supreme court full frontal Above the Law.jpgWe meant to write about this yesterday: Ayers v. Belmontes, the death penalty case in which a closely divided Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit. The opinion was handed down on Monday. It was the first opinion of the Term, and it was an unusual first opinion.
The typical first opinion of the Term is some unanimous, per curiam opinion about some soporific statutory issue (often written by Justice Ginsburg). But Ayers v. Belmontes was a signed opinion (by Justice Kennedy), in a death penalty case, reflecting a 5-4 vote. Interesting.
A possible explanation, from the Queen Bee of the SCOTUS Press Corps, Linda Greenhouse:

No one at the court on Monday could remember a term that began with a 5-to-4 decision. But while this decision might, on the surface, suggest that the current court is on the way toward setting a record for internal division, that is not necessarily the case. A more likely explanation is that much of the majority opinion was in fact drafted last spring, before the court agreed to hear California’s appeal.

The entry on the court’s public docket shows that while the state’s appeal was pending the justices discussed it nine times at closed-door conferences. With cases typically being discussed only once or twice, if at all, nine is an unusually high number. It suggests that a group of justices was trying to win majority support for an opinion that would decide the case summarily, without argument or further briefing.

The failure of such an effort typically results in a compromise decision to accept the case for argument, with much of the opinion already having been drafted.

In other words: Ayers v. Belmontes could have been a standard-issue, summary reversal of the Ninth Circuit; but the votes weren’t there. So the benchslap-in-the-making was quickly converted into a majority opinion for a divided Court. (But props to Justice Stevens for cranking out his dissent with such speed.)
Also, the case features the coolest name ever for a jury member: “Juror Hailstone.”
Justices Uphold a Death Sentence Twice Overturned [New York Times]
Ayers v. Belmontes [Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School]


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