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Court grants two cases (UPDATED)

The Supreme Court moved on Monday to settle a long-lingering issue: the legal standard for judging whether a person is mentally disabled, and therefore eligible for the death penalty.  That is the issue the Court granted in Hall v. Florida (docket 12-10882), to be argued early in the new year.  The Court also agreed to hear a second case, on the scope of restitution as a penalty for bank loan fraud.  That is the issue in Robers v. United States (12-9012).

The Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the federal government’s views on a major case on the authority of a U.S. court to punish a foreign bank for failure to turn over financial records that are protected by foreign financial secrecy laws.  The case is Arab Bank v. Linde (12-1485).  The bank has been sued for allegedly providing financial services to terrorists and terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

For a second week, the Court took no action on a significant class-action case involving the social network, Facebook.  The issue in Marek v. Lane (13-136) is whether a court may approve settlement of a class-action lawsuit when most of the members of the class get no direct benefit, including no financial payment.  Facebook was sued by a class of individuals who challenged the release, on their web pages, of details of their personal purchases or movie rentals.  The main part of the settlement deal — besides major fees for lawyers — was to set up a new foundation to study privacy on the Internet.

The new death penalty case from Florida raised this issue: “Whether the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital cases violates Atkins v. Virginia.”  In that 2002 decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to execute individuals who are found to be mentally disabled.  The Court, however, left it to the states to decide who qualifies and mentally disabled and thus cannot be given the death penalty.

In the new case, attorneys for Freddie Lee Hall contended that Florida courts have adopted a “bright line” rule that a person is not mentally disabled unless their IQ is measured at 70 or below.  The state Supreme Court found that Hall had an IQ of 71 or above.  In an earlier stage of Hall’s case, before the Supreme Court had decided the Atkins case, he had been found to be mentally disabled, the petition said.

Hall was sentenced to death for the February 1978 murder of a twenty-one-year-old pregnant housewife, Karol Hurst, taken captive as she left a grocery store in Leesburg, Florida.  Hall was prosecuted along with another man, Mack Ruffin, for taking the woman to a wooded area in another county, where she was sexually assaulted and shot to death.  After that crime, he and Ruffin allegedly killed a deputy sheriff, Lonnie Coburn, after an incident at a convenience store in another county.  Prosecutors contended that Mrs. Hurst was captured and killed as part of a plot to get a car that would be used in a planned robbery.  Hall has been in prison awaiting the death penalty since shortly after the crimes occurred, more than thirty-five years ago.

The second case the Court accepted on Monday involves a conflict among lower courts on the method that federal judges are to use to judge how much restitution a convicted individual must pay to the victim — in this case, restitution for a scheme of phony or “straw” purchasers of houses in Walworth County, Wis.

The issue at stake is whether an individual who purchased houses on the basis of false information — and then defaults on the loans — satisfies some or all of the legal obligation to pay restitution to the lenders or mortgage insurers, if the houses covered by the scheme are returned to them.  The federal courts are split on whether such a return can satisfy, at least partly, the duty to make the victim whole under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit Court ruled that the return of the property does not satisfy the restitution duty, since that must cover what the victims actually lost in financial terms.  In this case, the difference is substantial: the individual involved — Benjamin Robers — faces a duty to pay nearly $220,000 when he believed his obligation was limited to $4,800.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court grants two cases (UPDATED), SCOTUSblog (Oct. 21, 2013, 9:38 AM),