Brown v. Sanders

PETITIONER: Jill L. Brown, Warden
RESPONDENT: Ronald L. Sanders
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 04-980
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2005-2006)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 212 (2006)
GRANTED: Mar 28, 2005
ARGUED: Oct 11, 2005
DECIDED: Jan 11, 2006

Jane N. Kirkland - argued the cause for Petitioner
Nina Rivkind - argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

A California trial court sentenced Sanders to death for murder. The jury was told to consider four special aggravating circumstances during sentencing. On appeal, however, the state supreme court invalidated two of these circumstances, but still upheld Sanders's sentence. Sanders then filed a federal habeas petition, which was rejected by the district court but granted by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In overturning Sanders's sentence, it held that the sentence had been substantially affected by jury instructions to consider invalid aggravating circumstances. The Ninth Circuit faulted the state supreme court for its standard of review: The court should have determined whether the invalid circumstances were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in affecting the jury's sentence.


Was the Eighth Amendment violated when the California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence even though two of the four special aggravating circumstances considered by the jury were found to be invalid?

Media for Brown v. Sanders

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 11, 2005 in Brown v. Sanders

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 11, 2006 in Brown v. Sanders

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has the opinion in No. 04-980, Brown versus Sanders.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the 9th Circuit.

The respondent, Sanders, was convicted of various crimes, including first-degree murder.

His jury found four eligibility factors under California law, each of which independently made him eligible for the death penalty.

The trial then moved to a penalty phase, at which the jury was instructed to consider a list of sentencing factors, including one which was the circumstances of the crime of which the defendant was convicted in the present proceedings and the existence of any eligibility factors.

The jury sentenced Sanders to death.

On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court invalidated two of the eligibility factors, but nonetheless affirmed Sanders’ conviction and sentence.

Sanders sought habeas relief in Federal District Court, arguing as relevant here that the jury’s consideration of invalid eligibility factors rendered his death sentence unconstitutional.

The District Court denied relief, but the 9th Circuit reversed.

The 9th Circuit held that California is what our opinions have called a “weighing state” and, applying the rules we have announced for such states, concluded that California Courts could uphold Sanders’ death sentence only by finding the jury’s use of the invalid eligibility factors to have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt or by independently reweighing the sentencing factors.

Since, the 9th Circuit continued, the state courts had done neither of these things, the death sentence was unconstitutional.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk, we reverse the judgment of the 9th Circuit.

Our cases require states to limit the class of murderers to which the death penalty may be applied.

But this narrowing of the category is usually accomplished when the trier of fact finds at least one statutorily defined eligibility factor; for example, the murder was a multiple murder, or it involved torture of the victim.

This eligibility factor can be found at either the guilt or the penalty phase.

Once the narrowing requirement has been satisfied, however, the sentencer is then called upon to determine whether a defendant thus found eligible for the death penalty should, in fact, receive it.

Most states channel this latter function by specifying the aggravating factors that are to be weighed against mitigating considerations.

In some states, the aggravating factors are identical to the eligibility factors.

The question we confront in this case is what happens when the sentencer imposes the death penalty after finding eligibility factors, one or more of which, but less than all of which, is later held to be invalid.

To answer that question, we have in the past set forth different rules for so-called “weighing” and “non-weighing states”.

We identified as weighing states those in which the only aggravating factors permitted to be considered by the sentencer were the specified eligibility factors.

Since the eligibility factors by definition identify distinct and particular aggravating features, if one of them was invalid, the jury could not consider the facts and circumstances relative to that factor as aggravating in some other capacity under some other ruling; that is, the sentencers’ consideration of an invalid eligibility factor necessarily skewed its balancing of aggravators with mitigators and so required reversal of the sentence.

By contrast, in a non-weighing state, a state that permitted the sentencer to consider aggravating factors different from or in addition to the eligibility factors, this automatic skewing would not necessarily occur.

It would never occur if the aggravating factors were entirely different from the eligibility factors, nor would it occur if the aggravating factors added to the eligibility factors a category that would allow the very facts and circumstances relative to the invalidated eligibility factor to be weighed in aggravation under a different rubric, such as under the rubric that existed here of all the circumstances of the crime.

This weighing/non-weighing scheme is accurate as far as it goes.

But it now seems to us needlessly complex and incapable of providing for the full range of possible variations; for example, the same problem that gave rise to our weighing-state jurisprudence would arise if it were a sentencing factor and rather than an eligibility factor that was later found to be invalid.

The weighing process would just as clearly have been prima facie skewed, and skewed for the same basic reason.

The sentencer might have given weight to a statutorily or constitutionally invalid aggravator.

And the prima facie skewing could, in appropriate cases, be shown to be illusory for the same reason that separates weighing states from non-weighing states; that is, one of the other aggravating factors made it entirely proper for the jury to consider as aggravating the facts and circumstances underlying the invalidated factor.

Are you with me up to now?