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Court to rule on jury role in death sentencing

Taking on a new case on the role the Constitution gives to juries in criminal cases, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to rule on the validity of Florida’s law limiting the jury’s powers in death penalty cases.  The case of Hurst v. Florida raises issues under both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, the Court said in granting review.  The case, which will be heard and decided at the Court’s next Term, was the only new one granted on Monday.

The Court, in a separate order, asked the Justice Department for the federal government’s views on a dispute over the role of a pension plan manager in making decisions on how to invest the plan’s assets, when those decisions may be linked to a loss of value.  That case, RJR Pension Investment Committee v. Tatum, grew out of the spin-off of a major tobacco company’s tobacco and food businesses.   There is no timetable for the response of the Justice Department.

The Florida death penalty case now up for review involves Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola, who faces a death sentence for the 1998 murder of a woman who was an assistant manager at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant where Hurst also worked.

Hurst’s public-defender lawyers asked the Court to rule on two broad questions: one about the jury’s role when an accused individual claims a mental disability, and one about the jury’s role in the death-sentencing process, including an issue of whether its verdict must be unanimous.  (His jury split seven to five in recommending death.)  The second question was based on a claim that Florida courts fail to follow a 2002 Supreme Court decision on death sentencing, Ring v. Arizona.

In agreeing to rule on the case, the Court rewrote the question it will consider in an apparent attempt to simplify it: whether Florida’s approach to death sentencing violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.”

Because the Ring decision is all about the Sixth Amendment, and the role of the jury in deciding whether a murder was committed in an “aggravated” form, it is not clear just what the Court had in mind in linking an Eighth Amendment issue to the Ring precedent.  It could be, although this was not plain from the order, that the Court is looking at Hurst’s case on Eighth Amendment grounds on his claim of mental disability, on the lack of jury unanimity, and on the general fairness of a death sentence for this particular individual.  Presumably, that will become clearer as the briefs are filed in the case in coming months.

In the Ring ruling, the Court declared that a judge may not make the factual findings about “aggravating factors” in a death penalty case, because that role under the Sixth Amendment belongs to the jury.  The Florida Supreme Court for years has taken the position that the Ring decision does not apply to its death sentencing approach.  It reaffirmed that position last May in rejecting Hurst’s challenge to his death sentence.

Besides adding that case to its decision docket for next Term, the Court decided to send back to a federal appeals court a case involving the University of Notre Dame’s challenge to the so-called birth-control mandate under the federal Affordable Care Act.

In the case of University of Notre Dame v. Burwell, the Catholic university based in Indiana asked the Court to order a reconsideration of its claim based on last Term’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, rejecting the birth-control mandate as it applied to closely held for-profit businesses.

The Justices have twice before given non-profit religious groups some exemption from the mandate on contraceptive methods, but have yet to provide a full-scale review of the validity of that requirement for a non-profit religious organization.  Moreover, the Justices have not had a case yet involving a new version that the government devised last year to give religious groups an added option to avoid being directly involved in providing birth-control methods that they claim violate their religious beliefs.  Notre Dame objects to the mandate both as it applies to its students and to its faculty and employees.

The university previously lost its challenge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  The case now returns to that court for a new look.

The Court on Monday denied review of a number of significant new cases.  Here, in summary, are the issues in several of those:

** It refused to hear a claim that former detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay should be allowed to sue Pentagon and other officials for torture and other harms the prisoners claimed they suffered while in captivity.  The case on that issue was Al Janko v. Gates.

** In another Guantanamo Bay case, the Court declined to hear an appeal by a liberal advocacy group, the Center for Constitutional Rights, seeking to revive its claim under the Freedom of Information Act to videotapes and facial photos of one of the best-known captives still at Guantanamo — a Syrian national, Mohammed Al Qahtani, whom the government claims would have been the “twentieth hijacker” in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., had he not been denied entry into the country the month before those attacks.  A Pentagon official has acknowledged publicly that Al Qahtani was subjected to torture by government interrogation teams, so severe that he probably cannot be prosecuted for war crimes because the evidence would be tainted by his mistreatment.   The case was Center for Constitutional Rights v. CIA.

** The Justices left intact a federal appeals court ruling that a federal judge lacks the authority to call a jury that has been discharged back into the courtroom to fix a mistake in the verdict.  That action came in a case over alleged discrimination in hiring at the University of Iowa College of Law, based on an applicant’s conservative political views.  The denied case was Jones v. Wagner.   The present and former law deans at Iowa wanted the Court to block a retrial of that applicant’s claims.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ordered a new trial on one of the claims in the case, finding that the judge exceeded his powers in recalling the jury once he had let it go.

** After twice before turning aside claims by a former high-level official of Somalia, Mohamed Ali Samantar, for immunity in U.S. courts to a lawsuit by his former countryman claiming he directed atrocities against them, the Court denied review of his latest appeal.  After one of the previous denials of his immunity claim in lower courts, a judge at a bench trial awarded a $21 million damages verdict.  That now becomes enforceable.  The denied case was Samantar v. Yousuf.

The Court took no action on three pending cases that seek to test whether juveniles sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of murder have a chance to take advantage of the Court’s ruling in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama, limiting such sentences, if those individuals’ convictions came before the date of that decision.  The cases presumably will be relisted for another look by the Justices.





Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on jury role in death sentencing, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 9, 2015, 3:08 PM),