The 5-4 decision spares at least four states from having to decide whether to spend millions of dollars for new sentencing hearings or consent to prison sentences for the convicted killers.
It was issued on the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling that the constitutional right to a trial by jury means that jurors should weigh factors that determine whether a particular killing merits death or life in prison. Justices said in the follow-up decision that the 2002 ruling does not apply retroactively.
The case involved the biggest death penalty issue of the court's term, which is expected to end next week. Next fall, justices will consider a broader subject, whether it is unconstitutional for states to execute people who committed their capital crimes when they were juveniles.
"This is literally a life-or-death decision for over 100 capital inmates who now will stay on death row even though the procedure that put them there has been invalidated," says CBSNews.com legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "Now, they might have ended up back there had they been re-sentenced but the court said today that states don't even have to go through that process."
In Thursday's case, justices ruled against Arizona prisoner Warren Wesley Summerlin, sentenced to die more than 20 years ago by a judge who later lost his job because of a drug problem. Summerlin was convicted of raping and bludgeoning to death a bill collector who came to his house in 1981 to collect a payment for a piano.
The 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, forced changes in the death penalty laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado, because those states left it to judges to determine whether a killer should be executed. The ruling also cast doubt on death-sentencing procedures in other states that used a combination of juries and judges to impose death sentences.
Had the high court ruled the other way, states would have had to decide whether to pursue death sentences for 85 Arizona inmates and about 25 others in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska. Inmates in other states also could have tried to use the ruling to win new sentences.
Summerlin's death sentence had been overturned by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, under the 2002 Ring decision. Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit, reinstating Summerlin's death sentence.
Arizona argued that the sentencing change required by the court two years ago was not significant enough to warrant reopening old cases.
The ultimate question for the Supreme Court, which does not automatically make its rulings retroactive, was whether this one involved "watershed" rules.
It did not, said Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court.
"The right to jury trial is fundamental to our system of criminal procedure, and states are bound to enforce the Sixth Amendment's guarantees as we interpret them," Scalia wrote.
It does not follow, however, that when a defendant has had a full trial and has lost the appeal of his conviction "he may nonetheless continue to litigate his claims indefinitely on hopes that we will one day have a change of heart," Scalia wrote.
Chief Justice H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas agreed with Scalia.
On the other side were four of the court's more moderate justices: John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Ginsburg had written the 7-2 Ring ruling that found the Constitution guarantees a trial by a jury, and that right would be "senselessly diminished" if jurors did not also weigh whether a particular killing merits death or life in prison.
She agreed with the dissent's author, Breyer, that the Ring ruling should be considered a watershed.
Nationwide, about 3,400 inmates await execution in the 38 states that allow capital punishment. Arizona has about 130 people on its death row. Only California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Alabama have more.
The case is Schriro v. Summerlin, 03-526.