U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Re-Examine Constitutionality of Alabama’s Judge Override Scheme

03.12.15

The United States Supreme Court has been asked to review two Alabama cases in which elected trial judges overruled jury verdicts for life imprisonment without parole and imposed the death penalty.

Judge override is an anomalous and arbitrary feature of Alabama’s death penalty; Alabama is the only state in the country where judges regularly impose death after the jury has selected a life sentence. Nearly 20 percent of the people on Alabama‚Äôs death row were sentenced to death through judicial override. This practice is the primary reason why Alabama consistently has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in the country.

The two cases before the Court demonstrate the arbitrariness of judge override. Courtney Lockhart’s jury unanimously decided on life without parole, but he was sentenced to death because the victim’s family asked for the death penalty. Christie Scott was sentenced to death despite the jury’s life verdict because the victim’s family did not ask for the death penalty.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer called for review of Alabama’s override system in 2013. In a dissent from the Court’s denial of review in another Alabama case, Justice Sotomayor wrote that Alabama “has become a clear outlier” in the use of judge override. “Alabama now stands as the only one in which judges continue to override jury verdicts of life without parole.”

Asking why Alabama judges alone continue to override jury verdicts, the dissenters concluded that the “only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that . . . casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”