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SCOTUS News, Week of November 27th, 2016

Three cases were argued in front of the Supreme Court this week. Let’s dive in.

– In Beckles v. United States, the Court will determine whether the unconstitutionally vague “residual” clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act applies retroactively to other similar cases. In a prior case, Johnson v. US, the late Justice Scalia wrote that the government violates the Fifth Amendment by using a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes. Only Justice Alito dissented in the Johnson case, but in Beckles we have a slightly different matter. During oral argument, the Justices’ attention turned to how the Johnson rule should apply to other statutes. The Justices also heard arguments on the validity of commentary attached to the earlier cases, as opposed to the language of the decisions themselves.

The ACCA’s sentencing guidelines have been called into question about a half dozen times before. The petitioner’s sentence for this crime is at this moment consistent with those sentencing guidelines. It seems likely that SCOTUS will uphold the lower court ruling here. The FantasySCOTUS crowd currently agrees. If the Court upholds the Eleventh Circuit Court’s decision, a retroactive application of the Johnson clarification will not occur.

– In Moore v. Texas, the petitioner seeks to overturn a death sentence on the basis of mental disability. The issue before the Court is whether Texas’ standards for defining mental disability are outdated. Previous jurisprudence since 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida) has veered in this direction. If the standards are deemed outdated in light of these cases, the death sentence becomes a violation of the Eighth Amendment. FantasySCOTUS currently predicts a 5-3 ruling in Moore’s favor.

Jennings v. Rodriguez concerns the mechanisms for detaining illegal immigrants. The joint petitioners argue that they were detained for excessive periods of time for minor infractions. Many are law-abiding, productive members of society. They deserve bond hearings if they are held in detention. Those hearings should only be denied if they are deemed a flight risk or a danger to the public safety.

The government countered that this humanitarian argument does not confront the real issues. The laws on the books provide for these kinds of detentions. Furthermore, a habeas corpus filing could reasonably meet the petitioners’ needs. Another aspect of the argument is whether sole reliance on habeas corpus for redress constitutes due process. This one is still too close for FantasySCOTUS to call. They currently predict the Court leans slightly in the petitioners’ favor.

Opinion Released

Bravo-Fernandez v. US was affirmed by a unanimous Court. This case concerned the subtleties of the Double Jeopardy Clause. The petitioners were acquitted of some charges, yet they were convicted of one bribery charge. All charges were vacated and then remanded due to errors unrelated to the jury’s inconsistent verdicts. Petitioners claimed a re-trial would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. Lower courts put forth, and the Supreme Court has now affirmed, that if a jury acts inconsistently in its verdict, then a re-trial does not violate Double Jeopardy. The earlier acquittals stand; the petitioners will return to court for the bribery charge.

The FantasySCOTUS Crowd did a better job than {Marshall}+ of predicting the individual Justices’ decisions. It’s going to be a great season!