The 2019-2020 Term A Review of Significant Supreme Court Decisions, 0121 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, January 2021, #38

AuthorBy John S. Nichols
PositionVol. 24 Issue 4 Pg. 38

The 2019-2020 Term A Review of Significant Supreme Court Decisions

Vol. 24 Issue 4 Pg. 38

South Carolina BAR Journal

January, 2021

By John S. Nichols

The 2019-2020 term of the Supreme Court of the United States was one of the most eventful in decades, but for reasons unrelated to decisions. The Court was at full strength for the duration of the term with the addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh but fled less opinions than in recent years. The Court agreed to hear 74 cases during the term and began hearing arguments on October 7, 2019. On March 12, 2020, in response to the corona-virus pandemic, the Court announced that it was closing to the public indefinitely "out of concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees." The Court postponed 12 cases to the 2020-2021 term. Sharp v. Murphy, however, did not get scheduled while the Court dismissed Walker v. U.S. after the petitioner died.

On April 13, 2020, the Court announced it would hear oral arguments by telephone conference in a number of cases the Court previously postponed from the March and April terms. The delays were "in keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19." For the first time, the general public was able to listen to a live argument as it occurred without having to be in the courtroom.

Although the Court usually releases the majority of its decisions in mid to late June, the Court released opinions into July for the first time since 1996 due to the pandemic-related delays. The Court issued only 63 decisions this term as compared with an average of 76 decisions per term over the previous 12 years.

On September 18, 2020, the Court experienced the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barely six weeks later the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to fill the vacancy.

This article highlights some of the significant cases from the 2019-2020 term.

Criminal cases

The Court decided four death penalty matters.

In Kansas, a criminal defendant can invoke mental illness to show that he lacked the requisite mens rea (intent) for a crime and can also raise mental illness after conviction to justify either a reduced term of imprisonment or commitment to a mental health facility. But Kansas, unlike many states, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong (the rule under M'Naghten's Case, 10 Cl. & Fin. 200, 8 Eng. Rep. 718 (H. L. 1843)). The issue in Kahler v. Kansas, 589 U.S. ___ (2020) was whether the Constitution's Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so—otherwise said, whether that Clause compels the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing his crime. The Court held that the Clause imposes no such requirement.

In Andrus v. Texas, 590 U.S. ___ (2020), the Court reversed and remanded the denial of habeas relief in a death penalty case. The Court held the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals failed to analyze prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The habeas record reveals that Andrus' counsel fell far short of his obligation in multiple ways. First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel's failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfred by bolstering the State's aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State's aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in aggravation. Taken together, those defciencies effected an unconstitutional abnegation of prevailing professional norms. The Court concluded "counsel performed virtually no investigation, either of the few witnesses he called during the case in mitigation, or of the many circumstances in Andrus' life that could have served as powerful mitigating evidence. The un- t apped body of mitigating evidence was, as the habeas hearing revealed, simply vast." In McKinney v. Arizona, 589 U.S. ____ (2020), the Ninth Circuit decided by a 6 to 5 vote that, in sentencing McKinney, the Arizona courts had failed to properly consider McKinney's PTSD and had thereby run afoul of Eddings...

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