What the U.S. Supreme Court Did to Us This Year

Key decisions by the nation's highest court eroded our constitutional protections of free speech and equal justice in ways that could have a great impact on the most vulnerable.

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Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida: In two cases from the Sunshine State, the Supreme Court ruled that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide cases. Terrance Graham was a 16-year-old when he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. Joe Sullivan was convicted of sexual battery when he was 13.

In one of the most watched decisions of the term, the Supreme Court said that the application of such a hopeless sentence on a teenager convicted of non-homicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment. Even Chief Justice John Roberts abandoned his conservative colleagues and joined the majority on this case. It is estimated that nine individuals are serving life terms without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes committed when they were teenagers. Eight of the nine are black. But the decision has far-reaching implications for the runaway charging and sentencing practices in many states that brand teenage criminals as irredeemable.

Padilla v. Kentucky: In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that a criminal defendant who had lived as a lawful resident alien in the United States for 40 years and had served in active duty in Vietnam was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel when his attorney assured him that he would face no immigration consequences if he pleaded guilty to distributing marijuana. In fact, a guilty plea carried with it the guarantee that Jose Padilla would be deported.

The court held that Padilla's attorney provided ineffective counsel because he not only failed to warn about the consequences of Padilla's guilty plea but even advised his client that he needn't worry about possible deportation. Criminal defendants need to know that pleading guilty to a crime can result in forfeiture of their right to vote, their right to live in public housing, and their ability to obtain federal student loans or, in some jurisdictions, to obtain a professional barber's license. These ''collateral consequences'' are often the hidden penalties that criminal defendants take on when they are convicted or plead guilty. The willingness of the court to recognize at least the obligation of criminal defense attorneys to provide competent, accurate information about deportation to immigrant criminal defendants is a positive step in recognizing the significance of collateral consequences for criminal defendants. It's worth noting that Elena Kagan as solicitor general argued that ineffective assistance of counsel should not attach to the attorney's advice about collateral consequences. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, along with Justice Antonin Scalia.

It's no accident that Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the Supreme Court's best decisions this term. What was more startling was Thomas' willingness to take an extreme stand, even further to the right than other members of the conservative majority.

One Thomas opinion in particular should get close attention. The most ominous concurrence of the term goes to Justice Thomas in Berghuis v. Smith, a case striking down the Sixth Amendment challenge by a criminal defendant who argued that women and African Americans had been excluded from his jury. The African-American defendant argued that the all-white jury was convened using a process that violated his right to be tried before a jury drawn from a ''fair cross-section of the community.''  The ''fair cross-section'' requirement has been recognized by the Supreme Court since 1975. In Berghuis, a majority of the court found that the procedures for jury selection did not violate the defendants' right in that case. But Justice Thomas -- in a one-paragraph concurrence -- offered a startling take on the case. He contended that the Sixth Amendment does not contain a fair-cross-section guarantee, and had the state raised this argument, Thomas implied that he would have decided the case on that ground. Thomas' willingness to read the guarantee out of the Sixth Amendment goes against a line of decisions that has ensured the inclusion of women and racial minorities in juries throughout this country. It's an astonishing position, one that chillingly foreshadows the willingness of at least one member of the Supreme Court's conservative majority to dismantle wholesale guarantees that have become part of the mainstream of criminal constitutional law.

It's often said that the Supreme Court nominations and confirmations have little to do with the lives of average people. But as the court's decisions showed this past term, the stakes are high indeed for the poor, the marginalized and minorities. As Justice Kagan takes her seat, she joins a court aggressively engaged in a struggle over constitutional interpretation that will shape the lives of average people for decades to come.

Sherrilyn Ifill is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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