SCOTUS Hears Arguments in Death Penalty Case

The arguments were heard in Buck v. Davis.

Buck filed a habeas petition challenging his lawyer’s decision to introduce the bias testimony, and the district court denied it. The Supreme Court then changed the law in a way that made it easier to bring claims like Buck’s -– so he tried to “reopen” his petition. The district court found there were no “extraordinary circumstances” that would justify reopening the case, and the Fifth Circuit denied a “Certificate of Appealability” –- essentially permission to appeal the district court’s decision.

Swarns argued the lower court, “ignored critical facts” when ruling the case did not establish “extraordinary circumstances” – “the Fifth Circuit doesn’t engage at all around the central question here about the -- the critical role of race."

Justice Ruth Ginsburg seemed to suggest that the lower court erred for not considering Buck’s argument -- that his right to effective counsel had been violated: “what counsel would put that kind of evidence before a jury? What competent counsel would put that evidence before a jury?”

The Justices also focused on the standards used by the Fifth Circuit in deciding whether to grant Certificates of Appealability.

Sotomayor suggested the Fifth Circuit may be going too far, “They are supposed to decide whether to grant COA or not on whether the questions are serious or not, debatable, not decide the merits. I know it can appear a fine line in some situations, but how do you justify saying that this is not debatable?”