Wednesday, October 14, 2015

SCOTUS debates Florida death penalty post Ring

I'm sure it was more interesting than the snoozer of a debate last night in which the Supreme Court didn't come up.

The DP case before the Supreme Court was Hurst v. Florida. SCOTUSBlog has coverage of the interesting oral argument:

The case is about a brutal murder in a fast-food restaurant in Pensacola, but it reaches the Court as a clear-cut test of what the Justices had in mind in the 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona. That ruling seemingly enhanced the role of the jury in capital punishment cases, assigning them the crucial task of deciding the facts that make a person accused of murder eligible to be put to death.

The Florida Supreme Court has taken the position that the Ring decision does not even apply to its death penalty system — a position that its lawyer — state Solicitor General Allen Winsor — did not repeat on Tuesday, even as he argued that the system fully satisfies that ruling. It would be Winsor who would, before the hearing ended, face the hardest questions about moral responsibility.

Hurst’s lawyer, Washington, D.C., attorney Seth P. Waxman (a former U.S. Solicitor General), left no doubt from the outset that he was aiming to put Winsor on the defensive on the jury question. “Under Florida law,” he began, “Timothy Lee Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered him eligible for death.”

Under Florida law, no one can be put to death unless there is a finding of one “aggravating factor” — usually, some fact about the crime or the way it was committed that would justify the ultimate penalty. The jury, Waxman noted, only offers an advisory opinion to the judge about such factors, and then suggests either life or death.

Waxman quoted from Florida law, noting that the judge makes the crucial finding of aggravating factors “independently, and, quote, ‘notwithstanding the jury’s recommendation as to sentence.'” For most of his argument, he never strayed far from that point or from his secondary point that Florida is the only state to do it in that way. The Justices, as usual, tried a few hypotheticals to test the way the Florida arrangement actually works, but the sidelining of the jury was almost always a part of Waxman’s answers.

From the moment that Florida’s Winsor took the lectern, arguing at first that his state’s system was constitutional before and after Ring v. Arizona, he was almost constantly bombarded with probing questions about what juries actually did under that system. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was perhaps the most aggressive questioner.

Winsor sought to show that the task given to Florida juries was a serious one, but the questions from the bench continued to suggest that, no matter what the jury did or recommended, it could be overridden by the final choices that are assigned to the judge. At some points, it appeared that the state’s lawyer was making at least some concessions that part of the system would not satisfy the Ring precedent.

No comments: