Supreme Court Upholds the Double Jeopardy Exception

Supreme Court

I suspect most people don’t realize there is a key legal loophole that allows people to be prosecuted more than once for the same crime. It’s understandable that people would not realize this, as the Fifth Amendment pretty clearly states: “… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…” It’s a principle handed down through the common law, and appears to date all the way back to the Roman Empire. However, U.S. courts have allowed people to be tried, and punished, for duplicate offenses if those offenses are prosecuted in different jurisdictions: State and Federal. That is, even if a state court has tried, convicted, and sentenced someone for a charge in state court, the federal government can also try, convict, and sentence them in federal court. The sentences can even run consecutively, that is, one after the other.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision in a case, Gamble v. United States, that could have reversed the long-standing exception to the bar on double jeopardy. Instead, a 7-2 majority upheld the double jeopardy exception. The majority opinion found that the separate laws are defined by different sovereigns: although “separate sovereigns” is a judicial construct that does not appear in the Constitution. Mark Joseph Stern at Slate points out that dissenting justices Ginsburg and Gorsuch cite founding father Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist papers, argue that sovereignty derives from the people and that the federal and state governments are to be regarded as “ONE WHOLE”. So, the two-sovereignty theory fails the framer’s intent test, as well as failing to convince the court’s leading textualist in Gorsuch. The plain language of the Fifth Amendment does not seem to support that the “atom of sovereignty” can be split so as to place a person twice in jeopardy for the same offense.

This is not a change of law, the courts have long upheld the state/federal exception to the bar against double jeopardy. However, for those that have long thought the state of the law did not reflect the intent of the Constitution, this opinion represents a missed opportunity to close this loophole and protect this right of the people.

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