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Louisiana seeks change on death penalty

The state of Louisiana on Monday asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling a month ago striking down the death penalty for the crime of child rape. The rehearing petition, citing an omission in the Court’s opinion of any mention of a federal law on that issue, was filed late Monday afternoon. The petition in Kennedy v. Louisiana (07-343) can be found here.

Noting that the Court “almost never grants petitions for rehearing,” the state’s filing said this was “the rare exception.” It cited an 1875 ruling (Ambler v. Whipple), saying that an omission “material to the decision of the case” makes “a strong appeal for reargument.”

The petition said that either the rehearing should be granted, or the Court should “first seek the views” of the U.S. Solicitor General. Earlier, after the discovery of the omitted statute from the Court’s opinion, the Solicitor General’s office said that, if a rehearing plea were filed, it would examine it and “consider what steps are appropriate.”

Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing petition is not subject to oral argument and will not be granted except by a majority of the Court “at the instance of a Justice who concurred in the judgment or decision.” The other side in a case is not allowed to file a response, unless the Court specifically asks it to do so.  The Court’s rules add that, unless there are “extraordinary circumstances,” rehearing will not be granted unless a response is first requested.

The decision in the Louisiana case, issued on June 25, came on a vote of 5-4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing for the majority.  One of those five would have to support rehearing, presumably along with the four dissenters, for that to happen.

The Court’s decision had two parts: a survey of laws and official actions, leading the Court to conclude that there was a consensus against the death penalty for child rape, and a separate expression of the Court’s own “independent judgment” about whether capital punishment should ever be available for a crime that did not result in the victim’s death — a point on which the Court said no.

In the first part, the Court noted the absence of any federal law imposing a death penalty for child rape. After the decision was issued, a military law expert noted that omission. The expert noted a 2006 law by Congress which, the expert said, authorized the death penalty for rape of a child under military law — the law that prescribes crimes and penalties for members of the military services.

A spate of publicity, beginning in The New York Times, led the U.S. Solicitor General’s office to notify the Court of the omission, and to offer to comment on it, if asked.  The government was not a party in the case, but it said it should have noticed the fact of the federal law’s existence and told the Court.

Monday was the deadline for Louisiana to seek rehearing of the case. It did so in a petition signed by counsel of record, Georgetown law professor Neal K. Katyal.

The death row inmate involved in the case, Patrick Kennedy, was represented by Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher.  On Monday, responding to media inquiries, Fisher issued a statement saying the 2006 provision could not have applied to a civilian like Kennedy, and, in any event, that provision may not even remain valid.

The rehearing plea said that the omission would bear not only on the Court’s discussion of a “national consensus” against the death penalty for child rape, but also would have an effect on the part of the ruling in which the Justices relied on “independent judgment.”

Louisiana conceded that the Court might reach the same decision again if it reheard the case, but said rehearing was warranted because that “protects the public’s trust that the Court has before it all relevant information before reaching a final decision,” it “safeguards the perception of fairness,” and it “ensures that the Court’s final decision accurately reflects the state of facts and the law.”

If the Court believes that its decision could stand alone on the exercise of “independent judgment,” that should still lead to rehearing, because, the petition argued, that would make the “national consensus” calculus less important in future cases on applying the death penalty.

A denial of rehearing, the petition argued, would sow confusion about which side of the Court’s calculus weighed the most.