Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Urged the Court to “Correct” a 26-Year-Old Precedent

By: Ben Campbell | Last updated: Jul 15, 2024

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has advised the court to “correct” a nearly three-decade-old precedent involving a minor exception to U.S. citizens’ right to a fair trial as laid out in the Sixth Amendment.

Thomas’ comments were prompted by a recent court ruling in the Erlinger v. United States case. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals voted 6-3 in favor of not disturbing a district court sentencing of Paul Erlinger, who was given 15 years in jail for unlawful possession of a firearm — a decision that has significant implications.

Erlinger Receives 15-Year Sentence

Paul Erlinger was convicted of having a firearm in his possession as a felon, which would typically result in a ten-year prison sentence.

Advertisement
A man is pictured standing in a prison cell

Source: Wikimedia

However, as the defendant was charged under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), the court was forced to issue a minimum sentence of 15 years. The ACCA has specific sentencing guidelines for defendants who have three prior convictions ranging from serious drug offenses to violent felonies.

Defendant Protests the Court Ruling

Newsweek reports Erlinger immediately protested the court’s ruling and decided to try to appeal the sentencing.

Advertisement
A photograph of a judge’s hammer

Source: Freepik

According to the defendant, the ACCA sentencing only applies to separate occurrences as opposed to a single criminal episode. Erlinger argued that since his string of burglaries occurred in one period, he doesn’t have the three prior convictions required for the ACCA to pass the minimum sentence of 15 years.

Entitlement to Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights

Furthermore, Erlinger has voiced concern over the court’s decision to dismiss his constitutional rights.

Advertisement
A photograph of the U.S. Constitution

Source: Freepik

According to the defendant, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments entitle him to ask a jury to assess whether his crimes should be considered a single episode or if they occurred over an extended period, a decision he was not granted.

District Court Denies Erlinger Request

A district court decided to deny the defendant’s request for a jury, which has since sparked a great deal of controversy online.

Advertisement
A judge is pictured slamming his hammer

Source: Freepik

Shortly after the decision, the U.S. Government admitted they had made a mistake in the ruling, explaining that the Constitution clearly states that Erlinger has the right to a jury, who will undoubtedly decide whether his felonies were committed on separate occasions.

Erlinger Takes His Case to the Supreme Court

Unhappy with the district court’s ruling, Erlinger decided to take his case to the Supreme Court, hoping they might grant him the chance to stand before a jury.

Advertisement
A photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court

Source: Wikimedia

The Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Erlinger was a significant moment, affirming the importance of juries in determining enhanced sentences according to AOCC guidelines.

Advertisement

Supreme Court Vacates the Decision of the Seventh Circuit

The Supreme Court later released its majority opinion, which states, “The right to a jury trial ‘has always been’ an important part of what keeps this Nation ‘free.'”

Advertisement
A judge hammer pictured alongside a small scale

Source: Wikimedia

They continued, “Because the Fifth and Sixth Amendments do not tolerate the denial of that right in this case, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is vacated, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Advertisement

Justice Neil Gorsuch on the Decision

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, further emphasized that the Seventh Court of Appeals decision intrudes on the power of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Advertisement
A photograph of Justice Neil Gorsuch standing beside Donald Trump

Source: Wikimedia

“Judges may not assume the jury’s fact-finding function for themselves, let alone purport to perform it using a mere preponderance-of-the-evidence standard,” he wrote.

Advertisement

Justice Thomas Speaks Up

Speaking on a separate event with a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas referenced the 1998 case Almendarez-Torres v. United States, which needs correcting.

Advertisement
A photograph of Justice Thomas

Source: Wikimedia

“The Court created a ‘narrow exception’ to the Sixth Amendment’s general rule and allowed a judge to find ‘the fact of a prior conviction,’ even though that fact increases a defendant’s punishment,” said Thomas.

Advertisement

Sharp Conflict Between Two Cases

According to Justice Thomas, “the Court acknowledges the sharp conflict,” which is evident in the cases Erlinger V. United States and Almendarez-Torres v. United States.

Advertisement
A photograph of a judge’s hammer positioned in front of several legal books

Source: Wikimedia

However, according to his opinion, the Court has decided to “extend that dubious exception” in Almendarez-Torres v. United States to Erlinger’s case, which could undermine the entire legal system.

Advertisement

Thomas Calls on Judges to Revisit Case

Justice Thomas appears remorseful for the role he played in the Almendarez-Torres case and has urged the Court to correct the decision.

Advertisement
A photograph of Justice Thomas

Source: Wikimedia

“I continue to adhere to my view that we should revisit Almendarez-Torres and correct the ‘error to which I succumbed’ by joining that decision,” Thomas added.

Advertisement

Time to Revisit the Case Says Justice

According to Thomas, “Each [Supreme Court] Term, criminal defendants file a flood of petitions specifically presenting this Court with opportunities to reconsider Almendarez-Torres.”

Advertisement
A photograph of a lawyer meeting with a client

Source: Freepik

In light of Erlinger’s win, Thomas used this as an opportunity to explain, “Today’s decision demonstrates further that ‘[i]t is time for this Court to do its part’ by granting one of those many petitions and overruling Almendarez-Torres.”

Advertisement