The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a constitutional challenge to the death penalty Monday, though four justices wrote separately to criticize Arizona’s capital sentencing process, which they strongly suggested is unconstitutional.
Though the group agreed that the court should not hear the case, the statement reflects a continued effort to narrow the application of capital punishment to all but the most heinous crimes.
The case, Hidalgo v. Arizona, was occasioned in 2001, when Abel Hidalgo was paid $1,000 to murder Michael Cordova, an auto repair shop owner. In the course of committing that crime, Hidalgo killed an innocent bystander. By the time he was charged with the murders, he was already serving a life sentence for a double homicide on an Indian reservation in Idaho. He pleaded guilty to the 2001 murders, and a jury sentenced him to death.
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On appeal, Hidalgo argued Arizona’s death penalty regime is impermissibly broad, and that capital punishment itself is unconstitutional in light of modern standards.
The high court explained in a 1988 case that the capital sentencing process must “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder.” What’s more, state legislatures must enact clear factors to help juries determine when the death penalty may be lawfully applied.
The Arizona legislature, Hidalgo says, has adopted such broad standards that virtually every murderer in the state may be executed. He claims 98 percent of Arizona’s first degree murder defendants were eligible for the death penalty between 2002 and 2012. The state Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in March 2017.
Hidalgo’s petition to the high court drew support from prominent human rights groups like Amnesty International and a coalition of former Arizona law enforcement officials. Neal Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general under former President Barack Obama, represented Hidalgo.
Justice Stephen Breyer, a vocal critic of the death penalty, wrote an eight-page opinion agreeing with the court’s decision to turn down the case, while explaining why Arizona’s system is likely unlawful. His opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Four votes are needed to hear a case, making Monday’s statement a strong signal that the court will grant a similar petition in the future.
Still, Breyer said the case was not appropriate for review because of scant underlying facts and evidence. He noted a different death row defendant could bring the same claim with a more complete record, likely warranting their review. This sort of “docket-setting” is common at the high court. The justices frequently use statements of Monday’s sort to encourage attorneys to bring cases about particular subjects.
Breyer declined to address the second question of the petition, which asked “whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.”
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