifies as a violent felony that supports a sentence enhancement under the ACCA.
By a vote of 7-1, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and remanded the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that Johnson announced a new substantive rule that has retroactive effect in cases on collateral review, including Welch’s. The Court declined to address, however, whether Welch’s conviction for robbery under Florida law qualified as a predicate for purposes of the ACCA enhancement, leaving the matter to the Court of Appeals on remand.
Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Richard E. Myers II, who is the Henry Brandis Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law.
On January 20, 2016, the Supreme Court decided three consolidated death penalty cases: Kansas v. Carr, a second Kansas v. Carr, and Kansas v. Gleason.
A Kansas jury sentenced Sidney Gleason to death for killing a co-conspirator and her boyfriend to cover up the robbery of an elderly man. In a joint proceeding, a Kansas jury also sentenced brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr to death for a crime spree that culminated in the brutal rape, robbery, kidnapping, and execution-style shooting of five young men and women. The Supreme Court of Kansas vacated the death sentences in each case, holding that the sentencing instructions violated the Eighth Amendment by failing “to affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances need only be proved to the satisfaction of the individual juror in that juror’s sentencing decision and not beyond a reasonable doubt.” It also held that the Carrs’ Eighth Amendment right “to an individualized capital sentencing determination” was violated by the trial court’s failure to sever their sentencing proceedings.
The two questions before the U.S. Supreme Court were: (1) whether the Constitution required the sentencing courts to instruct the juries that mitigating circumstances “need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt”; and (2) whether the Constitution required severance of the Carrs’ joint sentencing proceedings.
By a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Kansas Supreme Court and remanded the cases. Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that (1) the Eighth Amendment does not require capital-sentencing courts to instruct a jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and (2) the Constitution did not require severance of joint sentencing proceedings because the contention that the admission of mitigating evidence by one defendant could have "so infected" the jury's consideration of the other defendant's sentence as to amount to a denial of due process does not stand in light of all the evidence presented at the guilty and penalty phases relevant to the jury's sentencing determination. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Kent S. Scheidegger, who is Legal Director & General Counsel at Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
On March 30, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. Hawkes Co. (Hawkes) applied to the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for a Clean Water Act permit to begin extracting peat from wetlands in northern Minnesota it was preparing to purchase. After attempting to discourage the purchase, and initiating various administrative processes, the Corps ultimately issued an Approved Jurisdictional Determination (Approved JD) asserting that the wetland contained waters of the United States, thereby creating a substantial barrier to development by Hawkes. Hawkes filed suit in federal district court to challenge the Approved JD, arguing that it conflicted with the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The district court dismissed the suit on the grounds that the Approved JD was not a “final agency action” as defined by the Administrative Procedure Act, and therefore not yet subject to judicial review. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that judgment and remanded the case, holding that an Approved JD did constitute final agency action ripe for judicial review.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ determination that the property at issue contains “waters of the United States” protected by the Clean Water Act, constitutes “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court," and is, therefore, subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.
To discuss the case, we have Mark Miller, who is Managing Attorney, Atlantic Center, Pacific Legal Foundation.
On March 23, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Zubik v. Burwell, the lead case in a consolidated series, with the other petitioners including Priests for Life, Southern Nazarene University, Geneva College, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, East Texas Baptist University, and Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) requires that group health plans and health insurance issuers provide coverage for women’s “preventative care,” or face financial penalties. Although the ACA does not define preventative care, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), relying on the Institute of Medicine, determined that the term encompassed, among other things, all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, including drugs and devices that could induce an abortion. Although the government exempted “religious employers” from this mandate, the exemption was narrowly defined and did not extend to petitioners. The government did, however, offer non-profit entities such as petitioners an “accommodation.”
Under the accommodation, which was modified in the course of litigation, an objecting religious nonprofit entity complies if it provides the government with a notice that includes “the name of the eligible organization,” its “plan name and type,” and the name and contact information for any of the plan’s third-party administrators (TPAs) and health insurance issuers. Upon receiving the notice, the government notifies the objecting entity’s insurance company or TPA, which then must provide payments for the requisite contraceptive products and services. A number of objecting non-profits sought relief in various federal courts, arguing that the accommodation violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The resulting litigation produced a series of fractured opinions and a split in the Courts of Appeals, with non-profit religious organizations prevailing in the Eighth Circuit but losing in a number of others.
After imposing a brief injunction on enforcement against petitioners while it considered various petitions for certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a number of petitions and consolidated the cases for oral argument on the following question: whether the HHS Mandate and its “accommodation” violate RFRA by forcing religious nonprofits to act in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, when the Government has not proven that this compulsion is the least restrictive means of advancing any compelling interest. On March 29, the Court also issued a detailed order requiring the parties to brief “whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners' employees through petitioners insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”
To discuss the case, we have Roger Severino, who is Director, DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, The Heritage Foundation.