Published on: Tuesday, March 7, 2017

In a disappointing decision, the Supreme Court held yesterday in Beckles v. United States (No. 15-8544) that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause and that USSG § 4B1.2’s residual clause is not void for vagueness. The majority reasoned that the advisory Guidelines do not “fix the permissible sentences” for the defendant, but “merely guide the exercise of the court’s discretion.” Accordingly, the advisory guidelines do not “implicate the twin concerns underlying vagueness doctrine” – notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement.

Justice Sotomayor expressly noted, in concurrence, that Beckles was limited to the advisory Guidelines only, leaving open the possibility that those sentenced under mandatory Guidelines may raise vagueness challenges to their sentences.

In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado (No. 15-606), a Colorado jury convicted Pena-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Following the discharge of the jury, two jurors told the defense attorney that, during deliberations, a third juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias towards Pena-Rodriguez and his alibi witness. The state trial court acknowledged the apparent bias but denied a motion for a new trial on the ground that a state rule of evidence generally prohibited a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed, relying upon Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107 (1987), and Warger v. Shauers, 574 U.S. ___ (2014), both of which rejected constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment rule as applied to evidence of juror misconduct or bias. 

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that where a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied upon racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee. The Court stated that racial bias, unlike the behavior in Tanner and Warger, implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed – including in some instances after a jury verdict – is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.  

For an analysis of the opinion, see this SCOTUSblog post.

In Rippo v. Baker (No. 16-6316), a Nevada jury convicted Rippo of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. During the trial, Rippo received information that the judge was the target of a federal bribery trial, and he surmised that the prosecutor’s office was playing a role in that investigation. Rippo moved for the judge’s disqualification under the Due Process Clause, contending that a judge could not impartially adjudicate a case in which one of the parties was criminally investigating him. In a later application for state postconviction relief, Rippo attached documents indicating that the prosecutor’s office had participated in the investigation of the trial judge. The state postconviction court denied relief and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. The Nevada Supreme Court reasoned that Rippo was not entitled to discovery or an evidentiary hearing because his allegation did not support the assertion that the trial judge was actually biased in this case.

The Supreme Court, per curiam, vacated the Nevada Supreme Court’s judgment because it applied a wrong legal standard. Citing to its precedents, the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge has no actual bias. Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, “the probability of actual bias is too high to be constitutionally tolerable . . . The Court asks not whether a judge harbors an actual subjective bias, but instead whether, as an objective matter, the average judge in his position is likely to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional potential for bias.”