WASHINGTON, DC — March 24, 2021 — Nearly eight years after two homemade bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others, the Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would review the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death for his role in the 2013 bombings. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit threw out his death sentences last year, ruling that the district court should have asked potential jurors what media coverage they had seen about Tsarnaev’s case and that the district court should not have excluded from the sentencing phase evidence that Tsarnaev’s older brother, who placed one of the bombs, was involved in a separate triple murder. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case came on a list of orders from the justices’ private conference on March 19.
The Department of Justice went to the Supreme Court last October, asking the justices to review the 1st Circuit’s ruling. Although the briefing in the case was complete by late December, with the DOJ having expressly tried to ensure that the case could be briefed and argued during the 2020-21 term, the justices considered the case at seven consecutive conferences before finally granting the DOJ’s petition on Monday. During that time, the Trump administration was succeeded by the administration of President Joe Biden, who is reportedly considering an end to the federal death penalty.
The Supreme Court on Monday also granted review in a second case: Servotronics v. Rolls-Royce PLC. Federal law gives district courts the discretion to order someone who is in that district to give testimony or produce documents “for use in a foreign or international tribunal.” In Servotronics, the justices will decide whether that discretion extends to discovery for use in a private foreign arbitration. The question comes to the court in a dispute over payment for losses that resulted when an aircraft engine manufactured by Rolls-Royce caught fire after a piece of metal became lodged in a valve made by Servotronics. An agreement between Rolls-Royce and Servotronics required disputes between them to be resolved by arbitration in England; Servotronics then sought documents from Boeing, which made the aircraft on which the engine was used, in Illinois. Rolls-Royce and Boeing sought to block the subpoena, arguing that federal law does not allow a district court to order discovery for use in a private foreign arbitration, and the lower courts agreed. Servotronics then went to the Supreme Court, which agreed on Monday to take up the case. Justice Samuel Alito, who has disclosed owning Boeing stock, was recused.
Both of Monday’s granted cases will be scheduled for oral argument in the fall, with a decision likely sometime next year. The justices once again did not act on a high-profile petition from the state of Mississippi asking the court to review the constitutionality of a state law that bans virtually all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts struck down the law.
Several notable petitions denied
The justices declined to review Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Raimondo, a challenge to President Barack Obama’s designation of 5,000 square miles of ocean – the size of Connecticut – southeast of Cape Cod as a national monument. Obama relied on the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president to declare national monuments on “land owned or controlled by the federal government.” The designation resulted in a ban on most commercial fishing, prompting a group of commercial-fishing associations to go to court, where they argued that the designation as a monument went beyond Obama’s power under the Antiquities Act because submerged land in the ocean is not land “controlled” by the federal government. The boundaries of the monument are also larger than necessary to protect the underwater canyons, underwater mountains and natural resources that the monument is intended to safeguard, the groups contended. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected those arguments, the fishing groups went to the Supreme Court, which turned them down.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a four-page opinion regarding the denial that left little doubt about his ultimate views. He began by asking, “Which of the following is not like the others: (a) a monument, (b) an antiquity … or (c) 5,000 square miles of land beneath the ocean? If you answered (c),” Roberts observed, “you are not only correct but also a speaker of ordinary English.” But despite the concerns raised in Roberts’ opinion, he concluded, the petition “does not satisfy our usual criteria for granting” review. Therefore, Roberts wrote, he agreed with the court’s decision not to take up this particular case while “keeping in mind the oft-repeated statement that such a denial should not be taken as expressing an opinion on the merits” of the case.
The justices also declined to review a petition filed by Martin Longoria, a Texas man who was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for being a felon in possession of firearms. After he was indicted, Longoria filed a motion to suppress the evidence – eight guns – found in his apartment. When that motion was denied, Longoria agreed to be tried by a judge, who found him guilty.
At Longoria’s sentencing hearing, the district court concluded that Longoria had accepted responsibility for his conduct and was therefore entitled to a reduction in his sentence. However, Longoria was not entitled to an additional reduction, the court reasoned, because the government had not filed a motion asking for one.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the sentence. It explained that it had “long allowed the government to do what it did here: withhold” the additional reduction “when the defendant seeks to suppress evidence.” And the government may continue to do so, the court of appeals added, even after a 2013 amendment to the commentary on the federal sentencing guidelines on this issue. Longoria then came to the Supreme Court last fall, asking the justices to take up his case.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a statement regarding the decision not to grant review; she was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Sotomayor stressed that Longoria’s case “implicates an important and longstanding split among the Courts of Appeals over the proper interpretation of” the commentary, with most circuits concluding that “a suppression hearing is not a valid basis for denying the reduction.” Noting that six out of the seven seats on the U.S. Sentencing Commission are currently vacant, Sotomayor urged the commission to address and clarify this issue in the near future so that defendants are treated fairly.
Sotomayor, along with Justice Stephen Breyer, also joined an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan in the denial of review in the case of Charles Thompson, a Texas inmate whose request for an evidentiary hearing on two claims relating to his death sentence was denied by the 5th Circuit. Thompson went to the Supreme Court in October, asking the justices to weigh in on the 5th Circuit’s interpretation of the circumstances in which a court can hold an evidentiary hearing in federal post-conviction proceedings, but the justices declined on Monday to do so. Kagan wrote that the 5th Circuit “may have wrongly deprived Thompson of an evidentiary hearing,” but she still did not believe that the Supreme Court should step in, including because it isn’t clear that a hearing would ultimately have mattered.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial.” In Smith v. Titus, the Supreme Court on Monday turned down the case of a Minnesota man who was convicted of murder for the shooting deaths of two people who had broken into his home. During the trial of Byron Smith, before the jury had been sworn in, the judge briefly closed the courtroom to the public to explain a ruling on Smith’s motions to allow testimony about one victim’s involvement in earlier burglaries at his home. Smith argued that the decision to close the courtroom violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected that argument, and federal courts turned down Smith’s requests for post-conviction relief. Smith came to the Supreme Court in November, contending that the state supreme court’s ruling was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court decisions – the standard for relief under federal post-conviction laws.
Sotomayor dissented from the denial of review. She expressed concern about what she described as “creeping courtroom closure” in trial courts in Minnesota. She “regret[ted] this Court’s refusal to provide much needed guidance to the lower courts,” and she indicated that she would have granted review and reversed the lower court’s ruling even without briefing and oral argument.
The justices will meet again for a private conference on Friday, March 26.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.