The Supreme Court issued orders on Monday from the justices’ private conference last week. The justices had already granted one case, involving class certification in a securities-fraud case, from that conference on Friday, so it was no surprise that they did not add any new cases to their merits docket for this term. The justices denied review in two high-profile cases, involving LGBTQ rights and a proof-of-citizenship requirement for voting, and issued a summary opinion that vacated a ruling by a federal appeals court in favor of an Arizona death-row inmate.
The summary opinion came in the case of George Kayer, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1994 shooting death of Delbert Haas. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit threw out Kayer’s death sentence, holding that his lawyers’ investigation and presentation of mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase of his trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to have an effective lawyer. The state came to the Supreme Court in the spring, arguing that under the federal laws governing post-conviction proceedings the 9th Circuit should have been more deferential to the state court’s ruling rejecting Kayer’s claim for post-conviction relief.
By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court agreed with Arizona. In an unsigned opinion, the justices explained that, as an initial matter, the standard for showing that a lawyer was constitutionally ineffective in a death-penalty case is a stringent one. But when a state inmate is seeking federal post-conviction relief, they continued, an additional burden is layered on top of that already high bar: The inmate can prevail only if the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” It is not, in other words, enough that the state court’s decision was wrong.
In this case, the justices reasoned, the state court applied the appropriate legal principle, so the only question is whether its conclusion was “unreasonable.” And here the 9th Circuit’s decision, the justices wrote, was “fundamentally inconsistent” with the federal laws governing post-conviction relief. The 9th Circuit, the justices seemed to suggest, worked backwards: It determined that there was a “reasonable probability” that, with a better lawyer, Kayer would not have received a death sentence, and relied on that decision to hold that the state court’s decision was unreasonable in reaching a different outcome.
The court in closing emphasized that “state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state sentences based on federal law.” In this case, the justices observed, the Arizona courts reviewed Kayer’s evidence and determined that his attorney’s poor performance did not affect the outcome of his case. The 9th Circuit “exceeded its authority in rejecting that determination,” the court wrote.
The court’s three more liberal justices – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – dissented from the ruling, but they did not provide a written explanation for their dissent.
In Schwab v. Fish, the justices declined to weigh in on the legality of a Kansas requirement that would-be voters provide proof of U.S. citizenship before registering to vote. The state argued that the requirement, imposed in the state’s constitution, was necessary to prevent noncitizens from registering to vote, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the requirement violates both federal voting laws and the Constitution. Kansas went to the Supreme Court, which denied its petition for review on Friday. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was a judge on the 10th Circuit before joining the Supreme Court, was recused.
The justices also rebuffed a request from Indiana to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Box v. Henderson. The 7th Circuit’s ruling requires the state to allow same-sex spouses to be listed on their children’s birth certificates; that decision will now stand.
The justices did not take action on the dispute over whether President Donald Trump violates the First Amendment when he blocks people from his personal Twitter account because of their views. The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is Jan. 8, 2021.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.