SCOTUS News, Week of March 6th, 2017

The Court’s decision regarding Gloucester County School Board v. G. G. has dominated the news this week. We discuss this below. The Court also released three opinions this week. Let’s take a look at those first.

Opinions Released

– In a short, per curiam opinion in Rippo v. Baker, the Supreme Court clarified the conditions under which a judge should recuse. The petitioner, Rippo, had been denied post-conviction relief despite allegations of bias against the judge in his case. If biased, a judge is supposed to recuse themselves. The Nevada Supreme Court, the original court of appeal in this case, upheld that without evidence of judicial misconduct, a judge is not required to recuse. SCOTUS disagreed. They point out that the existence of evidence of misconduct is not the threshold for recusal. The threshold is lower. A judge must recuse any time “the probability of actual bias…is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” The judgment was vacated and remanded.

– In Beckles v. US, the Court ruled on the constitutionality of a vague clause in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (hereinafter: “Guidelines”). The void-for-vagueness doctrine is an important component of criminal law. In Johnson v. US, the Supreme Court ruled that a clause defining the risk of injury to a crime victim was unconstitutionally vague. This clause appeared in the Armed Career Criminal Act, under which Johnson was sentenced. In Beckles, petitioner argued that, because this clause also appears in the Guidelines, that it too is unconstitutionally vague. The Court disagreed.

As we forecasted many moons ago, the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling. The Court stated that the Guidelines are not unconstitutionally vague. Judges still have latitude to make discretionary decisions in sentencing, with the Guidelines serving as only, you guessed it, a guide. The discretion of a lower court to impose a sentence does not infringe an individual’s Due Process rights if a judge’s discretionary sentence falls within the statutory range that is constitutionally valid. A sentence that is legal under all applicable statutes would also be legal under the Guidelines. This fact nullifies the impact of the Guidelines’ residual clause. The Guidelines “guide district courts in exercising their discretion, but do not constrain that discretion.” (emphasis ours).

The petitioner brought suit by claiming the Guidelines are unconstitutionally vague. The Justices declared that reasoning invalid. The Justices went on to say, however, that the Guidelines are still subject to constitutional scrutiny in other ways. In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor elaborated on the ways the Sentencing Guidelines could be further scrutinized.

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado concerns the content of statements jurors make to other jurors behind closed doors. In this case, jurors brought evidence to light that one of their fellow jurors had made racially-biased remarks during their deliberation. The no-impeachment rule is a courtroom rule first created more than two hundred years ago. The rule prevents undue scrutiny of jury deliberations in order to ensure verdict finality, and safeguard a jury trial’s integrity. Every state and the District of Columbia use some version of the no-impeachment rule.

In the case of Pena-Rodriguez, a juror who made racially-biased remarks voted to convict the defendant. Other jurors came forward to report this behavior. After hearing this information, Pena-Rodriguez appealed (Pena-Rodriguez is Hispanic). In a 5-3 decision – one of the few in this term – the Court declared that a defendant’s right to an impartial jury supersedes the ubiquitous practice of the no-impeachment rule. There are a few other exceptions to the no-impeachment rule, but they come from very narrow Supreme Court holdings. This holding has a farther reaching application. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that attempting to eliminate racial bias in jury deliberation is an essential duty for the justice system. In his own words:

“It must become the heritage of our Nation to rise above racial classifications that are so inconsistent with our commitment to the equal dignity of all persons.”

The Crowd and the Algorithm


Beckles v. US

{Marshall}+ is off to a rocky start this year. The FantasySCOTUS Crowd nailed the Beckles case, while the Algorithm fell short. Once again, this appears to be a problem of degrees, and another instance of the Supreme Court’s more nuanced and laser-focused approach confounding the predictions of {Marshall}+. Sentencing guidelines are a tricky business. Now, those guidelines are even trickier due to the now-codified declaration that guidelines cannot be ruled vague because of their already nebulous nature.


Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

The Algorithm fared far better in the Pena-Rodriguez case. The Justices voted along more predictable lines. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor. Justice Alito’s dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, fell along a more conservative reading of no-impeachment rule case law, and of the Sixth Amendment. The dissenting Justices acknowledged America’s historical problems with race, but focused on writing in defense of clear and unassailable rules for jury deliberation.

Other News

The Supreme Court denied a stay of execution request in Ruiz v. Texas. Justice Breyer dissented from this denial, and wrote a brief explanation of his dissent. He cited previous precedent – some of which goes back over one hundred years – eschewing solitary confinement for individuals over extended periods. Ruiz has been in solitary confinement for 22 years, which Breyer argues is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Scientific evidence is on Breyer’s side, but this ruling will stand. In the short run, this dissent will do little to ameliorate Ruiz’s sentence. In the long run, Breyer’s dissent adds to the death-by-a-thousand-judicial-cuts to which capital punishment in the US may one day succumb.

Grimm Situation

We hope you’ll pardon the pun in the title. On Monday the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the highly publicized case of Gloucester County School Board v. G. G. The case will return to the Fourth Circuit for further consideration. This decision is linked to an announcement from the Justice Department two weeks ago that rescinded guidance issued by the government during the previous administration. Last May, the Departments of Education and Justice released a joint letter containing new guidance based on pre-existing laws and regulations. This guidance used Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as its backbone. Two weeks ago, this guidance document was rescinded. In its original opinion, the Fourth Circuit declared that the Obama-era guidance controlled in this case. The guidance now no longer applies. Even when the guidance did apply, it did not carry the force of a full law. The Supreme Court has sent the case back to the lower court to be reviewed more completely in light of the changed landscape.