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Supreme Court Watch: Registering Sex Offenders

March 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The court handed down decisions today in cases from Connecticut and Alaska that dealt with the so-called Megan laws that require sex offenders to register with the state and keep in touch with authorities. In addition, there were rulings in two cases challenging California’s strict sentencing law known as “Three Strikes.” We get more on today’s decisions from NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for the “Chicago Tribune.” And let’s, Jan, take Megan’s laws first one case from Alaska, one case from Connecticut.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. And in both them convicted sex offenders were saying that these laws were just too broad, that they covered people who should not have to register with the state after their convictions. The Alaska case involved a challenge by a group of convicted sex offenders who said that they should not have to register with the state because they were convicted of sex offenses before the state passed that Megan’s law. It says that applying the Megan’s law requirement to them violated the Constitution expos facto clause, which means that you should not be able to subject people to additional punishments after they have already served time for their crimes. Now, the Connecticut case involved a totally different legal question. A group of convicted sex offenders there argued that they should get a hearing to show they were no longer dangerous and as a result that they no longer had to abide by the strict requirements of that law, notify the state about their employment, their license plate information, where they moved, and provide photographs.

RAY SUAREZ: How did the majority rule in the Alaska case?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, in both cases the courts sided with the state. The Alaska case was a closer call for the justices; the court ruled six to three in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy that these type of laws did not constitute an additional punishment, Justice Kennedy writing for the majority emphasized that states weren’t looking to punish convicted sex offenders again but in fact, were trying to notify the public when convicted sex offenders were moving into their neighborhoods or taking jobs that may be in their workplaces. And he said that the state furthermore — while it didn’t have this intent to punish, the law didn’t have a punitive effect — that it was not excessive. So in his opinion he ruled of course against the convicted sex offenders. Now the Connecticut case in an opinion by Chef Justice William Rehnquist was 9-0; the court was unanimous that these sex offenders were not entitled to this hearing to show that they no longer were dangerous. But several justices in concurring opinions suggested that they might be able to come back and present a slightly different constitutional argument.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, does this have the effect of making the 25 states that have Megan’s laws a little more fireproof in this way?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, I think most all states have the Megan’s laws and of course this case has been very closely watched, because these have been very important and popular laws states, enacted them of course in the wake of the murder of the 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Conka, who was killed by a sex offender who moved next door to her unbeknownst to her parents. Of course, that led all states to pass the laws and today the court said that, yes, the states did have this important interest in notifying the public.

RAY SUAREZ: In the three strikes laws again we had two separate cases making their way to the high court.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, and these were both in California. Unlike the Megan’s laws cases that involve different legal arguments, in both cases men who had been convicted of a third crime and had been subject to extremely harsh sentences argued that those excessive sentences violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which of course prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. They argued that their punishment, 25 years, 50 years to live in prison for relatively minor offenses like shoplifting was so excessive and so disproportionate to their crimes that it violated the 8th Amendment. These cases were very close today, closely decided and the court divided very narrowly 5-4 in both cases that the states laws, the states three strikes laws were not unconstitutional and that California could continue to impose harsh sentences on repeat offenders.

RAY SUAREZ: Now in one case you had a man who stole about $1200 worth of golf clubs; in another case a man who stole about $150 worth of videos out of a store. What did the justices say about the extent of these crimes, the seriousness of these crimes in relating them to the 25 and 50 year mandatory sentences?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Both of the opinions were written by Justice O’Connor and in the first indicates opinion involving the man that had stolen the golf clubs she emphasized that the state legislatures were entitled to great deference on these issues — that the court had traditionally given state legislatures an area of criminal justice policy great deference, and that California had made a policy judgment that it wanted to protect the public from repeat offenders and she said that it was all wrong to think about this as life in prison for a man who had shoplifted some golf clubs. In fact, she said he had committed a crime and he committed previous crimes and he was being punished because of being a repeat offender to such a severe degree. Now in the other case it was – it came up in a slightly different way, a slightly different way procedurally; it was a federal challenge and that involved a man who had stolen like you said the videotapes and the court in that case said that his sentence was not contrary to clearly established law and that the court would not set that aside.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, you had a very unusual dissent, didn’t you?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. In the first case Justice Breyer took about five minutes to read the dissent allowed from the bench and he said that these sentences were extreme and highly unusual and that he could find no evidence that other states could punish so harshly and furthermore said that he doubted they would have any effect at all. That’s not unheard of for justices to read aloud portions of their decision from the bench in controversial cases, but it is unusual and it reflects the extreme disagreement on the court in this case.

RAY SUAREZ: But he asked — didn’t he — if this isn’t excessive punishment, then it’s hard for him to imagine what is?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right and Justice Souter in a separate dissent in the other case said if these cases aren’t grossly disproportionate — if someone who steals the videotapes and is facing twenty-five, fifty years, to life in prison is not cruel and unusual punishment, then the principle simply has no meaning and many people today, criminal defense lawyers, civil liberties groups certainly the lawyers for the two men made that same point.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan, thanks a lot.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: You’re welcome, Ray.