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Unlikely alliances in Supreme Court opinions on overtime, death penalty

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court
Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images
Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court defied its usual 6-to-3 conservative/liberal split in two decisions on Wednesday. One involved who qualifies for overtime pay. The other, Arizona's refusal to apply a Supreme Court precedent in death penalty jury instructions.

The overtime case was brought by Michael Hewitt, a highly paid oil rig supervisor who sued his employer, Helix Energy Solutions Group, contending that because he was paid on a daily basis, he was entitled to overtime pay for his typical 84-hour, 7-day weeks on the job.

The sole question in the case was whether, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, he should be paid time and a half for hours worked beyond 40 hours a week. Helix Energy claimed that Hewitt, who earned $200,000 a year, was exempt from the overtime requirement because he was a "bonafide executive."

The court, by a 6-to-3 vote, sided with Hewitt. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said that Helix did not pay Hewitt a salary, as defined by federal regulations. Instead, it paid him as a daily worker. If he worked one day in a given week, he was paid for just that day. If he worked no days, he got no money.

"Daily-rate workers of whatever income level" are not paid a base salary under Labor Department regulations, Kagan wrote, adding that "Helix's various policy claims cannot justify departing from what the rules say." Those rules date back to the 1940s, she observed, noting that a salary is defined as "fixed compensation regularly paid, as by the year, quarter, month, or week." In addition, under the regulations, salaried employees get paid a week's salary even if they do not work the full week.

Although Kagan conceded that Hewitt was a high-income earner, Helix's position, she said, "would create disturbing consequences" for lower-income workers who are "at the heartland of the FLSA's protection." In short, it would deprive daily workers earning less than $100,000 of overtime pay.

Joining Kagan's opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Dissenting were Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

Death penalty opinion

The death penalty opinion was the latest rebuke to the state of Arizona for refusing to comply with a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Simmons v. South Carolina) that required judges to instruct juries in capital cases that a sentence of life in prison means life without the possibility of parole in states where that is the case.

In Arizona, however, judges continued to avoid doing that, and in 2016 the Supreme Court drove home its original point, ruling in an unsigned opinion (Lynch v. Arizona) that it was fundamental error to conclude that the Simmons decision "did not apply" in Arizona.

After that 2016 High Court ruling, John Montenegro Cruz, a defendant condemned to death, appealed his sentence. The Arizona Supreme Court refused to allow a resentencing and declared that the 2016 decision "was not a significant change in the law." But on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court again disagreed, by a narrow 5-to-4 vote. Writing for the majority, Sotomayor noted that before the 2016 Lynch decision, Arizona courts held that capital defendants were not entitled to inform the jury of their parole ineligibility — a position summarily reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. The state supreme court's ruling to the contrary, wrote Sotomayor, was "so novel and unfounded" that it must be reversed.

Joining Sotomayor in the majority were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan, Kavanaugh and Jackson. Justice Barrett wrote the principal dissent, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.