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5 Cases at SCOTUS' Big Fall Conference That We're Excited About

Last week, we blogged about the Big Fall Conference (aka long conference) at the U.S. Supreme Court. After a summer's worth of backlog clogs up the docket with around 2,000 certiorari petitions, the clerks of the Court sort through the chaff, the justices review their recommendations, and less than one percent are granted cert.

Of the 1,845 listed for Monday's BFC, and SCOTUSblog's "Petitions We're Watching" list, here are a few that we're particularly interested in, covering everything from equality (in marriage and employment) to juvenile sentencing:

7-Pack of Gay Marriage Cases (10th, 4th Circuits)

Background: We've covered these cases out of Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and elsewhere extensively, so there isn't much more to say here. These are the cases everyone is watching. If the Court grants cert., the biggest civil rights issue of our time will be on the docket. If not, and they wait for a circuit split (likely out of the Sixth Circuit), a handful of states will recognize gay marriage overnight, while the rest of the country waits.

Issue: Marriage equality. Phrasing varies by case, but do state bans on in-state same-sex marriages, or the refusal to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, violate Equal Protection guarantees?

Abercrombie Hijab Case: EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch (10th Circuit)

Background: A&F has a "look policy" which requires employees to dress in company clothing and places other restrictions on employee appearance, such as no heavy makeup. A&F allegedly declined to hire a Muslim woman because of her hijab. The district court granted summary judgment for the EEOC (which represents the woman), but the Tenth Circuit reversed because the woman didn't tell A&F in the interview that her scarf was religiously mandated.

Issue: Whether an employer can be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for refusing to hire an applicant or discharging an employee based on a "religious observance and practice" only if the employer has actual knowledge that a religious accommodation was required and the employer's actual knowledge resulted from direct, explicit notice from the applicant or employee.

Knock-Knock-Knocking on The Back Door: Carroll v. Carman (3rd Circuit)

Background: Call this one Jardines II. Police are looking for an alleged gun and car thief. They get a tip that the suspect is at the Carroll residence. When they get there, they park on the side street (the house is on a corner lot) and head to the back door, where they proceed to get into a wresting match with the angry homeowner. It was all for nothing, it turns out, because the suspect was nowhere to be found. The homeowner sued for a Fourth Amendment violation. The Third Circuit sided with the homeowner.

Issue: (1) Whether, when a police officer approaches a residence to conduct a "knock and talk," the Fourth Amendment requires the officer to go to the "front door" even where it reasonably appears that some other entrance is also customarily used by visitors; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in holding that such a rule was "clearly established" for purposes of qualified immunity.

It's Not a Life Sentence. It's 84 Years: Goins v. Lazaroff (Goins v. Smith) (6th Circuit)

Background: Goins, when he was a 16-year-old, teamed up with a buddy to pull off a couple of strong-arm robberies on some elderly folks, leaving one bloody and severely injured man locked in his basement. For attempted murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and other related charges, he was given an 84-year sentence.

Since Graham v. Florida, there has been a huge split between the courts on whether a sentence that is practically life without parole (rather than explicitly life without parole) amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. This may not be the best test case, because Ohio now lets juvenile offenders petition for release after half of their sentence has been served, but the issue seems likely to make it back to the Court at some point given the huge split in authority.

Issue: Whether an aggregate prison term imposed on a juvenile for non-homicide offenses that does not permit release before 100 years of age constitutes a sentence of life without parole as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mandatory Life for Juvies Is Cruel and Unusual; Is That Rule Retroactive?: Nebraska v. Mantich (Neb. Supreme Court)

Background: Douglas Mantich, then 16, was convicted of first-degree murder and given a mandatory life without parole sentence. In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were cruel and unusual. The simple question that has divided lower courts: Is that rule retroactive? Here, the Nebraska Supreme Court said that it was. Many other courts agree, and just as many disagree.

Issue: Whether Miller v. Alabama -- which held that a state may not sentence a teenage murderer to life imprisonment without parole unless the state provides a process whereby the sentencer considers the offender's youth and attendant characteristics -- should be applied retroactively to a murder conviction on collateral review.

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