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Supreme Court Rules On Insanity Defense, Weighs In On Video Piracy Suit


The Supreme Court was supposed to begin a two-week round of oral arguments in some big cases yesterday. But, you know, I've been in that courtroom; the nine seats at the bench, they're not six feet apart. And the arguments were postponed. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Nothing at the court is as usual. Last Friday's conference, where cases are discussed and votes taken, was very different. Normally, the nine justices gather together in the conference room with nobody else there so that they can discuss pending cases. This past Friday, though, the only justice in the conference room was Chief Justice John Roberts. Following federal social distancing advice, all the other justices were at home participating on a very high-level conference call.

Yesterday, again, the norm was broken. Usually, the nine take the bench at 10 o'clock on a decision day with the author of each opinion summarizing the ruling. Instead, yesterday, the opinions were released online, starting at the same time. Those decisions varied from the very serious to the sublime. On the very serious side, the court ruled that states are free to abandon the insanity defense for accused criminals who claim they did not know right from wrong.

Kansas is one of just five states that have, for all practical purposes, eliminated the insanity defense. But Monday's 6-to-3 ruling explicitly opened the door for other states to follow suit. The decision came in the case of James Kahler, sentenced to death for killing his wife and three other family members. The court majority said that as long as Kahler could introduce evidence at his sentencing hearing that he lacked the intent to kill, the state does have an insanity defense, even though it's not the one Kahler wanted. The three dissenters accused the majority of throwing out centuries of Anglo-American law.

If the Kahler case carried potentially enormous consequences for the criminal justice system, another case carried some sublime history. It centered on the sunken remains of Blackbeard's flagship vessel, captured from the French in 1717 and discovered off the coast of North Carolina in 1996 - also, the videographer who documented the salvage operation for some two decades. The actual legal question has more to do with mundane copyright law than the law of the high seas, but it's a great tale anyway.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.