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By Ed Beeson
When the plea of the Alabama death row inmate hit the reject pile, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reached for a trusty tool to express her disagreement with her fellow jurists — and to tell the rest of the world why she thought they were wrong.
It was November 2013, and the justices denied a petition from Mario Dion Woodward, a convicted cop killer who’d been sentenced to die despite a jury’s recommendation that he be spared.As usual, the court gave no explanation for why it passed over the case. But Justice Sotomayor thought it missed a ripe opportunity to revisit Alabama’s judicial overrides law.
In an unusual 17-page dissent joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, she argued that there were plenty of reasons to take a fresh look at the state’s capital punishment sentencing scheme. Among other things, Alabama’s elected judges appeared to be bowing to voting-booth pressures, she wrote, because studies have found they've tended to impose death sentences over jury wishes more often during election years.This “casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system,” she wrote.
Her concerns about the law’s constitutionality made headlines and, in the end, carried the day. This past April, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill to undo judicial overrides in the state, after similar laws were invalidated in Florida and Delaware.
In a recent exclusive interview with Law360, Justice Sotomayor reflected on this turnabout as an example of one of the things she hopes to accomplish with the passionate and forceful dissents she’s become known for writing.
Law360 subscribers can read the full interview with Justice Sotomayor.
Read the 1st installment of Law360's exclusive interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Law360 subscribers can also read Law360's exclusive interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Part 1 and Part 2.
Not a subscriber? Access your FREE 7-day trial of Law360.