Ketanji Brown Jackson Issues Her First Opinion As Supreme Court Justice

The former public defender dissented with the court's decision not to take the case of a death row inmate who wasn’t given evidence during his trial.

In her first opinion since being seated on the Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued the court should take up the case of a man who was denied access to potentially exculpatory evidence during his death penalty trial.

She was outvoted. But the decision in support of defendant rights, particularly for a capital defendant, highlights how Jackson will judge cases related to the death penalty and criminal justice. Her opinion also speaks to her work as a former public defender. Jackson is the first public defender to serve on the Supreme Court.

Jackson argued in a two-page opinion, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, that the court should take up and hear arguments in Davel Chinn v. Tim Shoop, Warden. Chinn, a defendant facing the death penalty, did not know that the sole witness against him was not mentally fit to testify, something the prosecution knew at the time.

Jackson wrote that there was a clear violation of Chinn’s right to be made aware of the mental unfitness of the “key” and “main” witness against him, based on two prior precedents of the court.

“To prove prejudice under both [precedents], a defendant must show ‘a reasonable probability’ of a different outcome,” Jackson wrote. “We have repeatedly said that the ‘reasonable probability’ standard is not the same as the ‘more likely than not’ or ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard; it is a qualitatively lesser standard.”

Jackson wrote that she would order the Sixth Circuit to rehear the case with instructions that it should use the “lower standard” of “reasonable probability” granted under the court’s precedents when reviewing whether the prosecution’s failure to inform Chinn of their witness’ mental unfitness could change the verdict against him.

“Because Chinn’s life is on the line, and given the substantial likelihood that the suppressed records would have changed the outcome at trial based on the Ohio courts’ own representations ... I would summarily reverse to ensure that the Sixth Circuit conducts its materiality analysis under the proper standard,” Jackson wrote.

However, the case did not receive enough support to be taken up by the Supreme Court.

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