CourtSide: April 2009 Archives
CourtSide - The FindLaw Breaking Legal News Blog

April 2009 Archives

While oral arguments are an imperfect method for determining how the Supreme Court will rule on a particular case, after arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, Jr, Attorney General, et al., things aren't looking too good for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

That section of the historic act requires some, primarily Southern, states to receive preapproval from federal authorities before enacting any change in their election laws.  Other states still have to follow the law, but don't have to receive clearance from the federal government before modifying their voting laws.
The debate about the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine continues. 

The Obama DOJ has gone before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs to request that Congress "completely eliminate the disparity in prison sentences between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine."

While they made no mention of how they wished Congress to accomplish this, the mention of a complete elimination of any difference in sentences suggests that the administration wants to alter both the mandatory minimum sentences and the sentencing guidelines for crack offenses.

Supreme Court: FCC Can (Probably) Regulate Dirty Words on TV

The Supreme Court has held in FCC v. Fox Tel. Stations, Inc. that the Federal Communications Commission did not act arbitrarily or capriciously when it created new regulations governing the broadcasting of "fleeting expletives."

The Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the regulations, however, since the issue was not raised on appeal.  This opens up the possibility that the regulations might come before the court again on a constitutional challenge.

DC Circuit Dismisses Guantanamo Torture Case for a Second Time

After the US Supreme Court vacated and remanded a previous dismissal of four Britons' torture suit against US federal officials, the DC Circuit has again thrown out the case after finding that other recent Supreme Court decisions did not alter the previous outcome.

The DC Circuit held that the federal officials named as defendants in the suit had qualified immunity from the lawsuit since the constitutionality of the violations alleged by plaintiffs was not clearly established at the time of the defendants' purported actions.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court in the case of Montejo v. Louisiana, the Obama Justice Department has requested that the US Supreme Court overrule a 23 year-old decision that prohibited police from initiating a questioning of a suspect when the suspect's lawyer isn't present.

Civil rights and civil liberty groups were not pleased.  It's the latest in a series of moves by the Obama administration that has upset people on the left, and it reveals an increasing tension between President Obama's campaign rhetoric and the realities of being the nation's top executive.

While President Obama has removed many of the Bush policies hated by the left, he has also come under fire for invoking the "state secrets" doctrine as a justification for withholding documents at trial, imprisoning enemy combatants without trial in Afghanistan and limiting the rights of defendants to test DNA evidence against them.

Obama seems to be finding it harder to speak out against the powers that be now that he holds the power.

Judge Allegedly Hides Money for Stripper, Loses Job

You would think that, after all the times that a prominent, successful man has seen his career undone through association with a stripper, eventually people would learn that success brings with it certain behavioral strictures.

But, human nature being what it is, the pattern keeps repeating itself again and again, and even an erudite man of the bench can get caught up in it.

Thomas E. Stringer was, until February of this year, a judge on Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal in the Tampa Bay area.  He broke down barriers by becoming the first black graduate of his law school, Stetson University College of Law, and worked as a state attorney before becoming a circuit judge and then joining the Court of Appeal.

Then, last March, his legal career of thirty-plus years came crashing down.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion released today, has decided that immigrants seeking a stay of their removal from the United States while they appeal the removal order don't need to meet the restrictive requirements of  8 U. S. C. ยง1252(f)(2) before a court can issue a stay.  Instead, the Court says that the traditional, more lenient, criteria governing stays should control the issue.

This does not necessarily mean that immigrants will have an easier time obtaining such a stay, however.  The Court, in a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, explicitly states that appeals courts cannot assume that the balance of hardships favors applicants.

An Unusual SCOTUS Majority Limits Warrantless Car Searches

In a decision that was unusual both for its holding and for the majority that created it, the US Supreme Court has restricted the situations in which police officers may search the vehicle of a suspect who has been detained in a patrol car and poses no immediate threat to the officers.

The case, Arizona v. Gant, involved a traffic stop where police arrested the driver of the vehicle, Rodney Gant, for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed him and locked him in a patrol car.  They then searched the car and found cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
It's a busy day over at One First Street, as the Supreme Court kicks off the final argument cycle of the current term.  The court is definitely going out in style, choosing to hear some of the most controversial and potentially-landmark cases at the end of the term, rather than at the beginning as Chief Justice John Roberts had originally intended.  

Here's a rundown of some of the notable cases and occurrences before the Supreme Court:

DC Circuit Strikes Down Bush-Era Off-Shore Drilling Program

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that a plan to open up offshore drilling off the coast of Alaska cannot go forward until the Department of the Interior conducts further review of the program's environmental impact. 

The Department's leasing program would have expanded the lease offerings available for the continental shelf in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas off the coast of Alaska.  The continental shelf is the portion of submerged land and seabed that lies between the end of a state's jurisdiction and the end of the United States' jurisdiction. 

The seas in question act as habitat for a number of wildlife species, including polar bears, a number of whale species, seals, the Pacific walrus, and various seabirds.

