It's not just high-profile culture-war issues like same-sex marriage and the right to bear arms that the Supreme Court is avoiding like the plague. On issues ranging from federalism to property rights to criminal law, the justices increasingly decline to hear any case they don't absolutely have to -- no matter how important the issues presented -- especially if there's a threat of an irreconcilable split. Such is the brave new world of John Roberts's minimalism/unanimity.
The latest such example came yesterday morning, in a criminal procedure case called Jones v. United States, in which Cato filed an amicus brief that I previously blogged about. The issue here is whether, pursuant to the Sixth Amendment, a judge can base a sentence on facts that the jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt. (The Court ruled in a 2000 case called Apprendi v. New Jersey that judges can't enhance sentences beyond statutory maximums based on facts, other than prior convictions, not decided by the jury -- but in Jones the sentences in question, while seemingly harsh and unreasonable, were still within the sentencing guidelines.)
While normally we don't know what the justices are thinking when they deny a cert petition, or even how the vote went (four votes are needed to grant), but in the Jones denial, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a rare dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Here's the salient bit:
The Sixth Amendment, together with the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, "requires that each element of a crime" be either admitted by the defendant, or "proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt." Any fact that increases the penalty to which a defendant is exposed constitutes an element of a crime, and "must be found by a jury, not a judge." We have held that a substantively unreasonable penalty is illegal and must be set aside. It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable—thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence—is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury. It may not be found by a judge. [emphasis original; internal citations omitted.]
And so the petitioners came one vote short. The three dissenters may seem like an unusual grouping, but actually these justices are often together on issues relating criminal defendants' jury-trial rights. (It's sort of the left/right versus the center, or the principled versus the pragmatic.) They were in the Apprendi majority, for example, as well as in the majority for the case that struck down the mandatory nature of the sentencing guidelines, United States v. Booker (2005), and recent cases involving the right to confront witnesses against you. Alas, they were joined in those cases by Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter, who have since been replaced by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, respectively. It's not a big surprise that Kagan seems to have joined the "prgamatic" bloc for these purposes, but Sotomayor's vote is disappointing. Some commentators point to her background as a prosecutor to explain such deference, but Justice Sotomayor is one of the most pro-defendant votes on Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus cases.
In any event, whatever the reason for the lack of a crucial fourth vote to grant, this was another opportunity lost by the Court, another responsibility shirked. For more commentary, see here, here, here, and here.