- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Supreme Court said a death row convict in Arizona should get a new chance to argue against his sentence, ruling Wednesday that the state’s high court should have given him a chance to tell jurors his alternative was life in prison without parole.

The 5-4 ruling turned on intricate legal rules involving when a state court errs and when the Supreme Court should step in and order a do-over.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said the Arizona Supreme Court made a significant error when it refused to let convicted murderer John Montenegro Cruz argue that the jury wasn’t given the right instructions when deciding how to sentence him.

It boiled down to a matter of timing.

Arizona requires an objection over sentencing to be raised at a particular time in proceedings. But there’s an exception when the law changes.

Cruz argued a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changing sentencing rules amounted to such a change in the law. The state Supreme Court disagreed.

Justice Sotomayor sided with Cruz, saying the new sentencing procedures were big enough to trigger the change-in-law exception.

“It is hard to imagine a clearer break from the past,” she wrote in a decision joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Writing in dissent, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said this didn’t rise to the level where the high court had to intervene.

She said she may have ruled differently than the state justices, but “that call is not within our bailiwick.”

“Our job is to determine whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision is defensible, and we owe the utmost deference to the state court in making that judgment. Cases of inadequacy are extremely rare, and this is not one,” she wrote.

Cruz was convicted of killing a police officer, and the jury was told it could sentence him to death or to life in prison. The judge said if the jury chose the prison option, he would then decide whether Cruz would get a chance at parole.

The jury ordered execution.

Afterward, several jurors said they wished they had been able to vote for life without parole.

Indeed, under Arizona law parole was no longer an option and that should have been the choice the jury was faced with.

Cruz argued that was a reason to revisit his sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court disposed of two other cases Wednesday.

In one it ruled against a woman who tried to use bankruptcy to shield herself from a $200,000 debt incurred when her husband lied about a home they were fixing and selling.

The justices ruled unanimously that under bankruptcy law, even if she wasn’t a knowing participant in the fraud, she still bore the joint debt.

In a 6-3 ruling, the high court found that an employee who earned $200,000 a year working on an offshore oil rig did not qualify as an “executive” and should have been earning overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week.

The Fair Labor Standards Act makes some high-compensation employees exempt from overtime pay, but Justice Kagan, writing the majority opinion, said the way the employee’s pay was doled out made clear he wasn’t an executive and so he should have collected overtime.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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