U.S. Supreme Court Picks Up Death Penalty and Redistricting Cases

by | June 7, 2016

By David G. Savage

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will reconsider two Texas death penalty cases and rule on whether evidence of racial bias and mental impairment calls for removing the defendants from death row.

The cases will be heard in the court's next term, which begins in the fall. Neither asks the justices to strike down the death penalty, but they could set stricter limits on executions and the use of capital punishment.

In one case, a man convicted of a 1980 shooting during a store robbery in Houston says he has a mild mental disability. The justices agreed to hear his claim that prosecutors and judges in Texas have ignored earlier rulings that barred executing mentally impaired inmates.

The other case involves an African-American defendant who was sentenced to death after a jury was told that he could be especially dangerous in the future because of his race. The justices agreed to hear his claim that such racial bias is cause to set aside his death sentence.

Last year, liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they now believe the death penalty system is so badly flawed, it is unconstitutional. There has been no sign that a majority agrees with them.

But if a liberal justice were to join the court in the next term, there may well be a five-member majority to enforce tighter limits on the use of capital punishment.

The death in February of Justice Antonin Scalia has left the court with a vacancy, and the Republican-controlled Senate is refusing to consider President Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the empty seat, saying the decision should be left to the next president.

Since Scalia's death, the eight justices have steered clear of taking new cases that could provoke an ideological divide or a 4-4 deadlock. But the Texas cases may be the exception and lead to rulings that sharply split the court.

Lawyers for Bobby J. Moore, the inmate with the mental impairment, also complained to the court that he had spent 35 years on death row, including 15 years in solitary confinement, and that such treatment was cruel and unusual punishment.

The court initially issued an order Monday saying it would hear his appeal on both questions, mental impairment and solitary confinement. But several hours later, the court said it would rule only on the issue of his impairment.

Two years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four more liberal justices to strengthen the ban on executing inmates with intellectual disabilities.  He said states should not rely on a single I.Q. test, but instead should use broader measures to exclude inmates who have  significant mental impairment.

Moore's lawyers said Texas officials have not followed that approach.

In the second case, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund urged the justices to set aside the death sentence for Duane Buck because of trial testimony suggesting that black people are more dangerous.

"Trial counsel's knowing reliance on false, inflammatory and deeply prejudicial evidence explicitly linking Mr. Buck's race to his likelihood of future dangerousness is plainly extraordinary," they said in the case of Buck v. Stephens. "We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will correct this egregious error, and that Texas will acknowledge Mr. Buck's right to a new sentencing hearing free of racial bias."

Also Monday, the justices took up a political redistricting dispute, which asks them to take a stronger stand against racial gerrymandering.

The case comes from Virginia, where Republican lawmakers decided that 12 of its districts for state House delegates would each have at least a 55 percent minority population. The Republicans said they did so to comply with the Voting Rights Act and to protect the seats of minority lawmakers.

But a coalition of blacks and Democrats sued, alleging this rigid use of race was unconstitutional. Last year, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, condemned the use of "mechanical racial targets" in a case from Alabama.

A federal court in Virginia upheld the Republican plan, but the Supreme Court said it would hear the case of Bethune-Hill v. Virginia Board of Elections.

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