U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr./Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

By siding with the Supreme Court’s liberal wing on Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. saved the life of an Alabama death row inmate for now. But Roberts may have taken that step primarily to teach Alabama and its courts a lesson.

Ruling in Madison v. Alabama, the court returned the case of Vernon Madison back to the Alabama courts to reconsider his mental competency under a Supreme Court standard that the state court appears to have ignored or misunderstood.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the 5-3 majority, expressed doubt that the state court “knew [that] a person with dementia might receive a stay of execution.” As a result, she wrote, the Alabama court’s most recent execution order “calls out for a do-over.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate in the decision because he was not on the court when the case was argued Oct. 2.

The Madison ruling is just the kind of decision Roberts can embrace, because of his apparent displeasure that lower courts are too often circumventing or ignoring the high court’s decisions and doctrine. The decision is the latest in several recent instances in which Roberts has sided with the liberal justices.

“There have been several cases this year where the court may be telling lower courts, ‘We said what we meant, and now we are letting you know that we meant what we said,’” according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Just last week, in Moore v. Texas, another death row case involving an inmate with mental disabilities, the justices sent the case back to the state’s court of criminal appeals because, in essence, it had ignored an earlier Supreme Court decision in the same case.

In a curt concurrence, Roberts wrote, “The court repeated the same errors that this Court previously condemned. … That did not pass muster under this Court’s analysis last time. It still doesn’t.”

The Madison and Moore decisions are not the only cases, Dunham said, that “have gone to the Supreme Court twice” and provoked anger from the justices for what seems to be “a concerted effort to avoid constitutional rules the Supreme Court has set down.”

And the trend has spread beyond just death penalty cases, especially when lower courts make errors that cast the federal judiciary in a negative light. In recent years Roberts has been given the label of “institutionalist,” preserving the dignity, independence and decorum of the judicial branch.

In Yovino v. Rizo, an unsigned per curiam opinion issued Monday, the court cited some of its own precedents in dismissing a Ninth Circuit tradition that allowed the votes of deceased justices to count in decisions issued after their death.

“That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death,” the court wrote. “But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” Because of the decision’s tone of disapproval for the Ninth Circuit doing the wrong thing, some court-watchers speculated that Roberts wrote the opinion.

 

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