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Keeping up with rulings from the United States Supreme Court is just as important to us as blogging about relevant practitioner issues. Please use this page as a way to stay updated on the changes in the Criminal Law area as we work to research, analyze, predict, and summarize the decisions of the Supreme Court. 

 Recent Supreme Court Cases

Buck v. Davis

No. 15-8049

Argued on Oct. 5, 2016


Facts: Mr. Buck was convicted of murdering his then-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and Kenneth Butler in 1996.  During trial Mr. Buck was represented by Danny Easterling and Jerry Guerinot; the latter attorney had a well-documented track record of ineffective counsel in Capital cases—twenty of Mr. Geurinot’s clients were sentenced to Death Row.  During sentencing, the central issue was whether Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future—if the jury unanimously found Mr. Buck to be dangerous in the future, then they would impose the death penalty—Dr. Quijano was retained by defense counsel to testify as to Mr. Buck’s future danger.  Dr. Quijano testified that based on “statistical factors or environmental factors” Mr. Buck was a future danger because Blacks and Hispanics are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System[G1] ; Mr. Buck is Black.  The Jury unanimously found Mr. Buck to be a future danger and sentenced him to death.  In 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn conceded in a press statement that race should not be factored into when determining the imposition of Capital punishment.  Over the next twenty years, Mr. Buck went back and forth with state and federal courts over the validity of his Constitutional claims.  In 2014, Mr. Buck filed a Rule 60(b)(6) motion detailing eleven facts to support “extraordinary circumstances” justifying the reopening of his case and alternatively, a 28 U.S.C. §2253(c) Certificate of Appealability (COA).  The District Court denied his motion and his (COA) reasoning that his circumstances were not extraordinary and any prejudice by counsel was harmless even though the District Court agreed with Mr. Buck and found that the trial counsel acted recklessly and exposed Mr. Buck to racial prejudice.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision reasoning that Mr. Buck’s circumstances were not at all extraordinary, and any harm committed by Dr. Quijano was de minimis during sentencing.  Mr. Buck filed a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court challenging the Circuit’s grounds for denial.

Question Presented: The central issue is whether the Fifth Circuit imposed an impermissibly high Certificate of Appealability (COA) standard that flouts Supreme Court precedent and further highlights a circuit split between the Fifth, Fourth, and Eleventh Circuits.  Additionally, Buck provides the Supreme Court with an opportunity to address the continuous racial bias seen throughout the Criminal Justice System when it hears argument over whether Mr. Buck’s trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective when counsel knowingly presented “expert” testimony alleging that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black resulting in the imposition of the death penalty.

Argument: Mr. Buck argues three reasons why a reasonable jurist could unquestionably debate the extraordinariness of the circumstances identified and thus his Certificate of Appealability should have been given.  First, the Fifth Circuit denied relief based on the merits.  Second, the Fifth Circuit failed to apply the proper Rule 60(b) standard.  Finally, the Fifth Circuit ignored the underlying racial discrimination within Sentencing, and generally within the Criminal Justice System. The State of Texas argues that Mr. Buck failed to meet the “extraordinary circumstances” requirement for a COA, and Mr. Buck failed to establish a valid claim of denial of his right to effective counsel.


Impact: Capital cases require the highest standard of ethics and the greatest sense of advocacy within the litigation spectrum, particularly because of a person's life—not just liberty—is at play[G2] ; this heightened sense applies to both defense counsels and prosecutors.  When race is arbitrarily factored into death penalty cases via the ineffective [G3] assistance of defense counsel,[G4]  prosecutorial misconduct, or similar derivative the integrity of the Criminal Justice System is profoundly undermined.  The appellate process is designed to resolve such miscarriages of justice, and in this case, a Certificate of Appealability and Rule 60(b) Motion are those vehicles to remedy such injustices.  Thus, Buck v. Davis is not just about one man’s life, but about the mechanisms in place within our judicial system to combat racial discrimination and block the pernicious prospect of executing someone based largely on the color of their skin.[G5] 

Written By: Roberto Martinez, Staffer

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