You Should Be Listening To The Supremes

Can you name one of the justices currently serving on the United States Supreme Court?

If you cannot, you’re among 57 percent of likely voters in this country, according to a Penn Schoen Berland poll that was commissioned by C-SPAN and released earlier this year. (In case you were wondering, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the top reply from those answering in the affirmative.)

The entire poll focused on issues related to the Supreme Court and there’s no better time than now to review those findings. While most politicos in D.C. watch The Supremes from gavel to gavel, the justices probably don’t come to mind for many in Louisiana until this time of year.

That’s in part because the national media never fails to cover the annual Red Mass for justices at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. It’s held on the first Sunday of each October. But what really gets the legal community and political-watchers going is the next day — the first Monday of each October, when The Supremes traditionally start their new session.

The Supreme Court is a big deal. Even the participants in C-SPAN’s poll recognized as much. When told that the court has an impact on everyday life, a whopping 90 percent agreed with the statement. The poll respondents, however should have been posed with a one-word followup question: “Why?”

If you live in Louisiana there’s an easy answer for that inquiry. The U.S. Supreme Court has one case in this new term that could directly influence Louisiana’s legislative elections for generations to come. The court also has a case that will drill down into how defendants and attorneys can concede guilt — and it actually originated in the Bayou State.

This may be the first time you’re hearing about these cases. If so, don’t sweat it too much. The C-SPAN poll identified 43 percent of likely U.S. voters who said they weren't getting enough news about the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Another 53 percent claimed they had heard the “right amount” and 4 percent went with “too much.”)

One case that has been in the news lately is Gill v. Whitford, which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for last week. The case could potentially alter the way the Louisiana Legislature draws its own election districts. The case has roots in Wisconsin, where Republican legislators seized control about a decade ago and redrafted the state’s legislative election maps. Now Democrats are arguing that they’ve been squeezed out by an act of “partisan gerrymandering.”

If The Supremes side with Wisconsin Democrats, key legislators in Louisiana will undoubtedly turn their attention to the next redistricting process here. It’s already scheduled to follow the 2020 Census. Would such a ruling throw cool water on partisan operations in Louisiana? Or would it instead prompt lawmakers to test the boundaries of what would surely be a series of federal gerrymandering tests and representation formulas?

There’s another case, McCoy v. Louisiana, involving a defense attorney named Larry English who told a Louisiana jury that his client, Robert McCoy, was guilty of a 2008 triple murder. Except McCoy disagreed with that decision and maintained he was innocent of killing his ex-wife’s child, mother and stepfather. McCoy has since been sentenced to death and he is asking the Supreme Court to decide whether it’s unconstitutional for an attorney to concede guilt without their client’s approval.

Why would this even happen in the first place? English had hoped that a guilty plea would help McCoy during the sentencing phase, which apparently isn’t an uncommon in capital cases.

The fact that The Supremes are getting involved with this case could move a brighter spotlight on Louisiana, where there have been at least five such instances of attorneys conceding guilt in the past 17 years. Just consider this summary that was offered in a recent brief from the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Promise of Justice Initiative: “In Louisiana a capital defendant has no right to a lawyer who will insist on his innocence.”

If there isn’t enough from this new session of the Supreme Court to grab your interest, we can dial it back to last year. That’s when the Supreme Court ruled on McDonnell v. United States and overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. The court decided that there were no clear connections between gifts McDonnell received and anything he may have done in response as an “official act.”

That case is also why former New Orleans Congressman Bill Jefferson was ordered to be released from prison last week after five years of being locked up on similar charges. While investigators did technically find $90,000 in Jefferson’s refrigerator in 2005, his appeal attorneys argued this year that the same themes found in McDonnell v. United States should apply.

So, yes, the United States Supreme Court can impact our everyday lives in Louisiana, from our politics and legal system to our forgotten members of Congress and much, much more. (Not that we needed a C-SPAN poll and 90 percent of likely U.S. voters to tell us all that.)

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