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The Supreme Court Just Sided With Criminal Defendants In Two Cases

Justices rejected a higher standard set by a court for inmates seeking funds to challenge their conviction and a lower standard sought by the government for convicting people of obstructing IRS investigations.

Posted on March 21, 2018, at 11:40 a.m. ET

Chris Geidner/BuzzFeed

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of criminal defendants in two cases Wednesday.

Justices rejected a higher standard set by a court for inmates seeking funds to challenge their conviction and a lower standard sought by the federal government for convicting people of obstructing IRS investigations.

In the first case, the justices unanimously held that the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had set an incorrectly high standard for reviewing whether a death row inmate, Carlos Ayestas, can get funds to investigate claims that he received ineffective assistance from his lawyers earlier in his case.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court's opinion, holding that the 5th Circuit's standard that an inmate show a "substantial need" for, as Alito put it, "services provided by experts, investigators, and the like," was a higher — and therefore improper — standard than the "reasonably necessary" standard set forth in the law at question. The 5th Circuit covers Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred with Alito's decision, writing to add — in an opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — that "there should be little doubt that Ayestas has satisfied" that lower, proper standard.

In the second case, the justices decided on a 7–2 vote to reverse the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and narrowly interpret a criminal obstruction law regarding IRS investigations — a decision that will make it more difficult to convict people under the felony obstruction provision.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled in favor of defendant Carlo Marinello's argument that the IRS obstruction law requires that the government prove the person charged engaged in the claimed conduct obstructing IRS work in regard to "a particular administrative proceeding, such as an investigation, an audit, or other targeted administrative action."

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Alito, dissented, writing that the obstruction statute says it applies to the whole IRS code and places no proceeding-related limits on its application. "The Court may well prefer a statute written that way, but that is not what Congress enacted," he stated in dissent.

The rulings came a day after the court ruled, at least temporarily, on the side of another criminal defendant — halting Missouri, on a 5–4 vote, from proceeding with the execution of Russell Bucklew. Bucklew's lawyers argue that the state's lethal injection plan — as applied to him specifically due to his particular health conditions — would violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

The court issued a stay of execution for Bucklew while the justices decide whether to hear his case.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.