Cruz v. Arizona (U.S. Supreme Court, February 2023)

The Federal Docket

July 24, 2023

John Montenegro Cruz was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death under Arizona state law. Cruz appealed, arguing that he should have been allowed to inform the jury that a life sentence in Arizona is without parole, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Simmons v. South Carolina, but the Arizona Supreme Court held Simmons did not apply in Arizona. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Lynch v. Arizona that Simmons did in fact apply in Arizona, and Cruz sought to appeal again.

Cruz tried to raise the Simmons issue in Arizona state court under a state rule of criminal procedure, Rule 32.1(g), that allows successive post-conviction appeals only if there has been a “significant change in the law.” Cruz’s new petition was rejected after the Arizona Supreme Court held that Lynch was “not a significant change in the law.”

In a 5-4 decision, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that “Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Lynch was not a significant change in the law is an exceptional case where a state-court judgment rests on such a novel and unforeseeable interpretation of a state court procedural rule that the decision is not adequate to foreclose review of the federal claim.”

The majority wrote: “While the [Arizona Supreme Court] reasoned that a significant change in the application of a law is not the same as a significant change in the law itself, Arizona can point to no other Rule 32.1(g) decision supporting that distinction. This interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is entirely new and conflicts with prior Arizona case law. The novelty arises from the way in which the Arizona Supreme Court disregarded the effect of Lynch on Arizona law. Ordinarily, Arizona courts applying Rule 32.1(g) focus on how a decision changes the law that is operative in the State. Here, however, the Arizona Supreme Court disregarded the many state precedents overruled
by Lynch, focusing instead on whether Lynch had wrought a significant change in federal law. Because the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation is so novel and unforeseeable, it cannot constitute an adequate state procedural ground for the challenged decision.” Essentially, the Court held that the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision was so unusual, and inconsistent with how it had interpreted other changes in the law, that there was still federal jurisdiction to consider Cruz’s petition.

In dissent, Justice Barrett argued that the bar for disturbing state-court rulings on state-law questions was high and that Cruz had not shown that the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision was inadequate.

Opinion by Sotomayor, joined by Roberts, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Jackson
Dissent by Barrett, joined by Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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