How Will the Addition of Justice Gorsuch Impact Future Capital Punishment Cases?
A review of decisions by United Stated Supreme Court addressing capital punishment over the past fifteen years shows a definite trend. The Court is increasingly becoming more restrictive of States’ application of the death penalty. Some of the more significant cases by year are as follows:
2002 Ring v. Arizona
Holding: It is a violation of the Sixth Amendment for the judge rather than the jury to find the aggravating factors necessary to impose the death penalty.
2002 Atkins v. Virginia
Holding: Executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. (overruling Penry v. Lynaugh, decided in 1989)
2005 Roper v. Simmons
Holding: It is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on people who were under the age of eighteen at the time their omitted their crimes. (overruling Stanford v. Kentucky, decided in 1989)
2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana
Holding: Imposing the death penalty for people convicted of the rape of a child, but not murder, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
2014 Hall v. Florida
Holding: In deciding whether a person has an intellectual disability that makes them ineligible for the death penalty, the State may not use (only) a bright-line IQ threshold requirement.
2016 Hurst v. Florida
Holding: The Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find the aggravating factor necessary to impose the death penalty. This holding is remarkably similar to the holding in Ring v. Arizona, but this decision addressed a specific Florida statute under which the jury made recommendations to the trial judge who then decided the facts.
Of these six opinions, Justice Kennedy authored the decisions in Roper v. Simmons, Kennedy v. Louisiana and Hall v. Florida, and was in the majority for all of them. Not all of the high court’s decisions concerning capital punishment in that time period were pro-defendant. Several other decisions dealt with more procedural-type issues. But these landmark decisions show that the death penalty is, in fact, becoming more restrictive over time. With the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch, the question is: will this trend continue, or will we see a trend in the opposite direction?