The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Oct. 11 that lower courts are not free to assume that the high Court has “implicitly overruled” its holding in Booth that the Eighth Amendment bars admission of victims’ family members’ characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence.
Only the Supreme Court itself can overrule its precedents, the Court held in its first opinion of the 2016 Term, Bosse v. Oklahoma.  
The Court left unanswered whether it would overrule Booth in a future case.
Oklahoma sought the death penalty against Shaun Bosse for three murders. 
During his penalty phase, the State was permitted to ask the victims’ relatives what sentence they would recommend to the jury.  The relatives recommended a death sentence.
After the jury imposed death, Bosse appealed.  He claimed that the relatives’ testimony about the appropriate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment, as held in Booth. 
In Booth v. Maryland, decided in 1987, the Supreme Court held that a capital sentencing jury cannot consider victim impact evidence that does not “relate directly to the circumstances of the crime.” 
But in 1991, in Payne v. Tennessee, the Court held that Booth’s ban on victim impact evidence was too broad.  The Court in Payne allowed testimony about “the personal characteristics of the victim” and the “emotional impact” of the crime on the victim’s family. 
The Court said in Payne, however, that its ruling was “limited” to this particular type of victim impact testimony.  The Court expressly stated that it was not reconsidering Booth’s ban on opinions about the crime, the defendant or the appropriate sentence.
In Bosse’s case, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals held that Payne “implicitly overruled” Booth’s ban on opinions about the appropriate sentence.
The Supreme Court, in a per curiam opinion, held that the lower court was not free to hold that Booth had been “implicitly overruled.”
“Our decisions remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing validity,” the Court said. 
“The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remains bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant and appropriate sentence unless this Court reconsiders that ban.”
Justices Thomas and Alito concurred, but emphasized that the Court was not deciding whether Booth was “correctly decided” or whether Payne “swept away its analytical foundations.”