The Supreme Court handed down two death penalty decisions today, giving victories to the defendants in both cases. In the first case, Hill v. McDonough, the Court ruled unanimously (in an opinion by Justice Kennedy) that method-of-execution claims can be brought under Section 1983 rather than under the habeas statutes. For what this means, see my earlier post on Hill.
I am surprised that this opinion was unanimous, but the calendar may explain it: Hill was argued at the end of argument season, and by the time this opinion circulated the time for filing dissents was running out. I suspect that this opinion would have drawn some dissents if it had been filed earlier in the year. In any event, I assume the effect of Hill will be to push the courts on to the merits of method-of-execution claims sooner rather than later.
The second case handed down was a 5-3 case, House v. Bell, with Kennedy joined by Breyer, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg for the majority. (Alito did not participate.) To simplify a somewhat complicated case, House involves an application of the “miscarriage-of-justice” exception to procedural default of state claims in federal court under Schlup v. Delo. Basically, some new evidence came to light following House’s conviction suggesting that he may be innocent; the question is, was there enough evidence allowing him to pursue his claim in federal court even though he did not raise the claim in state court?
In an unusually long and fact-intensive opinion — 36 pages altogether, one of Kennedy’s longest — Justice Kennedy concludes yes, there was enough evidence to sufficiently challenge the reliabillity of the verdict, and the federal court can step in. Chief Justice Roberts disagrees in an 18-page opinion joined by Thomas and Scalia. According to Roberts, proper deference to the factfinder means that there is insufficient evidence to challenge the reliability of the verdict.