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Divided courtroom reinstates Arizona inmate’s dying sentence

Posted on Monday December 14th, 2020 at 12:56 PM by Amy Howe

The Supreme Court issued orders on Monday from the judges’ private conference last week. The judges had already approved a case from that conference on Friday that included a class certification in a securities fraud case. It was therefore not surprising that they had not added any new cases to their merit records for this term. The judges denied review in two high profile cases involving LGBTQ rights and proof of citizenship for voting and issued a summary statement overturning a federal appeals court ruling in favor of an Arizona death row inmate.

The summary statement came in the case of George Kayer, who was sentenced to death for the shot death of Delbert Haas in 1994. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Kayer’s death sentence, finding that investigating his attorneys and presenting mitigating evidence during the verdict of his trial violated his right to an effective attorney. The state came before the Supreme Court in the spring, arguing that under federal post-conviction laws, the 9th Circuit should be more opposed to the state court’s decision to deny Kayer’s request for post-conviction relief.

With a vote of 6-3, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed. In an unsigned statement, the judges stated that the standard for proving that a lawyer was unconstitutional in a death penalty case was initially strict. However, if a state inmate requests relief from the federal government after the conviction, an additional burden is placed on the already high bar: the inmate can only assert himself if the decision of the state court “against an inappropriate application of or against an inappropriate application of” is clear established federal law as established by the Supreme Court. “In other words, it is not enough that the state court’s decision was wrong.

In this case, the judges said, the state court applied the relevant rule of law, so the only question is whether its conclusion was “unreasonable”. And here the decision of the 9th district, according to the judges, was “fundamentally incompatible” with the federal laws that regulate relief after the conviction. The 9th circuit, the judges seemed to suggest, worked backwards: It determined that there was a “reasonable probability” that Kayer would not have received a death sentence with a better lawyer, and relied on this decision, that of the state court represented The decision was inappropriate to reach any other conclusion.

The court concluded by stressing that “the state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state penalties on the basis of federal law”. In this case, the judges said, the Arizona courts reviewed Kayer’s evidence and found that his attorney’s poor performance did not affect the outcome of his case. The 9th Circuit “has exceeded its authority in rejecting this decision,” the court wrote.

The court’s three more liberal justices – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – contradicted the verdict but did not provide a written explanation of their objection.

In Schwab v. Fish, judges declined to weigh up the legitimacy of a Kansas requirement that prospective voters provide proof of US citizenship prior to registering for the vote. The state argued that the requirement imposed in the state constitution was necessary to prevent non-citizens from registering to vote, but the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the requirement was against both federal electoral law and violates the constitution. Kansas went to the Supreme Court, which on Friday denied his petition for review. Judge Neil Gorsuch, who served as a 10th Circle Judge prior to joining the Supreme Court, has been dismissed.

The judges also denied a motion from Indiana to review a U.S. Court of Appeal decision on the 7th Circuit in Box against Henderson. According to the 7th district judgment, the state must allow same-sex spouses to be listed on their children’s birth certificates. That decision will now stand.

The judges took no action in the dispute over whether President Donald Trump violated the First Amendment to the Constitution when he banned people from his personal Twitter account based on their views. The next regular conference of judges will take place on January 8, 2021.

This post was originally published on Howe on the Court.

Posted in Shinn v. Kayer, Schwab v. Fish, Box v. Henderson, Featured, cases in the pipeline

Recommended citation:
Amy Howe, Split Court, Restores Arizona Inmate’s Death Sentence,
SCOTUSblog (December 14, 2020, 12:56 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/12/divided-court-reinstates-arizona-inmates-death-sentence/

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