Supreme Court

In Bucklew v. Precythe the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Missouri wasn’t required to execute Russell Bucklew using a drug he claimed would cause him less pain due to his unusual medical condition, cavernous hemangioma.

Bucklew was sentenced to death for killing a neighbor who was sheltering his former girlfriend and her children after she broke up with Bucklew. Cavernous hemangioma causes tumors to grow in Bucklew’s head, neck, and throat. He claims that the sedative Missouri intends to use in its lethal injection protocol will cause him feelings of suffocation and excoriating pain due to his disease for a longer amount of time than the alternative drug he suggests. He claims Missouri’s protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him. 

The Eighth Amendment disallows “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court held in Glossip v. Gross (2015) that a state’s refusal to alter its lethal injection protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.”

The Supreme Court heard oral argument—yet again—in two cases arguing it should adopt a standard for when partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Before argument court watchers were focused on Chief Justice Roberts, but during argument Justice Kavanaugh stole the show.

In 1986 in Davis v. Bandemer six Supreme Court Justices agreed that some amount of partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But the Court has never laid out a test for making the determination.

Most recently, last term, with Justice Kennedy still on the bench, the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The two cases before the Court today came from North Carolina and Maryland favoring Republicans and Democrats, respectively. By almost any measure the gerrymanders were unapologetic and extreme.   

Now that the Court has five solidly conservative members many have speculated that these Justices will rule that partisan gerrymandering claims raise non-justiciable political questions, effectively ending litigation over this question.

The technical legal question the Supreme Court will address in Kahler v. Kansas is whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense. In more colloquial terms, the question is whether states may abolish a defense to criminal liability that mental illness prevented a defendant from knowing his or her actions were wrong. Five state have done so—Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah.

James Kahler was sentenced to death for fatally shooting his wife, her grandmother, and his two daughters. Kahler presented the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist who stated that Kahler was suffering from severe major depression at the time of the crime and that “his capacity to manage his own behavior had been severely degraded so that he couldn't refrain from doing what he did.”

In Apodaca v. Oregon (1972) and Johnson v. Louisiana (1972), five Justices agreed that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in federal criminal cases. Five Justices also agreed that jury verdicts in state criminal cases don’t have to be unanimous. In Ramos v. Louisiana the Supreme Court will consider overruling the latter holding in Apodaca and Johnson. Only Oregon and Louisiana allow non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.

Evangelisto Ramos was convicted 10-2 of second-degree murder based solely on circumstantial evidence and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ramos argues that the Fourteenth Amendment fully the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict against the states.

As Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den illustrates, not all 5-4 Supreme Court cases involve high-profile, controversial issues where the Justices are divided on ideological lines.

In this case the Supreme Court held 5-4 that a treaty forbids the State of Washington from imposing a tax upon members of the Yakama Nation that import fuel.

An 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation reserves to the Yamakas “the right, in common with the citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.” A Washington statute taxes fuel importers who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by ground transportation. Cougar Den is a wholesale fuel importer owned by a Yakama member that transports fuel by truck from Oregon to Yakama-owned gas stations in Washington. Cougar Den argued the treaty preempted the tax.

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