According to a recent analysis of death penalty cases in the Sixth Circuit by the Cincinnati Enquirer, questions of life or death for inmates are decided based on who appointed the judges on their appellate panel. The article summed up this disturbing trend, which “raises fundamental questions about the fairness of the system,” as follows: “If the judges assigned to a case were appointed by Democratic presidents, odds are good they will overturn a death sentence because of new evidence or mistakes made during the trial. If the judges were appointed by Republicans, the chances are slim.”
Describing the process by which death sentences are reviewed as “very much like a lottery,” many legal scholars and commentators are troubled by this “very stark” trend. One said, “It makes blind justice look like part of the political system.” Another observed, “When you have the courts…making such divergent rulings on similar facts and circumstances, it really throws off-kilter the administration of justice.” The most poignant example of the arbitrary nature of this process is a defendant who won his appeal in the 6th Circuit once but later found himself back in the same court for “what amounted to a new hearing on the same issues.” The second time, with the addition of four new conservative judges--and the same evidence and arguments--he lost.
This appalling situation demonstrates how important it is to support the confirmation of fair and independent judges at the circuit court level. Because when it comes to randomly selected panels, it is clear that “life-and-death decisions often hinge on the luck of the draw.”