The Supreme Court is on a short break until May 9, having completed the arguments for this term. Now its time to issue all the remaining opinions before the end of the term (the last week of June or very early July). Here is where they stand:
Dispositions by sitting (major cases in red, decided cases shaded gray, reargued cases struck through)
(Source: SCOTUSblog). [You can click on the case names to access the case, and any links below to access the docket, the transcript of the oral argument, (“Trans.”) or the audio (“Aud.”) of the argument].
As you can see, there are a lot of opinions left to write, 40 of them, and only one major
Issue(s): Whether the Supreme Court should overrule the “separate sovereigns” exception to the double jeopardy clause.
That simple statement of the question presented hides a very big question on double jeopardy–can the federal government and a state try you for the same crime– and whether a 170-year old precedent might be overruled. I posted about this case last time, but the fact that it was argued in early December and is still awaiting a decision tells me that the Court has found no easy solution to this case, or at the very least they are awaiting concurrences and dissents. As I also pointed out last time, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Thomas (how’s that for a pairing?) each have questioned the dual sovereignty doctrine. Abolishing it seems unlikely; modification of it is a possibility.
Holding: The Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
The first major case to be decided this term, Timbs, a decision with no dissents, had both constitutional law and reforming of policing aspect to it. The constitutional law aspect is the holding that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment. The reform of policing aspect is that state and local authorities rely heavily on fines and forfeitures as a source of funds, which you can see from the facts of the case.
The facts are simple: Timbs, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to drug charges after undercover police bought heroin from him, received a six-year sentence: one year of home detention, living with his aunt, followed by five years on probation. Timbs was also ordered to forfeit his 2012 Land Rover, which he had purchased for approximately $42,000 with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy, on the theory that he had used the car to transport drugs. Timbs argued that to forfeit the Land Rover would violate the excessive fines clause because “the car was worth roughly four times more than the maximum monetary fine that the state could impose and therefore would be“grossly disproportional to the gravity” of his crime”, as Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog put it.
The Supreme Court agreed, 9-0. The Court invoked what is known as the incorporation doctrine to hold that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines applies to the states. Before the 14th Amendment was ratified, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government and to federal cases. The justices explained that the “historical and logical case for concluding that” the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – is “overwhelming.”
You can read more about the incorporation doctrine in an article from LII here).
There are two more criminal law cases from February:
Garza entered two plea agreements with the prosecution and both agreements contained a provision that Garza would not appeal, which is very typical of plea agreements. Garza repeatedly asked his lawyer to appeal anyway. His lawyer did not file appeals, citing the agreement, but never told Garza that he did not file. The Supreme Court held, 6-3, that this constituted ineffective assistance of counsel despite the no appeal provision of the plea agreement. The Court held that provisions such as this do not totally preclude an appeal: for example, you could appeal a guilty plea entered into involuntarily. The Court also made the point that the decision to appeal is ultimately the client’s, not the lawyer’s.
Holding: The Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot
First, under Ford and Panetti, the Eighth Amendment may permit executing Madison even if he cannot remember committing his crime. Second, under those same decisions, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing Madison even though he suffers from dementia, rather than delusions. The sole question which Madison’s competency depends is whether he can reach a “rational understanding” of why the State wants to execute him. Panetti, 551 U. S., at 958… The state court, we have little doubt, can evaluate such matters better than we. It must do so as the first step in assessing Madison’s competency—and ensuring that if he is to be executed, he understands why.
I am sure of one thing: we have not seen the last of this convoluted death penalty case.
And next term…
Yes, we already have cases for the October 2019 term, Keeping to the criminal law theme, we have:
Issue(s): Whether the Eighth and 14th Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense.
It is a classic certiorari–worthy petition: Kansas, along with four other states, has abandoned the insanity defense; seven states have explicitly held that the insanity defense is constitutionally mandated. It is a long-standing and intractable split.
The Supreme Court will decide this one this next term.
NEXT ON IGNORANTIA LEGIS:
Keeping tabs on the end of the term: a multi-part series of updates on new opinions and a review of the October 2018 term.
Watch this space!
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