AUSTIN, Texas—The U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another of the UT School of Law Capital Punishment Clinic's cases, agreeing on Friday to review a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. This case marks the third time in three years that the Capital Punishment Clinic will litigate in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, Smith v. Texas, involves a Dallas County inmate, Laroyce Smith, who was sentenced to death in 1991. At Smith's trial, his defense counsel presented extensive mitigating evidence regarding Smith's intellectual impairments, learning disabilities, placement in special education, and difficult family background. After he was convicted, Smith argued in state court habeas proceedings that the sentencing instructions did not allow jurors to consider such evidence, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 2004 decision (Smith v. Texas, 543 U.S. 37). On remand, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nonetheless concluded that Smith's death sentence could stand. It is that decision that the U.S. Supreme Court will review this Term.
The Capital Punishment Clinic has recently litigated two other death penalty cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and won both times. In 2004, the Clinic prevailed in Tennard v. Dretke, 542 U.S. 274 (2004), in which the Court overturned a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Professor Rob Owen, co-director of the Capital Punishment Center (CPC) and a supervisor in the Capital Punishment Clinic, argued the case in the Supreme Court and Professor Jordan Steiker, also a co-director of the CPC, served as co-counsel (along with Dick Burr, a prominent death penalty lawyer). Several clinic students worked on the case and traveled with Owen and Steiker to the Supreme Court. After that case returned to the Fifth Circuit, Tennard's death sentence was vacated. The Clinic also prevailed in Smith v. Texas, the precursor to the present litigation.
In addition, new clinic faculty member Jim Marcus, the former director of the Texas Defender Service, led the team that litigated two other recent Texas death cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller-El v. Cockrell 537 U.S. 322 (2003), and Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005), involving claims of race discrimination in jury selection.
Professor Steiker, who represents Smith along with Professor Maurie Levin and Owen, describes the current Supreme Court case "as involving an issue as old as the Constitution: whether state courts must adhere to the spirit and letter of decisions of the United States Supreme Court." Steiker and the clinic supervisors (Owen, Marcus, and Levin) will involve students in the difficult task of briefing the case for the Court and preparing for the staggering range of federal and state issues that bear on the resolution of the case.
UT Law Dean Lawrence Sager said he was "very pleased that our students will again be able to participate in such important and high-level litigation." Sager added that "our Capital Punishment Center, in combining scholarly and litigation opportunities, is undoubtedly one of the strongest programs of its type at any law school in the country."
The Center recently hosted a panel discussion focusing on death penalty cases during the 2005 Supreme Court Term and will host a symposium concerning Representation in Capital Cases in early February, bringing together scholars, judges, practitioners, and legislators to analyze attorney performance in Texas death penalty cases.