In Cruz v. Arizona, 598 U.S. ____ (2023), the U.S. Supreme Court sided with John Montenegro Cruz, a death row inmate in Arizona.According to a 5-4 majority, Arizona erred in refusing to apply the Court’s precedent set forth in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994), which requires states to inform juries whether a capital defendant will be eligible for release if they are not sentenced to death.
Facts of the Case
In 2005, John Montenegro Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Tucson police officer. Both at trial and on direct appeal, Cruz argued that under Simmons, he should have been allowed to inform the jury that a life sentence in Arizona would be without parole. In Simmons, the Supreme Court held that where a defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and state law prohibits his release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible.
The trial court and Arizona Supreme Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme did not trigger application of Simmons. After Cruz’s conviction became final, the Supreme Court held in Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016), that it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons “did not apply” in Arizona.
Cruz then sought to raise the Simmons issue again in a state postconviction petition under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), which permits a defendant to bring a successive petition if “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.”
The Arizona Supreme Court had previously interpreted Rule 32.1(g) to require “some transformative event, a clear break from the past.” State v. Shrum, 220 Ariz. 115, 118, 203 P. 3d 1175, 1178 (2009)). “The archetype of such a change occurs when an appellate court overrules previously binding case law,” the court further explained in Shrum. Nonetheless, the Arizona Supreme Court held that Lynch was not a significant change in the law because “the law relied upon by the Supreme Court in [Lynch]—Simmons—was clearly established at the time of Cruz’s trial…despite the misapplication of that law by the Arizona courts.” Cruz subsequently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court held that the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Lynch was not a significant change in the law is an exceptional case where a state-court judgment rests on such a novel and unforeseeable interpretation of a state-court procedural rule that the decision is not adequate to foreclose review of the federal claim.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained, the Supreme Court does not decide a question of federal law in a case if the state-court judgment “rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.” However, according to the majority, the case is an exception under Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 347 (1964), in which the Court held that “an unforeseeable and unsupported state-court decision on a question of state procedure does not constitute an adequate ground to preclude this Court’s review of a federal question.”
According to the majority, Arizona’s application of 32.1(g) toLynchshould have been straightforward. “Lynch overruled binding Arizona precedent,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Before Lynch, Arizona courts held that capital defendants were not entitled to inform the jury of their parole ineligibility. After Lynch, Arizona courts recognize that capital defendants have a due process right to provide the jury with that information when future dangerousness is at issue. It is hard to imagine a clearer break from the past.”
The majority also noted that while the Arizona Supreme Court reasoned that a significant change in the application of a law is not the same as a significant change in the law itself, Arizona can point to no other Rule 32.1(g) decision supporting that distinction. “This interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is entirely new and in conflict with prior Arizona case law. The State points to no other instance in which the overturning of binding Arizona precedent failed to satisfy Rule 32.1(g)’s ‘significant change in the law’ requirement,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Nor has the State identified any other Rule 32.1(g) decision distinguishing between a ‘change in the law’ and a ‘change in the application of the law.’ The application of Rule 32.1(g) below is thus the opposite of firmly established and regularly followed.” The majority went on to find that novelty arises from the way in which the Arizona Supreme Court disregarded the effect of Lynch on Arizona law. As Justice Sotomayor explained, Arizona courts applying Rule 32.1(g) typically focus on how a decision changes the law that is operative in the State. In this case, however, the Arizona Supreme Court disregarded the many state precedents overruled by Lynch, focusing instead on whether Lynch had wrought a significant change in federal law. Thus, the Court ultimately concluded that because the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation is so novel and unforeseeable, it could not constitute an adequate state procedural ground for the challenged decision.