U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida Death Penalty Law Because It Deprives Citizens Of Right To A Jury Trial

One of the most fundamental constitutional rights belonging to citizens of the United States is the right to a jury trial. Both the United States Constitution and the Missouri Constitution guarantee the right to a jury trial to every citizen, regardless of whether the trial is for a criminal charge or a civil case.  (A civil case is any case that’s not seeking criminal penalties, and they typically involve lawsuits seeking money damages.)

This week, the United States Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Florida’s law concerning the application of the death penalty.  They did so not because the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, but because of the way Florida’s system applied it.  Under Florida’s system, the jury only made a recommendation to the judge as to whether or not the death penalty should be applied, and the judge then made the ultimate decision on whether or not the defendant should be executed.  The Supreme Court held that the United States Constitution requires the jury, not the judge, to make the actual decision. Because Florida’s system had the jury only making a recommendation instead of actually making the decision, their laws deprived the defendant of his right to a jury trial.  The court held that the right to a jury trial is meaningless if the jury’s decision can be ignored.

“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional.  The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s recommendation is not enough.”

– United States Supreme Court, Hurst v. Florida (2016)

Attack On Our Right to Jury Trial in Civil Cases

The right to a jury trial was viewed by our Founding Fathers as one of our most fundamental bedrock rights, and necessary to protect all of our other rights.  That’s why the right is spelled out twice in the U. S. Constitution (once for criminal trials in the Sixth Amendment, and once for civil trials in the Seventh Amendment). Presidents from Thomas Jefferson all the way through Abraham Lincoln and since have explained how important that right is:

I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

– Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1789.

“Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?”
– Abraham Lincoln

Regardless of whether you’re in favor of or opposed to the death penalty, I think we can all agree that all of our constitutional rights should be protected. As I’ve written about before on this blog, there is a concerted effort on the part of insurance companies and large businesses to deprive people of their constitutional rights to a jury trial when filing civil cases.

The Founding Fathers wanted juries because they wanted the People to have the power to fashion justice as they saw fit.  That equalizing, unlimited power of the jury is exactly what the companies fear, and why they seek to limit it.

“In the ‘David versus Goliath’ fights that go on in courthouses around our country today when an injured person sues someone insured by a deep-pocketed insurance company with almost unlimited assets, Goliath is trying to take away David’s sling and rock by limiting what a jury of ordinary citizens can do.  That’s completely un-American and contrary to our system of laws.”

– Robert Curran

In 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Missouri’s medical negligence laws for the very same reason.   Missouri law had said that when someone sues for medical negligence, the jury decides whether or not the doctor or hospital was careless or not, and if so how much the verdict should be.  But those laws then required the court to ignore the jury’s decision if the jury’s verdict included gave more than a “one-size-fits-all” fixed dollar amount decided years earlier by the Missouri legislature (called a “cap”), and reduce the amount of the verdict to the dollar amount the legislature decided upon,  without knowing any of the facts of the case.  As explained by the Supreme Court, those laws were unconstitutional because the right to a jury trial is meaningless if the judge then disregards what the jury decides.

“This Court holds that section 538.210 [the medical negligence “cap” law] is unconstitutional to the extent that it infringes on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party.”

– Missouri Supreme Court, Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, (2012)

One absurd aspect of Missouri medical negligence laws, then and now, is that the law specifically says that no one is allowed to actually tell the jury that the cap exists, or that their decision on the size of their verdict is essentially meaningless above a certain dollar amount,  because the court is required by law to ignore it.  The judge tells the jury throughout the trial that everything is in their hands, and that they’re  most important people in the justice system.  But the reality of it is that the legislature gave our rights to satisfy the big businesses that fear juries.  The laws don’t trust the people of this state to actually issue just and proper decisions, and have taken those rights away from the People.

I’m not sure which is worse: that the legislature won’t trust juries to make the right decision, or that the legislature wants to make sure that the jury doesn’t know that the legislature won’t trust them.

The Missouri legislature has since enacted a replacement set of laws trying to do an end run around the constitutional right to a jury trial, using a complex legal mechanism.  Unfortunately, that mechanism may work.  It will be at least several years before the Missouri Supreme Court is asked to decide the constitutionality of Missouri’s new medical negligence laws, which contain a similar limitation where the legislature decides on a fixed dollar amount as being sufficient, without having any idea what the case is about.

Let’s hope that  when it comes before the Missouri Supreme Court in the future, they again put the decision-making power in the hands of the People, instead of  big businesses and the politicians.