Big news on the high court: Justice David Souter, who famously said that he had the world’s best job in the world’s worst city, is reportedly retiring at the end of the term in June. The New York Times story is here. Souter was appointed by the first President Bush on the assumption that he was a moderate conservative, but he turned out to be slightly left-of-center on the Court. Presumably the Obama administration will seek a like-minded replacement, meaning that the balance of power on the Court won’t change much.
The next biggest news story is that the federal Justice Department has taken the position that crack cocaine offenses and powder cocaine offenses should be treated equally under federal law. The New York Times story is here. Currently, crack offenses are treated much more severely, and because crack defendants are mostly black, some view the system as racist. This story is of direct importance to those readers who practice in federal court, but state-court practitioners should be interested, too: any changes to federal sentencing may result in a different mix of cases being adopted for federal prosecution, and thus in a different mix of cases remaining in state court.
Some defense lawyers and commentators have recently begun to argue that extremely long sentences — particularly sentences of life without parole (LWOP) — are inappropriate for juvenile offenders. See here and here. Now a California appellate court has agreed, finding that a LWOP sentence for a 14-year-old kidnapper violated the state constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The case is In re Nunez, available here. Even if the ruling stands up under further review, it may not directly govern any other cases. The court noted that the defendant is “the only known offender under age 15 across the country and around the world subjected to an LWOP sentence for a nonhomicide, no-injury offense” and so “conclude[d that] his severe sentence is so freakishly rare as to constitute arbitrary and capricious punishment violating the Eighth Amendment.” Still, it’s a foot in the door for those opposed to juvenile LWOP.
Finally, a couple of stories on the lighter, or at least stranger, side. First, convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols has filed a conditions-of-confinement suit, alleging that his prison diet contains too little fiber and has left him constipated. Apparently, other mass murderers, like abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, share the same complaint. Details here. Meanwhile, in Utah, a woman who sent a text message from court has been held in contempt and jailed for 30 days. Story here. Makes North Carolina judges look a little soft, doesn’t it?