A short-handed U.S. Supreme Court opened the second day of its new judicial term Tuesday, hearing oral arguments in an appeal of a corruption case against a senator in Puerto Rico and reviewing briefs in an appeal of a death-penalty sentence in Texas.
The eight jurists, absent a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, first heard the appeal of Hector Martinez-Maldonado, a former senator from Puerto Rico. He and a prominent businessman from the U.S. territory in the Caribbean were convicted in a corruption case involving political favors in a trip to a boxing match in the U.S. city of Las Vegas in return for Martinez-Maldonado's vote on legislation of interest to his co-defendant.
A federal appeals court subsequently threw out the conviction after finding the trial judge's instructions to the jury were flawed. Prosecutors are seeking to retry the duo, and the high court will rule on defense arguments that a retrial would violate their clients' constitutional protection against being tried twice for the same crime.
In preparation for another round of oral arguments Wednesday, the high court reviewed documents about the appeal of a death sentence issued nearly 20 years ago to an African-American defendant convicted in Texas of killing his ex-girlfriend and a man in her Houston apartment.
Lawyers seeking a new hearing on the punishment phase of the trial argue the jury's decision in 1997 was tainted by evidence related to race.
The Supreme Court's new term began Monday, but formal proceedings were delayed until Tuesday due to the Jewish new year holiday, Rosh Hashana. No replacement for Scalia is expected any time soon, and analysts say the prolonged process of installing a new justice, including extensive hearings on Capitol Hill, may mean that no one will be selected until the court's eight-month-long term ends in mid-2017.
The process of naming and approving a new justice is complicated this year by the presidential election on Nov. 8, and procedural delays as a new administration takes over the government in January.
President Barack Obama nominated an experienced federal judge, Merrick Garland, to fill the Scalia vacancy months ago, but Republican Party leaders who control the U.S. Senate have refused to hold hearings on Obama's choice, saying the vacancy should not be filled until a new president is inaugurated.
Scalia's death in February left the court with four liberal-leaning judges and four conservatives, triggering a war of words in Congress and in much of the country over the issue of presidential nominations and the need to fill court vacancies.
On Monday, the split court rejected a request by Obama for a rehearing of a major immigration case that deadlocked in June in a 4-4 decision. Without a rehearing, the legal action reverted to a lower court's decision that blocked the president's plan to shield millions of undocumented immigrants in the country from deportation.