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Belmontes Decision

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The U.S. Supreme Court this morning reinstated the death sentence in the case of Ayers v. Belmontes. The vote was 5-4 along the usual lines. Here is the decision, which was posted with unusual promptness.

The case involves an instruction formerly given to jurors in California capital cases, specifically whether it is broad enough to allow the jury to consider everything the defendant throws against the wall, as required by the Court's dubious decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586, 604 (1978). The Court held that it was broad enough sixteen years ago in Boyde v. California, 494 U. S. 370 (1990). Only by giving Boyde a cramped reading and by splitting hairs on the facts of the case could one find an "error" here. "The Court of Appeals erred by adopting a narrow and,we conclude, an unrealistic interpretation of factor (k)." It is not surprising that the notorious Judge Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit would issue such a ruling or that Judge Paez would join it. It is also not surprising that the Ninth would fail to correct the error en banc, as that court almost never corrects panel errors in favor of capital defendants. It is rather disturbing that four Justices of the Supreme Court would join in such a cramped application of the Court's own precedent.

4 Comments

Gotta love Scalia's and Thomas' concurrence.

I wonder how much Ayers will impact the 2 Texas habeas decisions now in front of the Court. Johnson seems to be on Kennedy's mind too.

The dissent seems to have missed the fact that the Boyde decision, whatever its flaws, has left the station. Stevens' attempt to thread the needle (i.e., argue that Boyde is still good law, but does not control here) seems forced.

Paez' record on habeas cases is pretty bad--he's had a unanimous reversal and a per curiam reversal by published opinion.

The Court has been very attentive to the issues regarding the factor (k) instruction--three opinions on this one unique issue--Boyde, Payton, and now Belmontes.

I only wish that it would be as attentive to our ongoing issues regarding procedural default.

Indeed, the Ninth's expansion of "inadequate" state grounds beyond recognition is a real travesty. I wrote an amicus brief in support of a certiorari petition in one such case 10 years ago. The petitioner was Michael Angelo Morales.

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