Recent Legal Developments

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Subject MatterRecent Legal Developments
Recent Legal Developments
Recent Legal Developments:
Criminal Justice Decisions of
the U.S. Supreme Court,
2013 Term
Craig Hemmens
and Michael Klein
During its 2013 term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a total of 72 decisions—67 signed opinions and
5 summary reversals. Of these, only 17 (24%) dealt primarily with a criminal justice–related issue.
The number of decisions involving criminal justice is the lowest in over two decades. Nonetheless,
there were several significant cases involving criminal justice–related topics such as search and sei-
zure, the death penalty, and habeas corpus, as well as the usual assortment of decisions dealing with
important, if lower profile, issues such as sentencing and statutory interpretation.
An examination of all the Court’s decisions reveals some interesting patterns. A strong majority
(65%or 47 of 72) of the Court’s decisions were unanimous, while nine decisions were either 8-1 or
7-2 majorities. Only 10 cases (14%) were decided by a narrow 5-4 margin. This is the lowest number
of 5-4 decisions during the term of the Roberts court and is a significant departure from recent years,
when the percentage of 5-4 decision has been at or above 20%. As the membership of the Court has
not changed for several years, it seems likely this dip in the number of 5-4 decisions is an anomaly,
but only time will tell.
The makeup of cases accepted by the Court was in line with past years. The vast majority of cases
(63 or 88%) were taken from the U.S. Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the Circuit
Courts in 53 of the 72 cases (74%). The Sixth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit each had 11 cases con-
sidered, and both fared poorly, with the Sixth Circuit being reversed 9 times and the Ninth Circuit
being reversed 10 times. Were one so inclined, it appears that a fairly safe wager would be on the
Court to reverse a decision of the Courts of Appeal, and an almost certain bet would be against the
Ninth Circuit, which has fared very badly in recent years in the Supreme Court.
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,
Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Craig Hemmens, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99163, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2014, Vol. 39(4) 466-479
ª2014 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016814552101

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