U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Seven Florida Cases, Highlighting Deep Rift Among the Justices

On November 13, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review seven death-penalty cases in which Florida courts had upheld death sentences imposed with unconstitutional sentencing procedures. The Court’s decision not to hear the seven Florida cases prompted opinions from three justices that highlight the deep substantive and procedural divide in the Court’s approach to capital cases.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury because the judge, rather than the jury, was given the authority to find all facts that could subject the defendant to a possible death sentence. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently limited enforcement of that decision to cases in which juries did not reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation and prisoners whose initial appeals were decided after the U.S. Supreme Court decided a related case, Ring v. Arizona, in June 2002. The Florida courts have upheld every death sentence in which a jury unanimously recommended the death penalty, saying that any violations of Hurst in those cases were “harmless.” The U.S. Supreme Court has now refused to review 84 Florida cases in which death sentences were imposed under procedures that violated Hurst.

In Reynolds v. Florida, Justices Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor clashed about the denial of review to prisoners who challenged the Florida Supreme Court practice of finding Hurst error harmless. In a “statement respecting the denial of certiorari,” Justice Breyer highlighted issues present in the 84 Florida cases that underscore the Court’s need to review the constitutionality of capital punishment as a whole: “unconscionably long delays that capital defendants must endure as they await execution,” the question of whether Hurst should be applied to all Florida cases, and “whether the Eighth Amendment requires a jury rather than a judge to make the ultimate decision to sentence a defendant to death.” Ultimately, he concluded, “[r]ather than attempting to address the flaws in piecemeal fashion, … it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem — the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.” Justice Thomas sharply disagreed. In an opinion concurring with the denial of certiorari, he focused heavily on the gruesome circumstances of the murders for which the prisoners had been sentenced to die and said that the delays in the system are “a reason to carry out the death penalty sooner, not to decline to impose it.”

Justice Sotomayor dissented from the denial of certiorari. Voicing her concerns about the fairness of the sentencing process, she wrote, “it is this Court’s duty to ensure that all defendants, even those who have committed the most heinous crimes, receive a sentence that is the result of a fair process.” Contrary to the Court’s requirement that death-penalty juries “view their task as the serious one of determining whether a specific human being should die at the hands of the State,” Sotomayor wrote, the jurors in the Florida cases “were repeatedly instructed that their role was merely advisory.” The Florida Supreme Court's treatment of those advisory recommendations as legally binding, she wrote, "raises substantial Eighth Amendment concerns."

In addition to Michael Gordon Reynolds, the Court denied review to death-row prisoners Jesse Guardado; Lenard James Philmore; Michael Anthony Tanzi; Quawn M. Franklin; Norman Mearle Grim; and Ray Lamar Johnston.

(Barbara Leonard, Florida Death-Penalty Cases Trigger Diverging High Court Opinions, Courthouse News Service, November 13, 2018; Jordan S. Rubin, Death Penalty Denials Highlight Supreme Court Splits, Bloomberg News, November 13, 2018; In Rejecting Florida Appeals, US Supreme Court Justices Debate Future Of Death Penalty, CBS Miami, November 13, 2018.) See U.S. Supreme Court and Sentencing.