(NOTE: From time to time, the blog is going to post reports on interesting new petitions or appeals to the Supreme Court. This is the first of the posts in this new series. There is no hard-and-fast standard on which ones we will select for posting; for example, even if a petition does not seem likely to be granted, in our view, we may post on it anyway because of likely interest in it. The one difference from earlier posts is that each of these will appear only if an electronic copy of the petition is made available, so that we can link to it. When we become aware of a new filing, we will make a decision on whether to post on it, and we will invite counsel to share an electronic version with us. Of course, counsel may volunteer copies to us as they choose, for our consideration.)

Among the more controversial decisions the Supreme Court has issued recently, none may have stirred more negative reaction than Roper v. Simmons, the decision holding that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on an individual who committed a crime when under age 18. That ruling has drawn heavy criticism not only because it changed the law on this capital punishment issue, but also because the Court, in reaching the result, found some guidance in law from foreign courts.

The state of Alabama has begun a new effort to try to get that decision overturned. In a new petition for review filed last month, Alabama v. Adams, the state presents this simple question: “Whether this Could should reconsider its decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (1005).” The petition for cert. (docket 05-1309), including the brief Alabama Supreme Court decision at issue, can be found here. The Roper decision can be found here.

The Court’s membership, of course, has changed since Roper was decided on March 1, 2005. It was a 5-4 decision. The five justices in the majority all remain on the Court. Among the dissenters were now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. The initial issue confronting Alabama in the new case will be whether four Justices would vote to review the case in the face of the continued presence of the five-Justice majority in Roper.

The new appeal involves the case of Renaldo Chante Adams, who was 17 years old on August 20, 1997, when he stabbed a pregnant woman to death after raping her in her home. Adams was found to have ordered the woman’s husband to go out, first to a bank ATM and then to a grocery store, to get money. Adams was convicted of capital murder and first-degree robbery, and was sentenced to death for the murder convictions. The sentence was upheld by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 2003, prior to the Roper ruling. Last December, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the death sentence and sent the case back to lower courts “for a determination of the impact of Roper on Adams’s sentence.”

The state’s appeal to the Supreme Court argues that “only this Court…can set matters straight” on a decision that “has been roundly criticized.” It argues that the Court should act promptly, saying “the Court should step in to correct its error now, before it is too late.” The Court, it adds, should not allow the decision to become “frozen into constitutional law.”

On the merits, it argues that “there is no magic — and certainly none of the constitutional variety — in the age 18. Just as there are adults who, for whatever reason, cannot fully comprehend the wrongfulness of their actions, there are adolescents — 16 and 17 year-olds, to be sure — who can. A teenager, like Adams, who plots like an adult and kills like an adult should be held responsible for his choices like an adult.”

(Howard Bashman at How Appealing blog has some interesting press coverage of the Alabama case, including a rather startling op-ed piece by a member of the Alabama Supreme Court, who was recused because he had been a prosecutor in the case, criticizing his colleagues for following the Roper precedent. Among Justice Parker’s comments: “State supreme courts may decline to follow bad U.S. Supreme Court precedents because those decisions bind only the parties to the particular case.” The links to that column and other news items are on Howard’s blog, here.)

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