• U.S.

The Law: Recognizing Reality

3 minute read

Events usually outrace laws, but sooner or later the courts try to catch up with ever-changing realities. Last week the Supreme Court recognized some facts of modern life and adjusted the law accordingly:

> Charged with first-degree murder and confronted with strong state’s evidence of his guilt, Henry Alford of Winston-Salem, N.C., waived a jury trial and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Under North Carolina law, he thus risked a 30-year sentence instead of death. But even while pleading guilty, Alford protested his innocence. “I ain’t shot no man,” he told the judge. “I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t, they would gas me.” The Supreme Court ruled that Alford’s plea was just as persuasive as his protest. “Confronted with the choice between a trial for first-degree murder, on the one hand, and a plea of guilty to second-degree murder, on the other,” said Justice Byron White for the court majority, “Alford quite reasonably chose the latter and thereby limited the maximum penalty to a 30-year term.” In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled that a guilty plea is voluntary and valid—at least when there is strong evidence of guilt—even though the defendant says that he is entering it only to escape execution. The result of the court’s decision is a boost for the “plea bargaining” system that helps crowded courts thin their dockets by skipping trials.

> Since the Middle Ages, the common law has entitled landlords to leave most repairs to tenants. But the growth of apartment living in the U.S. has raised sharp questions about landlords who blithely ignore faulty heating, lighting and plumbing. In that spirit, a decision written by Judge J. Skelly Wright for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia empowered tenants to withhold rent if the landlord fails to keep the premises in decent condition. Now all D.C. landlords are accountable and no tenant can be evicted for using his rent as a weapon to enforce his right to a habitable dwelling. Last week the Supreme Court denied the landlord’s petition for review. > For more than ten years, the Supreme Court has grappled with the problem of deciding what pornographic material is constitutionally protected.

Last week the court decided not to bother. Without comment, the court let stand a decision permitting the sale of magazines in Massachusetts containing photographs of nude women, as long as the photos show no sexual activity. In the second case, again without comment, the court affirmed a decision that a California merchant did not violate the law by selling a film that depicted a nude woman engaged in sexual activity: she was masturbating.

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