The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review its stance on how death sentences are imposed.
The high court said it will clarify the impact of its ruling last year that juries, not a judge, must decide if a convicted killer lives or dies.
The high court forced changes in the death penalty laws of five states in 2002 because those states gave judges the final say. But the court did not make clear how its ruling should apply retroactively to inmates already on death row.
Lower courts have divided over that question, which affects more than 100 death row inmates, and the Supreme Court has agreed to clear up the confusion.
The high court agreed to review the case of an Arizona man convicted of raping and killing a collection agent in 1981. Warren Wesley Summerlin had spent more than two decades on death row when a federal appeals court overturned his death sentence earlier this year.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said its ruling stemmed from the earlier Supreme Court case, Ring v. Arizona, and that the high court's reasoning in the Ring case should apply retroactively to other death row inmates who had exhausted all appeals.
Other state and federal appeals courts had ruled the other way.
In the Ring case, a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, must make the crucial decisions that send someone to death row.
The ruling invalidated the death sentence laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado and called into question whether 168 inmates then on death row in those states would be put to death. The Ring ruling also cast doubt on death sentences imposed in four additional states that used a combination of juries and judges to impose the death penalty.
"This ruling will create some clarity," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. But he points out, "even if those inmates 'win' they'll simply win life sentences without parole."
The court on Monday also:
said it would decide if U.S. agents can sneak into countries to arrest suspected criminals and bring them to the United States for trial, in a case that tests the reach of the government's terrorism-fighting powers;
agreed to hear an appeal from an Alabama death row inmate who claims execution by lethal injection would be unconstitutionally cruel because of his medical condition. He is on death row for a 1978 murder;
disappointed gun owner groups by refusing to consider whether the Constitution guarantees people a personal right to own a gun;
said it will decide whether workers who quit their jobs have the same protections against sexual harassment as those who are fired;
said the California atheist who wants the words "under God" stripped from the Pledge of Allegiance can argue before the court next year. The court granted an exception to Michael Newdow, a doctor and lawyer who is not a member of the Supreme Court Bar but wanted to argue the case himself;
rejected the University of Florida's student-run newspaper's appeal to see Dale Earnhardt's autopsy pictures. The court denied the paper's appeal of a Florida law passed after the racer's death, barring public access to autopsy photos;
dealt a blow to large drug manufacturers refusing to hear an appeal over patent rights for drugs that are prescribed for uses the Food and Drug Administration has not officially approved;
refused to stop a lawsuit against Dow Chemical Corp., alleging it violated securities law in a business deal with a power facilities company;
said it would not intervene in a fight between the government and Shell Petroleum Inc. over $35 million in oil tax credits. Shell contends the government did not give it proper credit for production on properties in Southern California;
rejected an appeal from General Motors Corp., which claims it was underpaid about $300 million by the government; and
said it will clarify pension rights for workers who retire early from one job and then go to work doing something else.