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Criminals in the Court: SCOTUS Takes on More Appeals

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 23, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Affordable Care Act circus rolls into First Street next week, and it seems to be the only Supreme Court topic anyone want to discuss right now.

Except for us. We want to discuss other things. Like the attention the Nine have been giving to the rights of the accused this week.

First, let's talk about the three criminal cases argued before the Court this week.

On Tuesday, the Court heard two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. Both cases addressed the same question: Is it cruel and unusual punishment to impose a life without parole sentence on a 14-year-old convicted of murder? In both cases, the justices seemed hesitant to impose a bright line rule due to uncertainty of where the line should be drawn.

During arguments, Justice Scalia asked, "Once you depart from the principle that we've enunciated that (the) death (penalty) is different, why is life without parole categorically different from 60 years or 70 years? You'd be back here next term (challenging) a 60-year sentence," reports CNN.

On Wednesday, the Court questioned what constitutes a harmless error in Vasquez v. United States. While both the defendant's attorney and the government agreed that a court's harmless error determination is shaped by whether or not a jury would have reached the same conclusion without the error, Vasquez's attorney suggested that appellate courts should "focus first on the nature of the error itself, and not to merely view the rest of the record as if the error had not occurred," reports SCOTUSblog. The justices, however, did not seem persuaded.

Looking toward next term, the Court also granted certiorari in two new criminal competency cases this week.

In the first case, Tibbals v. Carter, the Court will consider a Sixth Circuit decision postponing convicted murderer Sean Carter's appeals until he is competent to participate in the proceedings. Prosecutors are opposed to indefinite postponement of appeals pending competency, warning that prisoners could easily exploit the rule to evade the death penalty.

In the second case, Ryan v. Gonzales, the Court will decide whether a federal law that provides for the appointment of counsel to represent indigent death row inmates in habeas appeals also allows the defendants to stay habeas proceedings until competent to participate in the proceedings.

Both the 2011 and 2012 terms include a number of cases involving rights of the accused. The question remains: Will the Supreme Court find additional protections for the accused, or maintain the status quo?

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