The nation’s highest court has held that Arizona can no longer ignore federal case law in state death penalty cases, despite having done so for decades.
In a 5-4 ruling Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Arizona was not justified in its refusal to follow federal law in the case of a convicted murderer who wanted a jury to know he would spend his life in prison if he wasn’t sentenced to death.
John Montenegro Cruz was convicted of murder in 2005. During the sentencing phase of his trial, he filed a motion asking that the jury be informed that if he was not given the death penalty, he would serve a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. The federal law allowing Cruz to tell the jury this was established in the 1994 Supreme Court ruling in Simmons v. South Carolina.
Arizona, however, had refused to follow that ruling, and the trial judge denied Cruz’s motion. Cruz appealed all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court, but he ultimately failed in his efforts to convince the state courts to follow the rule established in Simmons. He tried again after the U.S. Supreme Court directly addressed this practice by Arizona courts in a 2016 ruling in Lynch v. Arizona. In that case, the justices found that Arizona’s failure to allow a death penalty defendant to inform a jury of their ineligibility for parole violated constitutional Due Process guarantees.
Still, the Arizona courts defied the federal precedent, holding that Lynch was not a “significant change in the law.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, penning the majority opinion in Cruz on Wednesday, disagreed. She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“Those [state] courts rejected Cruz’s Simmons argument, believing, incorrectly, that Arizona’s sentencing and parole scheme did not trigger application of Simmons,” Sotomayor wrote in the 5-4 opinion.
Sotomayor explained just how wrong the trial judge got both federal and state law at the outset (citations omitted):
After counsel made closing arguments, the judge instructed the jury that Cruz was eligible for three penalties: (1) “Death by lethal injection”; (2) “Life imprisonment with no possibility of parole or release from imprisonment on any basis”; and (3) “Life imprisonment with a possibility of parole or release from imprisonment” after 25 years. The reference to parole was plainly wrong. The judge further instructed the jury that its only choice was whether or not to sentence Cruz to death; if the jury did not vote for death, the judge would then choose between the two remaining possible sentences. The jury sentenced Cruz to death.
The majority opinion notes that “it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons ‘did not apply’ in Arizona.”
“The Arizona Supreme Court reached this conclusion despite having repeatedly held that an overruling of precedent is a significant change in the law,” Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.
During oral argument, Justice Elena Kagan had mused that “Kafka would have loved” how Arizona understood the law. Arizona had argued that Lynch didn’t amount to a new rule entitling death penalty petitioners to relief because it was too similar to Simmons. At the same time, Arizona argued that state courts should be allowed to ignore an old rule in already-decided cases like Cruz’s “despite the misapplication of that law by Arizona courts.”
All that Lynch really did, Arizona argued, was change how the law was supposed to be applied – even though the Arizona legal system repeatedly declined to apply the Lynch or Simmons cases to Cruz.
“Lynch overruled binding Arizona precedent,” Sotomayor wrote, explaining the actual impact of the 2016 ruling. “Before Lynch, Arizona courts held that capital defendants were not entitled to inform the jury of their parole ineligibility. After Lynch, Arizona courts recognize that capital defendants have a due process right to provide the jury with that information when future dangerousness is at issue. It is hard to imagine a clearer break from the past.”
The majority opinion goes on to criticize the “novelty” of Arizona’s position that sought to distinguish between new law and the application of existing law. Sotomayor describes this effort as an argument that “disregards the effect of Lynch” on precedent in the Grand Canyon state “to dramatic effect for capital defendants.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote a sharply-worded dissent in which Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch joined.
She opened by claiming the high court is “powerless to revise a state court’s interpretation of its own law” on the basis of the “adequate and independent state grounds doctrine.”
“The Court criticizes the ‘novelty’ of the Arizona Supreme Court’s law versus application-of-law distinction, as it does not appear in any other Arizona precedent,” Barrett wrote. “A point that deserves emphasis at the outset: Novelty does not mean that a rule is inadequate merely because a state court announced it for the first time in the decision under review, and I do not understand the Court to suggest otherwise.”
According to the dissent, the “novelty” issue is a red herring.
“Legal systems based on precedent depend on cases to present novel fact patterns, which enable courts to articulate new principles of law or to clarify old ones with greater precision,” Barrett wrote. “We do a disservice to that mode of legal development when we ‘disregard a state procedural ground that was not in all respects explicit before the case when it was first announced’ — unless, of course, the decision demonstrates ‘a purpose or pattern to evade constitutional guarantees.'”
The dissent goes on to more or less align with Arizona’s position, arguing that “Lynch is not ‘a new rule of constitutional law’ or a ‘newly recognized’ right because it merely applies an old rule, Simmons.” Barrett wrote that Cruz’s claim is simply barred by procedure because Lynch “did not change the law in Arizona.”
Sotomayor dismissed this idea as a distinction without a difference, noting that the Lynch case in 2016 specifically addressed Arizona’s refusal to abide by the law established in 1994 in Simmons.
“These arguments miss the point,” she wrote. “While Lynch did not change this Court’s interpretation of Simmons, it did change the operative (and mistaken) interpretation of Simmons by Arizona courts. Lynch thus changed the law in Arizona in the way that matters for purposes of [criminal procedure in Arizona]: It overruled previously binding Arizona Supreme Court precedent preventing capital defendants from informing the jury of their parole ineligibility.”
Barrett ended the dissent by saying the case, and change in law, is better suited for Arizona’s own judges to deal with.
“The Court makes a case for why the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own precedent is wrong,” the dissent concludes. “If I were on the Arizona Supreme Court, I might agree. But that call is not within our bailiwick. Our job is to determine whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision is defensible, and we owe the utmost deference to the state court in making that judgment. Cases of inadequacy are extremely rare, and this is not one. I respectfully dissent.”
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]