The Supreme Court did not add any new cases to its merits docket this morning.
The most noteworthy part of this morning’s order list was a per curiam decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma, a death penalty case. Twenty-five years ago, in Payne v. Tennessee, the court ruled that the Constitution does not bar a jury in a death penalty case from considering the impact of the victim’s death on family members. Shaun Bosse asked the justices to review his case, arguing that his constitutional rights were violated when the victim’s family members testified about the crime itself and asked jurors to sentence him to death. An Oklahoma appeals court had rejected that argument, but today the justices threw out the state court’s decision and sent the case back for new proceedings.
The Oklahoma court was wrong, the justices explained, to assume that the Supreme Court’s decision in Payne overruled the court’s earlier ruling in Booth v. Maryland, in which the justices held that “the admission of a victim’s family members’ characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.” Unless and until the Supreme Court specifically overrules them, the justices emphasized, its decisions “remain binding precedent,” “regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Any arguments by the state about whether the admission of the family members’ testimony actually affected the jurors’ decision to sentence Bosse to death, or whether other procedures in Oklahoma law nonetheless protected Bosse’s rights, the court concluded, can be “addressed on remand to the extent the court below deems appropriate.”
Justices Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Thomas stressed that, with today’s ruling, the court “says nothing about whether Booth was correctly decided or whether Payne swept away its analytical foundations,” and he added that he joined “the Court’s opinion with this understanding.”