The Supreme Court recently completed a truly historic term, though the blockbuster cases were not on the criminal side of the docket. (That said, as noted in prior posts, the big rulings in Dobbs (reversing Roe) and Bruen (expanding the Second Amendment) will have many criminal justice echoes.) Still, based on this helpful list from Crime & Consequences, about a third of the OT21 SCOTUS docket dealt with criminal justice issues, with many interesting and important stories to be found within these nearly two dozen cases. Here are some initial thoughts on the criminal justice Term that was (with an eye on Terms to come):
1. Federal defendants who were not the Boston Marathon Bomber did quite well. All the talk about SCOTUS being now so conservative does not reflect this Term’s outcomes in federal statutory criminal cases. Though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had reinstated his federal death sentence and a few other federal defendants lost on procedural issues, a number of federal defendants prevailed on an array of statutory issues (see Concepcion, Ruan, Taylor, Wooden). The considerable success of these federal defendants on various statutory claims is surely a function of selective certiorari grants, but it is still notable and a trend to watch.
2. State defendants pursuing federal habeas actions have real reason for real pessimism. There were significant losses for state defendants as federal habeas petitioners in Davenport and Shinn and Twyford. These rulings all included an unmistakable tone and notable dicta signaling that a super-majority of the Justices are quite eager to restrain the authority of federal courts to review and reverse state convictions via habeas. We shall see if the conservative block of Justices will continue to look for opportunities to rein in lower federal courts seeking to give state prisoners habeas relief.
3. Murderers, deference / comity, bites at the apple, and an coming test case. Tsarnaev and Davenport and Shinn and Twyford all involved defendants convicted of serious murders (all but Davenport were capital cases). A few capital defendants did prevail on distinctive issues: Ramirez provided clergy access at execution; Nance preserved 1983 as a robust mean to contest execution protocols. A possible through-line here is that the Court is particularly troubled when federal courts fail to show definition or comity to give serious criminals multiple “bites at the apple,” but they will still protect an initial “bite.” These themes add intrigue to the collateral review case already on the SCOTUS docket for next Term, Jones v. Hendrix, No. 21-857, which involves statutory avenues for federal defendants to raise issues that were previously legally unavailable.
4. A dynamic conservative block in criminal cases (with KavaRob as the new Kennedy?). Among the conservative Justices, one can usually expect in criminal cases that Justice Alito will be the most likely to vote for the government and Justice Gorsuch will be the most likely to vote for the defendant. But, in capital cases, Justice Gorsuch is a consistent vote against defendants while CJ Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh seem a bit more “defense friendly.” Interestingly, in two notable 5-4 rulings this Term, it was Justices Gorsuch and Thomas providing the key votes for a federal defendant in Concepcion and it was CJ Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh providing the key votes for a state capital defendant in Nance.
Before Justice Barrett replaced Justice Ginsburg, Justice Gorsuch alone could be a swing vote joining the liberal block to give a criminal defendant a win in closely divided cases (McGirt from 2020 is a notable example). But now Justice Gorsuch’s vote for a defendant may just be a fourth vote in dissent (as in) Castro-huerta and Twyford this Term). Consequently, CJ Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, who voted together this term 100% of cases, may now need to be the focal point for advocates in closely divided criminal cases. (I call this pair “KavaRob” because I sense Justice Kavanaugh may care a bit more about the criminal side of the docket than does the Chief; I call them the “new Kennedy” because for many years criminal litigants knew that Justice Kennedy was the key swing vote they needed to target.)
5. Justice Barrett seems mostly in line, so far, with Justice Alito in criminal cases. I had been hoping that Justice Barrett might prove likely to vote with Justice Gorsuch on various criminal justice issues. But this term, Justice Barrett was more likely to vote with Justice Alito than even other conservative Justices, and that seemed particularly true in criminal cases (see Ruan), even though they were not always in sync (see Taylor). I gave a talk not long after Justice Barrett joined the Court where I suggested she might follow Justice Gorsuch’s path; Some Seventh Circuit practitioners responded that I should not count on it. The practitioners’ perspective seems to have been more astute than my view from the ivory tower.
6. Might new Justice Jackson created a whole new Court in criminal cases? One often hears that every new Justice makes for a whole new Supreme Court. That aphorism is, of course, technically true; but most folks, myself included, expect new Justice Jackson to approach and vote on issues quite similar to how retired Justice Breyer did. That said, Justice Jackson might not track Justice Breyer on some criminal justices issues (such as Apprendi rights), and perhaps she might encourage the Court to take up more or different types of criminal justice cases. Stay tuned.