1. First up is Kahler v. Kansas: “Whether the Eighth and 14th Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense.” Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog has a nice write up here. A snippet:
Under Kansas law, Kahler could not argue that he was insane as a defense to the charges. In 1995, Kansas had replaced the insanity defense with a new law that allows a defendant to argue that, because of mental illness, he could not have intended to commit the crime but makes clear that mental illness “is not otherwise a defense.” The law was a response to several high-profile criminal cases, including the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial court instructed the jurors in Kahler’s trial that they could only consider Kahler’s mental illness as part of determining whether he intended to kill his victims. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.2. Second up is Ramos v. Louisiana, which addresses “whether the 14th Amendment fully incorporates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict.” Amy Howe again:
The Kansas Supreme Court upheld Kahler’s death sentence, rejecting his argument that the failure to allow him to raise an insanity defense violated the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in March.
In his brief on the merits, Kahler contends that it has long been established that a mentally ill person who commits a crime without understanding that his actions are wrong is not morally responsible for those actions and therefore should not be held criminally responsible. The importance of this rule, he suggests, can be seen in the fact that, until 1979, every jurisdiction in the United States allowed an insanity defense. Today, he continues, 45 states, the federal government, the U.S. military and the District of Columbia all allow a mentally ill defendant to assert an insanity defense.
But under Kansas law, Kahler argues, it doesn’t matter whether an insane defendant understands that what he is doing is wrong. The only question is whether he intended to commit the crime, which is a much lower bar. Therefore, Kahler posits, “so long as a defendant intentionally kills another human being—even if he delusionally believes the devil told him to do it, or that the victim was an enemy soldier trying to kill him,” he can be convicted of murder even if he is insane. Such an approach is not the equivalent of offering an insanity defense, Kahler maintains. Rather, he predicts, the state’s rule will “shrink the class of defendants who might be acquitted as a result of mental disease or defect almost to the vanishing point.”
Removing such a fundamental principle from the criminal justice system, Kahler maintains, violates the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which was enacted to protect exactly these kinds of basic principles. Kansas’ rule also violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because, “by convicting and punishing people who are not blameworthy, cannot be deterred, and require incapacitation and rehabilitation that the criminal justice system cannot provide,” it doesn’t advance any of the justifications for punishment – such as deterrence or retribution. Indeed, Kahler notes, at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, it was widely regarded as cruel and unusual to impose criminal punishments on the insane.
Kahler acknowledges that the Supreme Court normally gives the states a fair amount of latitude in how they structure their criminal justice systems, and he concedes that states can “tweak” a baseline standard that hinges on whether the defendant knows that his actions were wrong. States can also require defendants to show that they are insane, perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt, but they can’t get rid of the insanity defense altogether.
Kansas frames the issue very differently, telling the justices that the state has simply “redefined,” rather than “abolished” the insanity defense. Although a defendant cannot raise insanity as an affirmative defense to accusations of a crime, the jury can still consider evidence of mental illness in determining whether the defendant could have intended to commit the crime.
In Ramos’ case, the justices are not writing on a blank slate. Nearly 50 years ago, in, the court ruled that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to a unanimous jury, but that such a right does not extend to defendants in state trials. The justices were deeply divided. Four justices would have ruled that the Sixth Amendment does not require a unanimous jury at all, while four others would have ruled that the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to a unanimous jury that applies in both state and federal courts. That left Justice Lewis Powell, who believed that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury for federal criminal trials, but not for state trials, as the controlling vote.
In his brief on the merits, Ramos starts with the threshold question of whether the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial clause requires a unanimous verdict at all. He argues that the answer is yes: The Sixth Amendment, he contends, guarantees a defendant in a criminal case a “trial, by an impartial jury,” which the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted as requiring a unanimous jury verdict before a defendant can be convicted of a crime. This includes the court’s 1972 decision in , he continues, in which “a majority of the Court agreed yet again that the Sixth Amendment requires jury unanimity to convict.”
The history and purposes of the jury trial clause also make clear that a unanimous verdict is required to convict a defendant, Ramos continues. Starting as far back as the 14th century, Ramos explains, laws in England required a unanimous verdict. The colonies embraced this requirement in their own legal systems, and the Framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights adopted this understanding of what the right to jury trial meant in the Sixth Amendment. The requirement of a unanimous verdict also serves important purposes at the heart of the jury trial right, such as countering possible bias or overreach by prosecutors. “Indeed,” Ramos writes, “the knowledge that a conviction cannot be obtained absent a unanimous verdict deters prosecutors from bringing questionable charges in the first place.” The requirement also “ensures the jury’s verdict represents the voice of the whole community” and “promotes public confidence in the reliability and fairness of the criminal justice system.”
Louisiana counters that the Sixth Amendment does not require a unanimous jury. Nothing in the text of the Constitution imposes such a requirement, even though the Constitution imposes other requirements on the jury system – for example, specifying where jury trials must take place. And, the state argues, the justices should not assume that, just because juries were required to be unanimous in the late 18th century, that requirement was tacitly included in the Constitution’s reference to a “jury.” To the contrary, the state suggests, the history of the Bill of Rights shows that the Framers intentionally omitted a unanimity requirement from the Sixth Amendment: The original draft of the amendment included a unanimity requirement, but the Senate rejected it, instead adopting a different version without one. At the same time, the state observes, some state constitutions explicitly imposed a unanimity requirement – which they would not have needed to do if the phrase “trial by jury” had been understood to include a requirement that the jury’s vote be unanimous. Indeed, the state adds, there were other historical jury practices that no one has argued should be read into the Sixth Amendment – for example, “the requirement that juries consist of twelve male property owners who would be held without food and drink until they returned a unanimous jury verdict.”
Louisiana also sees no conflict between the purpose of the Sixth Amendment and a rule that jury verdicts do not have to be unanimous. The purpose of the jury trial clause, the state stresses, is to ensure that a defendant is convicted by members of the community, who have looked at the evidence and independently concluded that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That purpose is served, the state insists, whether the vote is unanimous or is instead 11-1 or 10-2 – as demonstrated by the fact that most countries (including England) that use jury trials do not require unanimous verdicts. Eliminating the unanimity requirement also significantly reduces the likelihood of a deadlocked jury, the state notes, which in turn reduces burdens on court systems.