The Supreme Court on Tuesday invalidated a lower-court ruling in a Pennsylvania election dispute that the losing candidate conceded three and a half months ago. When the dispute was before the justices earlier this year, Justice Samuel Alito had suggested that the lower court’s ruling on ballot counting “broke new ground” and could affect the outcome of the state’s upcoming general elections. The decision in Ritter v. Migliori came on a list of orders from the justices’ private conference last Friday, which did not add any new cases to the court’s docket for the 2022-23 term.
Tuesday’s brief order granted a request by David Ritter, a candidate in a 2021 race for a judgeship in a local Pennsylvania court. Ritter had previously asked the court to temporarily block a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which had allowed the local election board to count mail-in ballots that did not comply with a state law requiring voters to write the date on the ballot’s envelope. The court of appeals agreed with a group of voters that the state law violated a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act that bars states from denying the right to vote based on an error or omission that is not “material” to the voter’s qualifications.
Three justices dissented from the court’s decision in June of this year to leave the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in place, allowing the county to count the undated ballots. In an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, Alito wrote that the 3rd Circuit’s opinion was “likely wrong,” and he would have fast-tracked the case so that the justices could hear oral argument and decide the dispute before the November 2022 elections.
After the undated ballots were counted, Ritter – who had held a 71-vote lead over his opponent, Zachary Cohen – found himself five votes behind Cohen. On June 21, Ritter conceded the race. But he returned to the Supreme Court in July, asking the justices to vacate the 3rd Circuit’s ruling so that it does not bind future courts.
In a one-paragraph ruling, the justices set aside the 3rd Circuit’s decision and sent the case back to the lower court with instructions to dismiss the dispute as moot – that is, no longer a live controversy. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson indicated that they would have denied Ritter’s request and left the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in place.
Also on Tuesday, the justices declined to take up the case of Andre Thomas, a Black man who was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the 2004 murders of his estranged wife, who was white, their son, and her daughter. Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, attempted to kill himself at the crime scene by stabbing himself in the chest; while in jail a few days later, he gouged out his eye.
Before his trial, three prospective jurors indicated that they opposed interracial marriages, but Thomas’ attorney did not seek to strike those jurors from the jury pool. Thomas came to the court last September, asking the justices to rule that the seating of those three jurors on the jury violated his constitutional right to an impartial jury and his right to the effective assistance of counsel.
Tuesday’s order list denied Thomas’ request without explanation. Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, in a 14-page opinion joined by Jackson and Justice Elena Kagan. In her view, the case was a straightforward one: “Thomas’ conviction and death sentence clearly violate the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel” – so much so that she would have reversed the contrary decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit without additional briefing or oral argument.
Thomas’ case, Sotomayor explained, “involves a heinous crime apparently committed by someone who suffered severe psychological trauma.” But regardless of Thomas’ mental health issues, Sotomayor continued, “[n]o jury deciding whether to recommend a death sentence should be tainted by potential racial biases that could infect its deliberations or decision, particularly where the case involved an interracial crime.” And it is the job of the courts, Sotomayor concluded, “vigilantly to safeguard the fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that jurors do not harbor, or at the very least could put aside, racially biased sentiments.”
The court also asked the federal government for its views in a bankruptcy case, Wells v. McAllister. The question in the case is whether a “homestead exemption,” which shields a debtor’s home from creditors, can disappear if the debtor sells his home while bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing and the debtor does not reinvest the proceeds in another home. There is no deadline for the federal government to submit its views.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.