Recent Legal Developments

Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Recent Legal Developments:
Criminal Justice Decisions of
the U.S. Supreme Court,
2016 Term
Craig Hemmens
and Wesley McCann
In this article, we review and analyze the criminal justice–related decisions of the 2016 term of the
U.S. Supreme Court. We also provide a summary of the Court’s voting patterns and opine
authorship. Twenty-two of the Court’s 69 opinions touched on criminal justice. There were sig-
nificant decisions involving the Fourth Amendment, the death penalty, and sentencing.
courts/law, court innovations, courts/law, legal issues, courts/law
During its 2016 term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a total of 69 decisions on the merits including
62 signed opinions and seven summary reversals. Of the 62 merits opinions issued, 22 (37%) dealt
primarily with a criminal justice–related issue. A number of these decisions dealt with important, if
lower profile, issues such as sentencing and the interpretation of federal statutes. A few, however,
dealt with important and controversial issues including police liability, habeas corpus, and the death
penalty. The most memorable event of the term, however, was undoubtedly the appointment of Neil
Gorsuch to fill the seat vacated when Justice Scalia died in early 2016.
An examination of all of the Court’s decis ions reveals some interesting patter ns. Fifty nine
percent (41 of the 69) of the Court’s decisions were unanimous, while 18 decisions had either 8-
1 or 7-2 majorities. Eighty six percent (59 of the 69) decisions were decided by a vote of at least 7-2.
Only three cases were decided by a 6-3 margin and seven cases were decided by a 5-4 margin. The
paucity of 5-4 decisions may be in part explained by the fact that Justice Gorsuch did not take his
seat on the Court until April 2017, toward the end of the term. As has been the case in previous terms,
Justice Kennedy was the justice most frequently in the majority in these decisions; this year, he was
in the majority in six of the seven 5-4 decisions and wrote the majority opinion in three of these
cases. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were in the majority in only two of the seven 5-4
decisions; it is rather unusual for a chief justice to be so frequently on the losing side in close cases,
Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Craig Hemmens, Washington State University, 717 Johnson Tower, Pullman, WA 99163, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(2) 202-215
ª2018 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818760967

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