Florida Supreme Court Reverses Course On Death Penalty Reviews

Florida’s justices on Florida’s Supreme Court just reversed a fifty-year-old law last week previously requiring the courts to ensure the magnitude of the death sentence when comparing cases.

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The court reasoned in a 5-1 vote that the Conformity Clause in Florida’s constitution made the court’s review precedent irrelevant, stating it “must yield to our constitution.” The clause had said that cruel and unusual punishment “shall be construed in conformity with decisions of the United States Supreme Court which interpret the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment provided in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has attested that comparable proportionality reviews of death sentences are not required by the Eighth Amendment. Such a demand cannot be instituted under Florida’s current constitution.

“The only legitimate state-law source for comparative proportionality review was the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment found in article I, section 17 of the Florida Constitution—before the conformity clause was added to that provision in 2002,” the order states. “Post-conformity clause, we have wrongly continued to enforce a state-law requirement for comparative proportionality review and have wrongly written this requirement into our procedural rules governing the scope of our appellate review.”

The order goes against the Court’s past decisions that upheld the clause for review based on precedents. “We cannot judicially rewrite our state statutes or constitution to require a comparative proportionality review that their text does not,” the order stated. 

Justice Jorge Labarga accused the majority of “dismantling reasonable safeguards” by eliminating a fundamental component of its capital punishment jurisprudence.

“Now today, the majority jettisons a nearly fifty-year-old pillar of our mandatory review in direct appeal cases. As a result, no longer is this Court required to review death sentences for proportionality,” Labarga wrote. “I could not dissent more strongly to this decision, one that severely undermines the reliability of this Court’s decisions on direct appeal, and more broadly, Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence.”

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