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Hurst v. Florida (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

In Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court considered whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violated the Sixth or Eighth Amendments in light of the Court’s 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona.  In Ring, the Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it allowed a judge sitting without a jury to find the aggravating circumstances necessary for imposing the death penalty. 

At the time of the case, Florida allowed a non-unanimous jury to recommend the death penalty without agreement as to which aggravating factors required such a sentence.  Moreover, the jury’s role was purely advisory, as the trial judge was ultimately responsible for making separate findings on the existence of aggravating factors and determining the sentence.  In Mr. Hurst’s case, the jury recommended a death sentence by a bare majority of seven to five, with no express findings as to which aggravating factors were considered.  The trial judge made her own findings regarding aggravating factors and sentenced Mr. Hurst to death.  Mr. Hurst appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court’s sentence; Mr. Hurst was then successful in requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review his case.

On June 4, 2015, the Constitutional Accountability Center and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly filed an amici curiae brief in support of Mr. Hurst, arguing that Florida’s death penalty scheme was unconstitutional under the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.  Relying on the history of the Sixth Amendment, our brief demonstrated that a jury’s findings of aggravating circumstances must be unanimous.  Indeed, the right to a unanimous jury in criminal cases was a part of English common law for centuries before the Sixth Amendment was ratified; by the late 18th century, the requirement that a jury’s verdict be unanimous to sustain a criminal conviction was considered inherent in one’s right to a jury trial.  The Framers of our Constitution, as well as founding-era legislators, judges, and commentators were united in their view that the Sixth Amendment jury right encompassed the age-old common law right to unanimity.  In addition, our brief argued that Florida’s disregard of the jury’s historic role in capital sentencing also violates the Eighth Amendment.

The Court heard oral argument on October 13, 2015.  On January 12, 2016, the Court held, in an 8-1 decision with Justice Alito the sole dissenter, that Florida’s death sentencing scheme was unconstitutional.  Seven Justices concluded that Florida’s scheme violated the Sixth Amendment, while Justice Breyer concluded that it violated the Eighth Amendment.  Justice Sotomayor’s opinion for the Court affirmed the importance of the right to an impartial jury and made clear that a state cannot impose a death sentence without a jury making the factual findings required by law.