And now back to a more contentious subject: the death penalty. In three opinions issued today, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Texas death row inmates.
Each of the cases involved a problem with the lower appellate courts’ application of prior SCOTUS rulings on special jury instructions in death penalty cases. All three decisions were 5-4, with the usual suspects (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito) in dissent. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Smith v. Texas; Stevens wrote the other two, Abdul-Kamir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman, which had been orally argued together.
In one of two rulings Wednesday on death penalty procedures in Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ highest state court wrongly put up a new legal barrier to a death row inmate’s challenge to jury instructions in his sentencing. The 5-4 decision came in the case of Smith v. Texas (05-11304), a case that had been before the Court once before.. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
The Court reversed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling that reinstated the death sentence of a Dallas man, LaRoyce Smith; the state court had applied a new harmless error standard under state law. That was a misinterpretation of what federal law required, the Court concluded.
In the consolidated cases of Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (05-11284) and Brewer v. Quarterman (05-11287), the Court in another 5-4 decision found that the Fifth Circuit Court wrongly applied prior rulings on instructions to assure that capital juries give full consideration to any factor that might suggest a death sentence should not be imposed.
I credit Kennedy not so much because he wrote one of the majority opinions, but because he was surely once again the swing vote in what is becoming a heavy trend of 5-4 opinions. So much for Roberts’ goal of a unified court.
How Appealing has links to the opinions here.