The Supreme Court Deals a Blow to Criminal Defendants and Strengthens Judicial Politics by Refusing to Hear Woodward v. Alabama

The Supreme Court Deals a Blow to Criminal Defendants and Strengthens Judicial Politics by Refusing to Hear Woodward v. Alabama

Brian Padgett

On November 18, 2013, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Woodward v. Alabama. Such a refusal is not unprecedented – the Supreme Court receives applications to hear thousands of cases per year, and generally only approves about two hundred of them.[1] What was unusual is that two justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Stephen Breyer published a dissenting opinion for the denial of review.

Woodward’s appeal had to do with the use of judicial overrides in death penalty cases.[2] In death penalty cases, the guilt phase is separated from the penalty phase. In the penalty phase of the trial, the government presents arguments before a jury as to why the defendant should receive the death penalty. In legal language, the government presents aggravating circumstances to the jury. In response, the defense generally presents mitigating circumstances to the jury. The role of the jury is to weigh the mitigating and aggravating circumstances, and to make a recommendation to the judge as to whether the defendant should be placed on death row. The Alabama statute at issue, 13A-5-47(e), allows the judge to override the jury’s recommendation. In other words, the jury’s conclusion as to whether the death penalty is appropriate is not binding, and the judge can impose capital punishment if the judge finds the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances. If the judge chooses to do so, they must file an “Override Report.” However, this Report does not have to include the specific reasons as to why the judge overrode the jury’s recommendation.[3]

The dissent by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer focus on whether this practice is appropriate in light of recent Supreme Court precedent. In Alleyne v. United States, the Supreme Court found that any fact that could increase the jail time of a defendant under the federal Sentencing Guidelines must be found by a jury, not a judge. If a judge alone finds such a fact, the defendant’s Eighth Amendment[4] rights have been violated. As a result, although the Supreme Court explicitly approved Alabama’s use of judicial overrides almost twenty years earlier[5], the time was right for the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue.

One reason that reviewing Alabama’s statute is important, the justices argued, is that even though other states allow for judicial overrides, Alabama judges are virtually alone in actually doing so. Since the year 2000, there have been twenty-seven judicial overrides imposing capital punishment over a jury’s recommendation.[6] Twenty-six of these overrides were in Alabama.[7]

The Justices went on to examine why Alabama was such an “outlier,” and came to the conclusion that judicial overrides were driven by local politics. In Alabama, unlike the other two states that allow for judicial overrides, criminal judges are selected by local election. The Justices cited statistical analyses that proved with some precision that the only statistically significant difference between Alabama judges, Delaware judges, and Florida judges is that Alabama judges are elected. To support their argument that judges may feel compelled to appear “tough on crime,” the Justices quoted local news stories stating that voter reaction to sentencing opinions “has some impact.”[8]

Whether one agrees with the Justices’ view that local politics have to do with the likelihood of whether an Alabama judge will override a jury’s sentencing recommendation, one thing is clear. The Supreme Court’s refusal to review Alabama’s judicial override statute means it will remain in effect, for at least several years. It is thus likely that dozens of criminal defendants, who otherwise would have received life without the possibility of parole will be sentenced to death. Not by a jury of their peers, in accordance with the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, but by a judge, who may be more concerned with scoring re-election points than examining whether a particular defendant truly deserves to be sentenced to death.


[2]According to Justice Sotomayor, three states allow such a practice: Alabama, Delaware, and Florida. Woodward v. Alabama, No. 13-5380, 2013 WL 6050109 (Nov. 18, 2013), at *1.

[3]Id. at *3.

[4]Among other things, the Eighth Amendment protects criminal defendants against cruel and unusual punishment. Alleyne found that a judge – instead of a jury – finding a fact that increased a defendant’s jail time constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

[5]Harris v. Alabama, 513 U.S. 504 (1995).

[6]Woodward, supra note 1, at *3.


[8]Id. The Justices also cited former Justice Stevens’ dissent in Harris that Alabama judges “ben[d] to political pressure when pronouncing sentence in highly publicized capital cases.” (emphasis added).


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