Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Justice Sotomayor's Style in Hurst v. Florida

Last fall I discussed the briefs in an important death penalty case before the Supreme Court, Hurst v. Florida. Earlier this month, the Court struck down Florida’s death penalty scheme as unconstitutional. Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, which contains some good examples of her strong writing style.

“Just the Facts”

Many lawyers and judges include too many irrelevant details and not enough important ones. As Justice Sotomayor demonstrates, short, straightforward sentences with only the most important details help the reader focus on what’s important. Consider this passage of the factual background:

On May 2, 1998, Cynthia Harrison’s body was discovered in the freezer of the restaurant where she worked—bound, gagged, and stabbed over 60 times. The restaurant safe was unlocked and open, missing hundreds of dollars. The State of Florida charged Harrison’s co-worker, Timothy Lee Hurst, with her murder.

During Hurst’s 4–day trial, the State offered substantial forensic evidence linking Hurst to the murder. Witnesses also testified that Hurst announced in advance that he planned to rob the restaurant; that Hurst and Harrison were the only people scheduled to work when Harrison was killed; and that Hurst disposed of blood-stained evidence and used stolen money to purchase shoes and rings.

Hurst responded with an alibi defense. He claimed he never made it to work because his car broke down. Hurst told police that he called the restaurant to let Harrison know he would be late. He said she sounded scared and he could hear another person—presumably the real murderer—whispering in the background.

No discussion of who found Harrison. No great detail about the investigation or what lead authorities to Hurst. No recitation of the specifics of that “substantial forensic evidence.” No names.   

Why? Because these details aren’t important to the legal question at issue, don’t support the majority’s decision in any way, and would be superfluous. Justice Sotomayor keeps the reader focused on only the most salient facts.  

Sentence Starters

In both Point Made and Point Taken, Ross Guberman recommends removing bulky transition phrases in favor of more streamlined ones. Justice Sotomayor does that expertly in her Hurst opinion:

-Even if Ring normally requires a jury to hear all facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death, Florida argues, Ring does not require jury findings on facts defendants have admitted.

-At most, [Hurst’s] counsel simply refrained from challenging the aggravating circumstances in parts of his appellate briefs.

-And in the Apprendi context, we have found that stare decisis does not compel adherence to a decision whose underpinnings have been eroded by subsequent developments of constitutional law.

Alliteration and Imagery

I love alliteration, and Justice Sotomayor gives us a good example of double alliteration when talking about Florida’s efforts to defend its death sentencing scheme:

-Florida launches its second salvo at Hurst himself.

Justice Sotomayor also uses water imagery to show the “tide of change” in constitutional jurisprudence:

-Without contesting Ring’s holding, Florida offers a bevy of arguments for why Hurst’s sentence is constitutional. None holds water.

And later,

-Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of Spaziano and Hildwin.  

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