New Supreme Court Term Includes Major Cases Affecting Inmates

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What will happen with the one U.S. Supreme Court vacancy after the death last February of Justice Antonin Scalia will undoubtedly be decided after the results of November's election. But the high court new term, which began October 3rd, already includes several major cases that could redefine the validity of sentences handed down to many inmates and the penalties they can legally face.

One such case is Beckles v. United States, which addresses the issue of how far-reaching the Supreme Court's 2015 decision will be on Johnson v. United States, which voided as unconstitutionally vague one part of a federal criminal law, the Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA.

That law imposes sentences ranging from a 15-year minimum to a lifetime maximum for people convicted of crimes involving firearm use, if the convict had earlier been convicted of at least three "serious" drug violations, or "violent" felonies. To define a violent felony, the ACCA said an offense had to involve the threatened, attempted or actual use of physical force against someone, or involve arson, burglary, explosives, extortion, or otherwise--in the so-called "residual clause"--involve conduct presenting a "serious potential risk of physical injury" to another person.

The Supreme Court's 8-1 Johnson decision found that catch-all residual clause, by not spelling out what conduct might be considered to present risk of physical injury, was unconstitutionally vague. Later last year, the high court ruled Johnson applied retroactively to sentences which had been handed down before the Johnson decision was issued, opening the possibility of new appeals for many inmates.

Now, in the Beckles appeal, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether a part of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines with language identical to the ACCA's residual clause is similarly void for vagueness--which might open new appeals for inmates serving longer sentences due to that provision.

The new term also includes a case (Moore v. Texas) on how to interpret the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, which the Court, as far back as its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, forbids execution of people with serious intellectual disabilities. Most recently, in its 2014 Hall v. Florida decision, the Supreme Court held that states could not automatically deem all inmates with IQ scores higher than 70 as exempt from that restriction.

Even so, states have used diverse standards on how an inmate's intellectual disabilities are to be measured and proved, and the Moore v. Texas appeal could provide an opportunity for the high court to lay down new rulings in those areas.

Bobby James Moore, with an IQ a fraction above 70, failed every school grade until dropping out in ninth grade. Convicted at age 20 of being one of three participants in a botched robbery of a grocery, in which a worker was fatally shot, he has now been on Texas's Death Row for over 35 years, mostly in solitary confinement.

Despite IQ scores and expert evaluations showing him to be within the range of mild retardation, the state Court of Criminal Appeals found him eligible for execution, saying he had not proved he qualified under an older test the state uses. His lawyers are seeking to have him evaluated by more current standards.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com