Recent Legal Developments

Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Subject MatterRecent Legal Developments
Recent Legal Developments
Recent Legal Developments:
Criminal Justice Decisions of
the United States Supreme
Court, 2014 Term
Craig Hemmens
and Andrea Walker
In this paper we review and analyze the criminal justice-related decisions of the 2014 term of the
United States Supreme Court. We also provide a summary of the Court’s voting patterns and
opinion authorship. Eighteen of the Court’s 74 decision touched on criminal justice. There were
significant decisions in the areas of search and seizure, the confrontation clause, corrections law, and
the death penalty.
Courts/Law, court, crime policy
During its 2014 term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a total of 74 decisions—66 signed opinions and
8 summary reversals. This continues a trend in the Roberts Court—now in its 10th year—of deciding
fewer cases than past Courts. The number of decisions issued by the Court prior to John Roberts
becoming Chief Justice in 2005 was typically in the 80s. Earlier Courts often had over 100 decisions.
Of 74 decisions during the 2014 term, only 18 (24%) dealt primarily with a criminal justice-related
issue. The number of decision involving criminal justice is the lowest in over two decades. None-
theless, there were several significant cases involving criminal justice-related topics such as search
and seizure, the death penalty, and habeas corpus, as well as the usual assortment of decisions deal-
ing with important, if lower profile, issues such as sentencing and the interpretation of federal
An examination of all of the Court’s decisions reveals some interesting patterns. A plurality (40%
or 29 of the 74) of the Court’s decisions were unanimous, while 14 decisions were either 8-1 or 7-2
majorities. Only 19 (26%) cases were decided by a narrow 5-4 margin. The percentage of unanimous
rulings was down significantly from the 2013 term (65%), while the percentage of 5-4 decisions was
Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Craig Hemmens, Washington State University, 717 Johnson Tower, Pullman, WA 99163, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2015, Vol. 40(4) 535-553
ª2015 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016815603094
up (14%). The number of 5-4 decisions during the 2014 term is more in line with the terms prior to
2013, suggesting the 2013 term was an outlier. That said, a number of the opinions in the 5-4 deci-
sions contained some very harsh language, suggesting there may be more than a mere difference of
opinion afoot in the halls of the Court.
The makeup of cases accepted by the Court was in line with past years. The majority of cases (67
or 89%) were taken from the U.S. Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Courts
in 50 (75%) of the 67 cases. The Ninth Circuit had the most cases reviewed (16) and was reversed 10
times (63%)—actually a better result than the average for all the circuits.
Justice Thomas issued the most opinions overall (37), with 7 majority opinions, 11 concurring
opinions, and 19 dissents. For the fourth year in a row, Justice Kagan produced the fewest total opi-
nions (11), with seven majority opinions, two concurrences, and two dissents. Majority opinion
authorship was divided rather evenly, with every justice writing either seven or eight, except for Jus-
tice Scalia with nine and Justice Kennedy with six. This even distribution of opinions has been a
hallmark of the Roberts Court and speaks to the Chief Justice’s strong management skills.
Justice Thomas (11) and Justice Alito (9) issued the most concurring opinions. Chief Justice
Roberts and Justice Kagan had the fewest (2). There were 44 total concurring opinions written dur-
ing the 2014 term.
Every justice issued at least one dissenting opinion. Justice Thomas authored the most dissents,
with 19, followed by Justice Scalia with 15 and Justice Alito with 13. This suggests the most con-
servative members of the Court were particularly troubled by the result in many cases this term. On
the other side of the ideological spectrum, Justice Ginsburg, perhaps the most liberal justice on the
Court, penned only one dissent and Justice Kagan wrote only two. There were five solo dissents, and
Justice Thomas was responsible for three of them. There were 68 total dissenting opinions written
during the 2014 term.
The lineup of justices in the 5-4 cases was fairly consistent. Justice Kennedy remains a crucial
swing vote on the court, moving between a solid four vote ‘‘conservative’’ bloc consisting of Chief
Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito and a four vote ‘‘liberal’’ bloc of Justices,
Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Kennedy was in the majority in 14 (74%)ofthe
nineteen 5-4 decisions. Justice Scalia was in the majority in only six (32%) of the 5-4 decisions. Of
those six, however, he wrote the majority opinion in three, or half, of the 5-4 decisions in which he
was in the majority. Interestingly, the majority opinion authorship in the 5-4 decisions was quite
evenly distributed, with each justice writing two or three except Justice Kagan, who wrote only one,
and Justice Thomas, who wrote none. This may indicate these two justices tend to enunciate a ratio-
nale for their vote that is farther to the left or right of even those colleagues with whom they agree on
the result.
We present below a summary and analysis of the most significant decisions involving criminal
justice. The cases are divided, somewhat roughly, into categories.
Fourth Amendment/Traffic Stops
Rodriguez v. United States
Shortly after midnight in March 2012, Nebraska police officer Morgan Struble was patrolling when
he witnessed a car swerve onto the shoulder of the road before quickly righting itself and proceeding
back onto the highway. Struble pulled the car over based on a Nebraska state law prohibiting driving
on highway shoulders. Struble is a certified K-9 officer and had a K-9 dog in his patrol car. The occu-
pants of the car were Dennys Rodriguez (the driver and owner of the car) and a passenger, Scott
Pollman. Struble asked Rodriguez why he had veered onto the shoulder, and Rodriquez responded
that he was trying to avoid a pothole. Struble asked Rodriguez for his driver’s license, registration,
536 Criminal Justice Review 40(4)

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