Justices will review the case of a man who claims he was unfairly sentenced after being convicted of drowning an elderly woman in her bathtub. The court could use the case of Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins to clarify the threshold for ineffective counsel claims in capital cases.
The subject of bad lawyering has bothered some court members in recent years, and two justices publicly criticized the quality of death penalty lawyers.
In other action Monday, the justices agreed to take a new look at federal limits on campaign contributions to candidates.
The court will decide whether certain advocacy groups can contribute to candidates' campaigns. Currently, only individuals, political action committees, political parties and other campaign committees can give to candidates.
At issue in this case is whether North Carolina Right to Life and other nonprofit advocacy corporations — groups that raise money not through business ventures but through donations from supporters — can make campaign contributions. Such groups have neither business interests nor shareholders.
The case is unrelated to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which bans unlimited corporate, labor and individual contributions to the political parties. Opponents have challenged that law in the lower courts.
While the bad-lawyering case doesn't go to the merits of the death penalty debate, CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen says it will impact capital punishment laws.
"If the court sides with the defendant, it will encourage states to give capital defendants more experienced and better trained lawyers at trial," says Cohen. "And if the court sides with Maryland, it will be signaling to states that the way things are currently done in capital cases is permissible under the Constitution."
As the court reviews the Wiggins case, Maryland leaders have been reconsidering the death penalty. In this case, and others on that state's death row, the victim was white and the convicted killer was black.
Maryland's governor suspended executions in that state earlier this year while a study is done on whether capital punishment is used in a racially discriminatory way. Nine of the 13 men on Maryland's death row when the moratorium began were black. The governor-elect is expected to resume executions.
Wiggins' appeal becomes the fifth death penalty case that the Supreme Court will review this term. The other four involve mechanics of imposing capital punishment.
The Wiggins case also involves a technical issue — what standard should be used in evaluating ineffective counsel claims.
Wiggins had never been convicted of a crime before, but jurors who considered his sentence may have been confused, his new lawyers said. Public defenders also did not tell the jury that Wiggins, who is mentally retarded, was beaten and raped as a child after being put in foster care when his abusive and alcoholic mother abandoned him.
His new attorneys said there was an inadequate check into his background. They also questioned whether there was enough evidence for a judge to find him guilty in the first place.
A federal judge threw out the conviction and death sentence, but an appeals court reinstated them.
The chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, said he had doubts about Wiggins' guilt, but that Maryland's governor should decide whether to commute the sentence.
"My own view is that (Wiggins) very probably committed the heinous offense for which he stands convicted," Wilkinson wrote. "But I cannot say with certainty that he did so."
In other decisions by the high court Monday:
An appeals court had ruled earlier this year that Kirsanow could join the commission. Justices left the ruling undisturbed without comment.
A majority of commission members tried to block Kirsanow from participating in meetings after his appointment last December. They argued that the term of Victoria Wilson, appointed by President Clinton in 2000, had not expired.
Justices will decide whether agencies, like the California Medical Board, have constitutional protection from lawsuits under a federal disability law.
The high court heard four cases involving the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in its last term, and all four rulings went against the disabled. The 1990 law forbids discrimination against the disabled.
Justices rejected William Reno Gerber's claim that he should be allowed to ship his sperm to his wife.
The Supreme Court ruled 60 years ago that inmates cannot be sterilized, but it's never said they have a constitutional right to procreate from behind bars.
The court turned back an appeal by the magazine, which was trying to stop a trial on Jose Solano's claims.
The dispute stems from the magazine's January 1999 issue that featured a shirtless Solano on the cover with the headline, "Baywatch's Best Body, Jose Solano." Beside his picture the magazine said: "12 Sizzling Centerfolds Ready to Score With You."
Solano argued that the magazine gave the false impression he was featured in nude pictures in the magazine. He said that cost him job offers and caused him embarrassment.