In one of the strangest cases yet to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a federal judge has approved a plea deal from Wesam al-Delaema, an Iraqi-born citizen of the Netherlands, on charges of conspiracy to murder American troops in Iraq.

Now the judge just has to cross his fingers and hope that the Dutch courts agree that al-Delaema should serve 25 years in prison for his role in the conspiracy.

Are the Poor in the US Denied Access to Justice?

Everyone knows that Justice is supposed to be blind, but does Justice have a credit card reader in her back pocket?

A new report issued by the bipartisan Constitution Project suggests that those who cannot afford access to legal services are not properly served by the public defender system.

The indigent defense system was established by the Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that there was a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney during a criminal trial.

It's an idea that forms a cornerstone of the American justice system but, according to the report, budget shortfalls and overwork have undermined the public defenders offices around the country and created a system where the poor don't have equal access to counsel.

Marine Can't Sue Murtha for Mouthing Off

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a Marine's defamation case against Rep. John Murtha must be dismissed because the congressman made the allegedly defamatory comments in the course of his official duties.

The case arose after Murtha accused the squad that Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich commanded in Iraq of committing "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" in Haditha.  Wuterich sued and the district court made a ruling allowing limited discovery to determine whether Murtha's comments came during his official duties.

Sagging Pants: Freedom of Expression or Scourge of a Community?

Does a style choice deserve constitutional protection?  Or can a city legislatively ban certain kinds of clothing the same way they could regulate the height of a hedge in front of a house?

That's the question that a county court in Florida must decide in a suit challenging a Florida city's ban on trousers worn so low that skin or underwear is exposed, the New York Times reports.

Judges Bang the Gavel on Prosecutorial Misconduct

In a series of savage benchslappings aimed at federal prosecutors, a growing group of district court judges is airing its displeasure with the trial tactics employed by the DOJ, writes Politico's Josh Gerstein.

The most high profile of these upbraidings came when District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan overturned Ted Stevens' conviction for lying on his Senate financial disclosure forms and initiated an investigation of the prosecutors in the case.  Sullivan said that the prosecutorial misconduct in the case, including inappropriate relationships with witnesses and the withholding of evidence from the defense, was the worst he had seen in his 25 years on the bench.

Ex-Miss W. Va. Scores Big Win in Bogus Sex Tape Suit

A federal jury in the US District Court in Clarksburg, West Virginia ordered nine internet companies and individuals to pay former Miss West Virginia Allison Williams a total of $7.2 million for attempting to sell a video that they falsely claimed featured the former beauty queen, according to an AP report.

Now, having a sex tape show up on the internet is bad enough, but when the tape isn't even of you . . . that's on a whole different level.

Williams discovered the tapes during her first semester of law school, which only adds insult to injury.  As if the first semester of law school isn't already brutal enough!

The suit originally targetted 59 defendants, but the judge in the case dismissed 28 defendants.  Out of the remaining 31 defendants, the nine found liable chose not to participate in the lawsuit or have attorneys represent them.

Judge Narrows Countrywide Suit

In a rare bit of good news for Countrywide, the Associated Press reports that a federal district court judge in Los Angeles has thrown out most of a shareholder suit alleging insider trading against former executives of the company.

The suit remains in place against former CEO Angelo Mozilo.  The judge stated that adjustments to his automatic stock sale plan were unusual.  The lawsuit alleges that he sold $478 million in shares between 2004 and 2008.
Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens won't have to swap his trademark "Incredible Hulk" tie for a prison jumpsuit after all. 

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has dismissed Stevens' conviction for lying on Senate financial disclosure forms, and ordered a criminal contempt investigation of the prosecutors in the case for what he called the worst "mishandling and misconduct" he had seen in his 25-year career on the bench.

The dismissal comes after Attorney General Eric Holder decided not to defend the conviction against allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. 

When Courts Cut Budgets, Defendants Get the Pinch

The New York Times has an interesting article available that discusses both the dire financial straits that state courts have found themselves in recently and Florida's revenue-generating solution to the problem.  The state has a long-standing policy of tenaciously pursuing those who have outstanding court fees.  Now, facing budget shortfalls, the Florida courts have stepped up their efforts and jailed thousands of people for failing to pay fines and fees. 

According to the article, several other states have either already followed Florida's lead or have looked into starting their own aggressive collection programs. At least one, Rhode Island, has found that the returns from such a system would not justify the cost.



Iowa Supreme Court Allows Gay Marriage to Move to the Midwest

In a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court held today that an Iowa statute restricting marriage to a male and a female violated the equal protection clause in the state's constitution.  The court ordered the restriction removed from the statute, and directed the state to interpret and apply the remaining provisions in a way that will afford "gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage." 

This decision marks the first time that a court in a Midwestern state has allowed same-sex marriage, and that is sure to affect the broader debate that has been occurring on the coasts for some time.  Legislatures in New England have taken up statutes authorizing gay marriage recently, and the California Supreme Court heard arguments a short while ago in a challenge to Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that passed in November and changed the California constitution to ban gay marriage.