The Supreme Court opened its term Monday, hearing cases asking whether the Constitution permits states to abolish the insanity defense or convict defendants absent a unanimous jury, reports the Wall Street Journal. In both instances, the court appeared inclined to buttress the rights of criminal defendants, with only Justice Samuel Alito, a former U.S. Attorney who generally sides with law enforcement, expressing clear sympathy for prosecution positions. Kansas in 1996 eliminated the insanity defense, permitting a mental-illness defense only for those so impaired they don’t understand what they are doing. James Kahler, sentenced to death in 2009 for murdering four members of his own family, contends that the Constitution entitled him to raise a traditional insanity defense. Only a handful of defendants plead insanity, and fewer still are acquitted.
Monday’s second criminal case involved Evangelisto Ramos, sentenced to life in prison without parole after a Louisiana jury convicted him of murder by a 10-2 vote. The justices have held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires unanimity to convict in federal court, but a divided court in 1972 found that states were free to use a lower threshold in their own trials. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said Louisiana’s rule was “rooted in racism, rooted in a desire, apparently, to diminish the voices of black jurors in the late 1890s,” when the state adopted its Jim Crow constitution enshrining white supremacy. Elizabeth Murrill, the Louisiana solicitor general, said striking down the 10-2 would allow 32,000 Louisiana prisoners to file appeals. Last year, Louisiana voters amended the state constitution to require unanimous verdicts for crimes committed after 2018. The court inaugurated a new rule requiring the justices to hold their tongues for the first two minutes of an argument so attorneys may lay out their positions without interruption.