When the Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that a unanimous jury is not required for the state to hand down a death sentence, the decision reverberated in the state prisons that house hundreds of felons already sentenced to death. The legal wrangling over their fate overnight became “chaos,” says death penalty lawyer Marty McClain, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Only four years earlier, Florida had struck down the power of judges, not juries, to decide whether or not to execute convicts. That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida’s system for capital sentencing was unconstitutional, leading nearly 100 inmates on death row to challenge their sentences.
A new conservative majority on Florida’s highest court has begun taking a shredder to this and other seemingly settled rulings, part of a national rollback of what conservatives see as an era of liberal judicial activism. With President Donald Trump’s appointment of 187 judges, three U.S. appeals courts have flipped from liberal to more conservative majorities. Critics say the Florida court’s abrupt reversal violates the concept of stare decisis, which holds that rulings that overturn established law should be “well thought-out and pretty rare,” says Prof. Kenneth Williams of the South Texas College of Law Houston. The reason for the change is the court’s makeup: Republican governors have replaced four of the justices who ruled on the 2016 case under Florida’s mandatory retirement law, tilting it to conservatives. The new judges “have a very narrow interpretation of the Constitution and they will come out with really narrow decisions,” says Stephen Harper of the Death Penalty Clinic at Florida International University in Miami. “That means the country is reverting to a much more conservative outlook and jurisprudence – more conservative than I think the public wants, or is.”