U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

August 2013 Archives

Windsor Decision Leads to Two Big Federal Policy Shifts This Week

When the Windsor decision was announced two months ago, we knew that the country was headed for a season of rapid change. Indeed, in the days after the decision, the Obama administration pushed the government to carry out the decision quickly and smoothly, and while progress is being made by a multitude of federal agencies affected by the decision, the process has been, and will be, far from smooth.

From conflicting federal and state tax laws, to differing interpretations of the opinion, and reluctant agencies that attempt to persist with the "man and woman" only definition, the process is far more complicated than simply declaring "equality." This week, however, two big steps were taken in the areas of taxation and veterans' benefits.

States Struggling With Limits on Life for Juvenile Murderers

Miller v. Alabama was an odd half-measure after a series of full-measures. In prior related cases, the Supreme Court had issued outright bans on the death penalty for minors and on life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide juvenile offenders.

Then came Miller. Its holding, oddly enough, was close to an outright ban on life-without-parole for murderers. Only it wasn't. Instead, these sentences are subject to heavy scrutiny, and must only be imposed after an "individualized" determination of the offender's age, childhood, life experience, degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and the chances for rehabilitation.

Okla. Abortion Case: Amicus Argues in Favor of Restrictive Statute

When the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting medical abortions, it did so in a 388 word (including citations and headings) opinion. The cursory treatment of the case can be summarized as "this matter is controlled by ... Planned Parenthood v. Casey," which prohibits unreasonable restrictions on abortions.

That opinion left many questions unanswered. Indeed, when the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari earlier this year, the Court certified two questions to the Oklahoma Supreme Court: asking whether the statue "prohibits: (1) the use of misoprostol to induce abortions, including the use of misoprostol in conjunction with mifepristone according to a protocol approved by the Food and Drug Administration; and (2) the use of methotrexate to treat eptopic [sic] pregnancies."

Vocabulary Lessons, Cert. Questions, in the Okla. Abortion Case

Days before taking recess, the Supreme Court granted cert in a case that, with all the noise over the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and same sex marriage, skipped right past most of us. The case, Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, deals with a sloppily-drafted Oklahoma law that bans off-label use of two drugs to perform medical abortions.

Proponents of the law argue that sticking to the on-label treatment procedure, or using surgical procedures, is safer for the patient, while opponents argue that this is an unconstitutional restriction on abortion. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, in an opinion shorter than this blog post, found the law unconstitutional per Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Scalia Says SCOTUS Shouldn't 'Invent New Minorities'

Justice Antonin Scalia, as usual, is mad. This time, his wrath is directed at his colleagues and their persistence in making decisions that, he argues, should be left to Congress. In a speech to the Federalist Society in Bozeman, Montana, he told listeners, "It's not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections," reports The Associated Press.

He continued, and possibly foreshadowed the rash of NSA cases headed to the court (the most recent case was punted on standing), by stating, "Of all the three branches, we are the one that knows the least about the nature of the threats to the country, and we have the least ability to find out about it." Scalia, in expressing his distaste for the Court's recent predilection towards trampling Congress, however, neglects to address one significant advantage that the court arguably does have: complete and utter disinterest.

Cuccinelli Stuck on Sodomy, May Have a Case Before SCOTUS

On the face of the case, it's easy to dismiss Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as a bit of a kook. He is fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to uphold Virginia's overly-broad "Crimes Against Nature" anti-sodomy law, a law that covers oral and anal sex, regardless of consent or age of the participants. His argument is that the statute, while on its face is broad, is only being used to prosecute child predators, a purpose that is consistent with the Supreme Court's holding in Lawrence v. Texas.

The lower courts agreed with him, somewhat, and held that the defendant, William MacDonald, could not challenge the law, as it was not unconstitutional, per Lawrence, as applied to him -- he was a 47-year-old soliciting oral sex from a 17-year-old. The Fourth Circuit reversed, and granted habeas relief, finding the statute to be unconstitutional on its face, as it was nearly word-for-word the same as the statue approved in Bowers, but later explicitly repudiated in Lawrence.

'Campus Colors': Unanswered Questions, Role of Amicus

Earlier this week, we brought you some insights from "Campus Colors," a panel presented at this year's ABA Annual Meeting on Fisher v. University of Texas. The panel, consisting of Patricia Olendorf, Vice President of Legal Affairs for the University of Texas at Austin; Damon Hewitt of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and long-time civil rights lawyer Bill Lann Lee of Lewis Feinberg, provided a unique mix of experience and insider observations on the case.

Today, we continue with a look at the strict scrutiny at issue in the case, as well as some interesting insights on the growing role of amicus briefs in affirmative action cases.

'Campus Colors': Panel on Fisher v. Univ. of TX Offers Perspective

In addition to the newsworthy speeches from Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at this year's ABA Annual Meeting, there were also a number of fascinating panels on issues of interest to readers of this blog, including one discussion in particular that focused on this past term's most hyped, and perhaps least felt case: Fisher v. University of Texas.

Here's a brief recap of the case (full recap is here): Abigail Fisher, a white student, sued when she was denied admittance to the University of Texas. The state maintains a two-tiered admission system: Those in the "top 10 percent" of each graduating class from each Texas high school (it's now less than 10 percent) are guaranteed admission to a Texas public university. The remainder of the applicants are subject to "holistic review." One factor that is considered is race.

Is it Time for a SCOTUS Code of Ethics?

Federal judges have to abide by an ethics-based Code of Conduct. Well, most of 'em, anyway. The Supreme Court, being, well, supreme, sets its own rules.

In his 2011 end-of-year report, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed the rising tide of Supreme Court ethics questions by arguing that the Code of Conduct, which is mandatory for all other federal judges, should not be mandatory for Supreme Court justices, as it does not "adequately answer some of the ethical considerations unique to the Supreme Court."

Prepare to fill in the gaps then Mr. Chief Justice, as Congress is aiming to force the Supreme Court to adopt its own ethical standards, based, in part, on that Code of Conduct, reports Politico.

CA Prison Release Ruling: A Look at Scalia's Scathing Dissent

On Friday, SCOTUS rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's administration's bid to stall a federal court demand that the state remove another 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to resolve California's prison overcrowding crisis.

Justice Antonin Scalia's scathing dissent, which Justice Clarence Thomas also signed, is gaining quite a bit of attention.

SCOTUS May Settle Circuits in Obamacare Mandate

Private businesses and universities have been battling tooth and nail to prevent the health care mandates in the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") from forcing the private entities to provide a certain minimum level of health insurance coverage.

Luckily for them, the mandate's compliance deadline has been pushed back to 2015, giving companies more time to settle their affairs, or simply more time to allow this issue of the mandate and free exercise of religion to reach the Supreme Court.

Several circuits have attempted an answer in this arena, and SCOTUS' attention may finally suss out whether corporations can assert free exercise claims.

NRA Asks SCOTUS to Hear Handgun Sales Restriction Appeal

At the age of 18, young people can vote. They can go to war. They can play the lottery. They can even purchase a handgun, as long as that purchase occurs between private parties, where no background check is done.

But if a young person, such as co-plaintiff Rebekah Jennings, a former member of the U.S. Olympic Development Team and decorated pistol marksman, wishes to purchase a handgun through legitimate retail channels, she is denied.

Such is the odd state of the law. A bundle of pre-Heller restrictions ban retail sales of handguns and handgun ammunition to anyone under 21, yet allow private party transfers of pistols to those between 18 and 21. Olympian or not, Jennings will have to take her chances with a used pistol at a garage sale.