On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hold two hearings focusing on a familiar but strange reality about the Court and crime: If the Justices issue a decision that expands the rights of criminal suspects or of convicted criminals, that doesn’t always apply as the law of the land, binding everywhere. The two cases seek ways to take advantage of such a new decision.
The Court will broadcast “live” the audio (no video) of the hearings on its homepage, supremecourt.gov To listen, click on “Live Audio” and follow the prompt when the courtroom scene appears lower on the page. The audio also will be available, under the title of each case, on C-Span TV at this link: cspan.org/supremecourt
Background on both cases: Because the Supreme Court is the final stop in the federal court system, its rulings are the last word on the meaning of a federal law (unless Congress decides to alter or repeal it) and on the meaning of the Constitution (absent a constitutional amendment or overruling by the Court itself). But a new ruling by the Justices isn’t necessarily available to all of those people who want to apply it to their case.
In the field of criminal law, for example, a new decision expanding a right often will not be made retroactive and thus will only benefit those individuals who won that particular case, and anyone whose case arises afterward on the same issue. The Court, though, does have the authority to make a new criminal law ruling retroactive, and that can even benefit those whose cases were closed before the decision emerged.
For decades, the Court has been troubled by the opportunity that convicted individuals have to pursue challenges, one after the other, perhaps for years on end. That has worried some of the Justices because it contradicts the basic legal principle that the law needs to be settled, so that people know how to conduct their lives to stay out of legal trouble and so that justice is served without undue delay.
The Justices have fashioned ways to limit such repetitive tests of guilty verdicts and sentences. The main technique the Court has adopted is to limit the right of individuals to pursue multiple challenges in federal court, after their convictions had become final in either federal or state court. Challenges of that kind are based on this provision in the Constitution’s Article I: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended….” That is a right that can be traced in English history to Magna Charta, in 1215.
The Latin phrase translates literally as “you have the body,” and that is understood to mean that the government may be compelled to justify in court its holding of a person in custody or in prison – that is, denying them their freedom.
In 1996, following the Court’s lead, Congress narrowed significantly the right of convicted individuals to pursue successive appeals under federal habeas corpus law. The two cases set for hearings on Tuesday involve such challenges, and each demonstrates, in differing ways, situations in which convicted individuals were denied the chance to take advantage of new Supreme Court decisions that would appear to have helped their cases. Each then appealed to the Court.
First hearing Tuesday: Jones v. Hendrix This hearing is scheduled for one hour, and will begin at 10 a.m.
Facts of this case: Marcus DeAngelo Jones, a Missouri man now serving a lengthy sentence in a federal prison in Arkansas, was convicted in 2000 of a federal crime: illegally having a gun when he had an earlier conviction of a serious crime. He was found guilty on two counts of the gun crime, but both were based on possessing the same gun. After one of his several trips to the courts, one of those convictions was nullified.
His case was closed after he had pursued all of the normal appeals available in federal court. Later, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled (in Rehaif v. United States, a case involving a different individual) that the government had to provide stronger evidence in order to convict anyone of the gun possession crime. That decision has been applied, retroactively, to earlier convictions.
Jones returned to federal court after a ten-year lapse, arguing that the new ruling made it clear that, considering the evidence before the jury in his case, his guilty verdict was wrong. He contended that he could not have pursued that claim earlier, because the federal courts in his geographic area had rejected it. The new Supreme Court decision, however, overturned those precedents.
His new plea failed because he filed it under his right to seek release under the federal habeas law, and lower courts ruled that that law did not apply to closed cases like his. Those courts also rejected his claim that, if he were not allowed to pursue his claim of innocence, that would be an unconstitutional suspension of his habeas right.
After the Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal, the Justice Department told the Court that it would not defend all aspects of the lower court rulings, so the Court selected an independent lawyer to defend that result in full. Jones’ lawyers will defend his claim based on the Justices’ 2019 ruling, and a Justice Department lawyer will argue a middle position.
Lower federal courts are split on the issue.
The question before the Court: If an individual convicted of a crime has no chance to challenge it because controlling law rejected the legal claim, can the challenge be pursued later if a new Supreme Court decision overturns that prior view of the law?
Significance: The legal aspects of this case are quite complex, but the core issue is straightforward: why should a new Supreme Court ruling, making it significantly harder for prosecutors to get a conviction of a specific federal crime, not be available to undo an earlier conviction that was based on less evidence?
The answer will depend upon how the Court sorts out two provisions of federal law: one limiting the times an individual can make a challenge to a conviction or sentence, the other providing a kind of “safety value” exception to make sure that the constitutional guarantee of a habeas right is not wiped out altogether.
The conservative majority, seldom interested in expanding the rights of criminals, may well be attracted to the middle position being pressed by the Justice Department. It argues that individuals like Jones should be able to file a new federal case, relying on a favorable new Supreme Court ruling, but should not win unless they can convince a court that they are completely innocent. The Department contends that Jones cannot meet that rigorous test.
Second hearing Tuesday: Cruz v. Arizona Scheduled for one hour, this hearing will begin when the Jones case hearing has ended.
