Supreme Court’s next death penalty case looks at roles of judge, jury

Supreme Court Building

Continuing its look at death penalty, the Supreme Court will hear argument on Tuesday in Hurst v. Florida1 to decide whether Florida’s practices in capital trials are constitutional. At issue in Hurst is whether a judge properly imposed a death sentence without the necessary fact-finding by a jury. Florida is one of the few states that gives capital sentencing power to judges.

The Supreme Court specifically approved Florida’s death penalty law in 1976, along with those in Georgia and Texas.2 They were the first states to reinstate the death penalty after the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia3 declaring death penalty laws in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court gave the Florida law its blessing despite concerns that the ultimate sentencing authority was the judge. Several years later, the Court specifically rejected a challenge to a death sentence imposed by a Florida judge even though a jury had recommended a life sentence.4

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