Fair Courts E-lert: SCOTUS Voids Part of FL Death Penalty; Judge Restrepo Confirmed

January 15, 2016

THE SUPREME COURT

Supreme Court Voids Part of Florida’s Death Penalty Law

In Hurst v. Florida issued Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court found part of Florida’s capital punishment procedure unconstitutional. Previously, a jury “recommended a death sentence by a 7-to-5 vote” for defendant Timothy Lee Hurst, writes Adam Liptak in The New York Times. “The judge then independently considered the evidence concerning punishment and concluded that Mr. Hurst should be executed.” The Court’s ruling found this practice unconstitutional. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the 8-1 decision. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” Liptak notes that it is “unclear” how the decision will affect the sentences of the 400 people currently on death row in Florida.

JUDICIAL CONDUCT

PA Court Scandal Raises Questions Surrounding Past Cases

An ongoing scandal in Pennsylvania over the exchange of inappropriate and offensive emails by a small number of judges and law enforcement officials is causing litigants “to question whether they received justice in their own brushes with Pennsylvania’s legal system.” In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeremy Roebuck and Mark Fazlollah write that in the wake of the scandal and resulting resignations and suspensions, lawyers are filing legal challenges to previous judgments, “argu[ing] that the insensitive correspondence - many of which contain jokes about rape; photos mocking African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities; and insulting comments about gays, the obese, and the disabled - expose hidden biases and an inappropriate chumminess between the judges and prosecutors who already wield great power over the state’s system of justice.” Mallissa Weaver, whose 2008 sexual harassment claim before the state supreme court was denied, expressed frustration that as she was “complaining about degrading sexual treatment from [her] boss . . . the judges were making the same types of jokes about women.” 

JUDICIAL VACANCIES

After 14-Month Wait, Senate Confirms Judge Restrepo

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo was confirmed by the Senate to a seat on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. His nomination had been pending for 14 months. Though Judge Restrepo was confirmed by a sizable margin — the vote was 82 to 6 — Jonathan Tamari writes in The Philadelphia Inquirer that “the year-plus wait for confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate transformed his nomination into a larger political issue.” The delay drew accusations that the nomination process is being manipulated by the Republican-controlled Senate for partisan reasons unrelated to a judge’s qualifications. “The Republican leadership has subjected Judge Restrepo to totally unnecessary delay, but it’s part of their wholesale obstruction of judicial nominees,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Restrepo’s appointment fills one of the four vacancies on the Circuit Court. Tamari notes that all of the vacancies are deemed judicial emergencies, “a status based on caseload and the length of the vacancy.”

STATE JUDICIAL SELECTION

South Carolina Legislature to Decide Next Chief Justice

The question of who will be the next chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court is “looming over legislators” as they reconvene this week, writes Cynthia Roldan in The Post and Courier. When current Chief Justice Costa Pleicones retires at the end of 2016 the next most senior justice, Donald Beatty — the only African-American justice — would traditionally become chief. However, “[c]onservative Republicans are calling for a change, unhappy with some of the court’s recent rulings,” writes Roldan. “There’s a feeling in the Republican Caucus that we would like a judge to lead the judiciary who is more conservative, who is more concerned with making sure that the court stays within the bounds of that third branch of government and less interested in second-guessing public policy as put forth by the General Assembly,” said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister (R). Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D) disagreed, saying “the premise that Beatty is a liberal justice is ‘so ridiculous’” and that “none of those concerns were raised” with the previous two chiefs.