By: Adam Liptak
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday for a death row inmate, for a criminal defendant who said his lawyer had not followed his instructions, and for farmers and fishermen in India suing an international organization over air and water pollution.
The capital case concerned a condemned inmate suffering from dementia who cannot recall the murder that sent him to death row.
The court’s ruling broke no new ground, and it did not turn on the inmate’s lack of memory. Instead, the court said one of its precedents, which barred the execution of people who lack a “rational understanding” of the reason they are to be put to death, may sometimes apply to inmates who suffer from dementia.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to sort out the matter. The vote was 5 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four-member liberal wing, an increasingly common occurrence. The case, Madison v. Alabama, No. 17-7505, was argued in advance of when Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court, and he did not participate in the decision.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said a failure of memory alone did not bar the execution of the inmate, Vernon Madison.
“The state seeks capital punishment for a crime, not his memory of the crime itself,” Justice Kagan wrote. “And the one may exist without the other.”
“Do you have an independent recollection of the Civil War?” she asked. “Obviously not. But you may still be able to reach a rational — indeed, a sophisticated — understanding of that conflict and its consequences.”
“Do you recall your first day of school?” she asked. “Probably not. But if your mother told you years later that you were sent home for hitting a classmate, you would have no trouble grasping the story.”
“And similarly,” she concluded, “if you somehow blacked out a crime you committed, but later learned what you had done, you could well appreciate the state’s desire to impose a penalty.”
In 1985, Mr. Madison killed a police officer, Julius Schulte, who had been trying to keep the peace between him and his ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Greene, as she sought to eject him from what had been their shared home.
Mr. Madison appears to remember none of this. He has had at least two severe strokes, and he is blind and incontinent. His speech is slurred, and what he says does not always make sense.
He has asked that his mother be told of his strokes, but his mother is dead. He soils himself, saying that “no one will let me out to use the bathroom,” though there is a toilet in his cell. He has said he plans to move to Florida. He can recite the alphabet only to the letter G.
Mr. Madison also insists that he “never went around killing folks.”
Justice Kagan wrote that Mr. Madison’s memory loss does not bar his execution. “Moral values do not exempt the simply forgetful from punishment,” she wrote, “whatever the neurological reason for their lack of recall.”
The relevant question, she wrote, was whether he could understand what he is accused of and how Alabama plans to punish him. The evidence on that question was uncertain, she wrote, ordering the state’s courts to consider it.
In addition to the chief justice, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority opinion.
In dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. accused his colleagues of addressing a question different from the one the court had agreed to decide. “What the court has done in this case makes a mockery of our rules,” he wrote.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the dissent.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
The court ruled that lawyers may not disregard their clients’ instructions to file appeals from criminal convictions and sentences even when the clients had agreed to waive appeals as part of their plea agreements.
The case concerned Gilberto Garza Jr., who pleaded guilty in state court in Idaho to possession of a controlled substance and no contest to aggravated assault. He signed “appeal waivers” in both cases agreeing not to pursue appeals.
Mr. Garza nonetheless instructed his lawyer to appeal, but the lawyer refused. That amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel and entitled Mr. Garza to a new appeal, Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority in the 6-to-3 decision in the case, Garza v. Idaho, No. 17-1026.
“No appeal waiver serves as an absolute bar to all appellate claims,” she wrote, adding: “A defendant who has signed an appeal waiver does not, in directing counsel to file a notice of appeal, necessarily undertake a quixotic or frivolous quest.”
In dissent, Justice Thomas wrote that the lawyer had acted appropriately, protecting Mr. Garza from the possibility of a longer sentence.
“Counsel’s choice not to appeal Garza’s sentence — the only issue Garza asked his counsel to challenge — was not only not deficient, it was the only professionally reasonable course of action for counsel under the circumstances,” Justice Thomas wrote. Justice Gorsuch joined the entire dissent, and Justice Alito most of it.
The court ruled that international organizations like the World Bank and the World Health Organization may be sued for some of their commercial activities notwithstanding a 1945 law that gave them what was at the time nearly absolute immunity from lawsuits.
The question in the case, Jam v. International Finance Corporation, No. 17-1011, was whether that law, which granted immunity “as is enjoyed by foreign governments,” took account of later developments. At the time, foreign government had nearly complete immunity; today, there are significant exceptions for commercial activities.
Writing for seven members of the court, Chief Justice Roberts said the law conferred the same immunity to international organizations as is currently enjoyed by foreign governments.
The case was brought by farmers and fishermen who live and work near a power plant near Gujarat, India, that had been built with money from the International Finance Corporation. They sued the corporation, saying the plant had polluted the air, water and land.
The court’s decision allowed the case to move forward, though it will face other legal hurdles.
Justice Breyer dissented, saying that Congress had meant to provide immunity to international organizations, partly to encourage them to locate their headquarters in the United States. Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the case, which was argued before he joined the court.