The facts of this case: John Montenegro Cruz of Tucson, AZ, was convicted in 2005 of first-degree murder for the shooting death two years earlier of a Tucson police officer who had attempted to question Cruz about a hit-and-run accident. The jury imposed a death sentence, and Cruz has been pursuing multiple court challenges over the years since.
His appeal to the Supreme Court seeks to take advantage of two Supreme Court decisions that can benefit individuals who face a potential death sentence for murder.
In many murder cases, state law requires jurors to decide whether the individual they convict would remain dangerous if kept alive and sentenced to prison with the chance of being released in the future, instead of being put to death. The idea behind such laws is that it is up to the jury to decide what punishment is needed to assure that the community would be safe if a person they find guilty of murder were to be set free at some point.
In 1994, before Cruz’s trial, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Simmons v. South Carolina that when the danger question is put to a jury, and state law bars future release, the individual on trial has a constitutional right to tell the jury that he would not ever be set free and, based on that, asks to be spared the death penalty.
If there is no chance of release on parole, the Simmons decision specifies, it is not enough that there may be a chance that the governor would order the individual released from prison in the future; the jury must still be told that state law does not allow release. The ruling is a constitutional one, based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process.” It thus would appear to be binding everywhere.
When Cruz was tried, his lawyer – relying on the Simmons decision – sought to tell the jury that he would never be eligible for release. The lawyer asked that he be allowed to put on the stand a state official who would say exactly that. The trial judge would not permit it, finding that it was not clear whether Cruz could be freed at some point.
In a series of decisions, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the Simmons decision did not apply in Arizona, even though the state in 1994 had banned the use of parole for anyone who was in prison awaiting a death sentence. It remained legally possible, the state court said, that an inmate given a life sentence instead of death could be eligible for release after serving 25 years by order of a future governor.
Cruz got a new legal opportunity when, in a 2016 decision (Lynch v. Arizona), the Supreme Court told the Arizona courts that they had to apply the 1994 decision. The availability of future release by the governor, the Court said, is not enough to avoid obeying the Simmons decision.
Cruz sought to take advantage of that in state court, but failed again, with the state Supreme Court applying a state procedural rule that does allow convicted individuals to bring a challenge after their cases were closed. The state court, however, said that the rule applies only if the individual can show that there has been a significant change in the law, “a clear break from the past” which would be sufficient to overturn the guilty verdict or the sentence.
Cruz, it decided, could not take advantage of that exception, because it said there was not a significant enough change between the Supreme Court’s Simmons decision and its Lynch decision. The Lynch decision, it said, did not make any new interpretation of law but simply applied what the Court had declared in the earlier Simmons decision. Applying a legal principle is not the same as changing it, the state court said.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, Cruz argued that the two precedents together are binding in Arizona, that they are declarations of federal constitutional law which is supreme over a state procedural rule. State officials, in reply, urged the Justices to deny review, arguing among other points that the Arizona court had relied on a state legal principle independently of the federal issue Cruz was trying to raise.
The state’s point here is based on a long-standing doctrine – dating at least to 1875 (Murdock v. Memphis) –that limits the Supreme Court’s authority to review state court rulings. Out of respect for the separate role that state courts have, the Court applies the principle that it does not have the authority to second-guess how state courts interpret state law. If there is an “adequate” state law basis for a ruling, and that is independent of any federal question, the Court is without authority to review the case, under this doctrine.
The Court voted last March to rule on Cruz’s appeal, but it chose to bypass the question he was raising – that is, the supremacy of federal over state law. Using its power to choose what issues it will decide, it agreed only to consider the state’s argument that the ruling against Cruz was a valid exercise of independent state judgment, not subject to review by the Justices.
The question before the Court: Is the Supreme Court barred from ruling on Arizona’s use of a state court procedural rule to deny a Death Row inmate the opportunity to take advantage of Supreme Court precedents defining the inmate’s constitutional rights?
Significance: This case may turn out to be one of the most significant in years on the Court’s view of criminal law, because it presents a direct conflict between rulings by the Court on constitutional questions and how those are to be applied in state courts. It has the potential to shift significant power from the Court itself to state courts, a shift that might be quite attractive to a Court with a dominant conservative majority that is deeply respectful of states’ power to enforce their own criminal laws.
In addition, this is a majority that has been quite skeptical of the prolonged series of multiple challenges to state convictions that have become quite common, especially in death-penalty cases. The procedural rule invoked by the Arizona court in ruling against Cruz is one way, as this case shows, to cut down on such repetitive appeals.
The Justices will have the last word on whether Arizona’s ruling against Cruz does, in the end, satisfy the adequacy and independence prongs of the doctrine it is newly examining here, but it is premature to speculate that in granting review they meant to send a signal that they will rule for Arizona, not for Cruz. Tomorrow’s hearing may give hints of an answer.
One of the most provocative parts of the Arizona Supreme Court decision that the Justices are examining is that it decided, for itself, how to interpret two constitutional rulings by the nation’s highest court, boldly paring down their scope – especially the scope of the one issued in 2016 that was explicitly aimed at correcting how Arizona’s state court had applied the one issued in 1994.
On Wednesday, the Court will hold a single hearing, seeking to clarify how courts are to calculate the financial penalties for failing to file annual reports on the funds that Americans hold in foreign bank or investment accounts.