Juries, Death, and Judicial Elections

January 21, 2016
Supreme Court of the United States building

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court buttressed the pivotal role of juries in capital cases, holding that juries, not judges, must make the ultimate decision of life or death.

In Hurst v. Florida, the Court reviewed Florida’s death penalty rule, which allows judges to impose a death sentence­­ regardless of the jury’s recommendation. According to the Court, Florida’s system of judicial override — similar to systems in Alabama and Delaware — is unconstitutional because “a jury, not a judge, [must] find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”  

Bolstering the role of the jury makes sense. One goal of juries is to ensure that the judgment of a cross-section of the community is reflected in a court’s decision. Before taking away the liberty, or life, of an individual, we require the accused’s peers — with diverse experiences (and biases) — make all necessary findings of fact. Placing final decision-making power in the hands of just one person contradicts the very purpose of a jury.

But the problem with Florida’s plan isn’t just that the will of one replaces the will of many; it’s also whose will ultimately trumps. A Florida judge presiding over a criminal case is not simply one representative of the accused’s community. She is an elected official whose job security depends on her decisions being popular with the voting public. All judges in Florida keep their jobs through a ballot.

The pressure associated with judicial re-election campaigns has measurable effects on judicial decision-making, according to the latest research. Empiricists have found that proximity to re-election makes judges more punitive toward criminal defendants and, particularly relevant here, more likely to override jury verdicts of life to instead impose death.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted this trend in her Woodward v. Alabama dissent, concluding that Alabama judges, all of whom are elected, “have succumbed to electoral pressures.” The consequences of this influence are particularly troubling in Alabama, which has the highest per capita rate of death sentences in the country, and judges who regularly use their override power to impose sentences of death.

The impact of electoral pressure on decision-making is hardly surprising given judicial campaign rhetoric. Television ads attacking candidates as “soft on crime” or touting their “tough on crime” records are increasingly prominent in the 39 states that elect judges. Alabama Supreme Court candidates, for example, brag that they have “looked into the eyes of murderers and sentenced them to death” and have “sent hundreds of criminals back to death row.”

While Justice Sotomayor did not address judicial elections in her majority opinion in Hurst, as she did in her Woodward dissent, re-election pressure and its impact on judicial decision-making provide further support for the Court’s order. Indeed, these dynamics provide reason to hope that Alabama and Delaware’s laws will be next to fall.

(Photo: ThinkStock)