Recent Supreme Court Developments

On February 24, 2020, the parties agreed to the dismissal of the certiorari petition in Methena v. Malvo, 18-217, in light of new law in Virginia eliminating a sentence of life without parole for juveniles.  (Malvo, who was a juvenile at the time of the murders he was convicted of, was sentenced to life in prison without parole under a discretionary, rather than mandatory, sentencing scheme.)  The question presented to the Supreme Court, on which it had granted review, was: "Did the Fourth Circuit err in concluding—in direct conflict with Virginia’s highest court and other courts—that a decision of this Court (Montgomery) addressing whether a new constitutional rule announced in an earlier decision (Miller) applies retroactively on collateral review may properly be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the very rule whose retroactivity was in question?"

On February 25, 2020. the Supreme Court issued its decision in McKinney v. Arizona, 589 U.S. ___ (Jan. 25, 2020).  The Supreme Court (Kavanaugh, J., with Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch, JJ.) held that reweighing of the existing aggravating and mitigating circumstances under Clemons v. MIssissippi, is a permissible remedy for an Eddings violation, i.e., where constitutionally relevant mitigating circumstances were not considered by the sentencer, and when an Eddings error is found on collateral review, a state appellate court may conduct the reweighing on collateral review.  The Court, among other things, rejected McKinney's argument that Clemons no longer remains good law in the wake of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584, and Hurst v. Florida, 577 U. S. ___.  The Court explained: "Ring and Hurst did not require jury weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and Ring and Hurst did not overrule Clemons so as to prohibit appellate reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances."  And although there was a Ring/Hurst violation in this case because the sentencing judge rather than the jury found the aggravating factors, that provided no basis for relief to McKinney because Ring and Hurst do not apply retroactively in collateral proceedings such as this one.  The Court was unpersuaded by McKinney's attempt to characterize the state supreme court's decision below as reopening the direct appeal.

Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ.  Justice Ginsburg states: "I would rank the Arizona Supreme Court’s proceeding now before this Court for review as direct in character. I would therefore hold McKinney’s death sentences unconstitutional under Ring, and reverse the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court."