Court declines to hear death-row inmate’s claim of juror’s racial bias, prompting dissent from liberal justices

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The Supreme Court on Monday morning issued orders from the justices’ private conference last Thursday. The justices did not add any new cases to their docket, and over the dissent of the three liberals, the court denied review in the case of a death-row inmate who argued that he was deprived of his right to a fair trial because one of his jurors expressed racist views. The justices also called for the views of the U.S. solicitor general in two cases.

The justices refused to hear the case of Kristopher Love, a Black man who was sentenced to death in Texas for his role in the 2015 murder-for-hire of Dr. Kendra Hatcher. At Love’s trial, his attorney unsuccessfully sought to have a potential juror, Zachary Niesman, excluded from the jury because he was racially biased: Niesman had contended during jury selection that “non-white races” were statistically more violent than whites. Love came to the Supreme Court last summer, asking the justices to decide whether allowing Niesman to sit on the jury even after Love’s attorney had challenged him violated Love’s constitutional rights. After considering the case at 10 consecutive conferences, the justices on Monday denied review.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in a seven-page opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Stressing that “[r]acial bias is ‘odious in all respects,’ but ‘especially pernicious in the administration of justice,’” she wrote that she would have invalidated the ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – the state’s highest court for criminal cases – and sent the case back for “proper consideration.” The state court, Sotomayor observed, never addressed Love’s contention that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to an impartial jury. Instead, Sotomayor explained, the state court ruled that even if the trial judge was wrong to allow Niesman to be seated on the jury, Love could not show that he was harmed by that mistake because the judge had given his lawyer two extra peremptory challenges – which he had already used by the time Niesman was called. But that, Sotomayor concluded, “is an inherently contradictory determination. If the juror were indeed biased, then because he sat on the jury, Love’s conviction and sentence ‘would have to be overturned.’”

Sotomayor closed by noting that one of the most important ways to remove racial bias from the jury system is the questioning of potential jurors. Although that was done in Love’s case, she noted, it doesn’t help “if courts do not even consider claims of racial bias that litigants bring forward. The task of reviewing the record to determine whether a juror was fair and impartial is challenging,” she wrote, “but it must be undertaken, especially when a person’s life is on the line.”

The justices called for the views of the U.S. solicitor general in two cases: Amgen v. Sanofi, a case arising from Amgen’s efforts to patent antibodies that dramatically lower cholesterol levels; and Republic of Turkey v. Usoyan, a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act case arising from a 2017 clash between protesters and Turkish security forces outside the Washington, D.C., residence of the Turkish ambassador.

The justices cleared from their docket two challenges to the Trump administration’s approval of Medicaid work requirements because the policy is no longer in effect and the cases, therefore, no longer present live disputes. The justices had agreed in December 2020 to review the legality of Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and New Hampshire, and they set the cases for oral argument in March 2021, but they took the cases off their argument calendar after the Biden administration notified them in February 2021 that it planned to scrap the policy. New Hampshire did not challenge the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw approval for the work requirements, and the original approval of the Arkansas work-requirement project has now expired. In the wake of those developments, the Biden administration urged the court to send one case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit with instructions to tell the trial court to vacate its judgment and dismiss it as moot, and to send the other back to the Department of Health and Human Services – both of which the justices did on Monday.

The justices also denied review on Monday in New York v. Yellen, a challenge to a 2017 federal tax law that limits deductions from federal taxable income for state and local property and income taxes to $10,000. A group of states from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, led by New York, asked the Supreme Court to step in, arguing that the law violates the Constitution because it interferes with the states’ sovereign tax power by coercing them to change their tax policies. The deduction, the states contended, was based on the idea that the federal government shouldn’t interfere with states’ power to impose taxes to fund schools and infrastructure, while the 2017 law was intended at least in part to try to get states to lower their tax rates. The justices turned the states down without comment on Monday.

The justices will meet again for another private conference on Friday, April 22, with orders from that conference expected on Monday, April 25, at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.



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