Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Elected appellate judges less likely to reverse death penalty verdicts

Justices chosen by voters reverse death penalties at less than half the rate of those who are appointed, a Reuters analysis finds, suggesting that politics play a part in appeals. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether to take up the issue in the case of a Ohio cop killer, according to an investigation Reuters.
Ohio is one of the states where high court judges are directly elected – and that makes a big difference in death penalty appeals.
A review of 2,102 state supreme court rulings on death penalty appeals from the 37 states that heard such cases over the past 15 years found a strong correlation between the results in those cases and the way each state chooses its justices. In the 15 states where high court judges are directly elected, justices rejected the death sentence in 11 percent of appeals, less than half the 26 percent reversal rate in the seven states where justices are appointed.
Justices who are initially appointed but then must appear on the ballot in “retention” elections fell in the middle, reversing 15 percent of death penalty decisions in those 15 states, according to opinions retrieved from online legal research service Westlaw, a unit of Thomson Reuters.
Some academic studies over the past 20 years have mirrored the Reuters analysis, showing a relationship between the result in death penalty appeals and how state supreme courts are selected. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed these findings in its rulings.
Now, however, at least three current justices are sympathetic to the idea that political pressure on judges is a factor that leads to arbitrary, and perhaps unconstitutional, application of the death penalty.
The findings, several legal experts said, support the argument that the death penalty is arbitrary and unconstitutional because politics – in addition to the facts – influence the outcome of an appeal.
Courts have a responsibility to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights without political pressure, especially when the person’s life is at stake, said Stephen Bright, a Yale Law School lecturer who has worked on hundreds of death defenses. “It’s the difference between the rule of law and the rule of the mob,” Bright said.
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