Capitol Comments

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.”

In December 2018 a federal district court declared the Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate unconstitutional. It also declared the remaining provisions of the act “inseverable,” meaning also invalid. The court didn’t issue a nationwide injunction which would have had the effect of immediately ceasing all aspects of law.

In the district court litigation the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t defend the individual mandate. But it did argue that other provisions of the ACA, excluding the guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements, which were intended to provide affordable health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, were severable. Now DOJ has informed the Fifth Circuit that it has changed course and agrees with the lower court that the entire ACA was properly invalidated.

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.

All the Supreme Court Justices, even those not living in the D.C. area at the time, will remember the D.C. Snipers. Malvo’s case before the High Court is complicated.

In Miller v. Alabama (2014) the Supreme Court held that juvenile offenders convicted of homicide can’t receive a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Instead the sentencing court must take into account how children are different from adults and only sentence the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” to life imprisonment without parole. In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) the Supreme Court held that Miller’s rule applies retroactively to juveniles convicted and sentenced before Miller was decided.  

The question in Malvo v. Mathena is whether Lee Boyd Malvo may have his sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, issued before Miller, reconsidered under Miller even though they weren’t mandatory.

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.”

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