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

June 2015 Archives

There's a reason doctors advise pregnant women to avoid eating fish -- there's a high risk that they are contaminated by mercury, a powerful neurotoxin to which pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. 

How do fish end up full of mercury? Most commonly, fish are exposed to air pollution released by coal burning power plants, the largest source of mercury pollution. Mercury exposure has been linked to respiratory disease, birth defects, and developmental problems in children.

In 2011, the EPA released new regulations under the Clean Air Act in order to stem mercury pollution and other air toxins by requiring pollution controls on coal-burning power plants. The Supreme Court struck those regulations down yesterday, saying that the EPA had failed to look closely enough at the costs of the pollution controls before limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants.

The Supreme Court released three opinions today, one day before the end of the term. Following last week's headline-grabbing opinions on marriage and healthcare, the Court continued making news, issuing rulings on the Clean Air Act, electoral redistricting and, chief among the opinions, the lethal injection.

In the lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Oklahoma's lethal injection program. Death row prisoners had challenged the state's lethal injection cocktail, saying it failed to numb the pain of the lethal injection drugs, leading to a horrific death that would feel like being burnt alive. In their dissent, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg came out against the death penalty itself, arguing that capital punishment as a whole is unconstitutional.

The right to marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to same-sex couples, the Supreme Court ruled this morning in Obergefell v. Hodges. The historic 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, extends the "fundamental right to marry" to gay and lesbian couples throughout the country, just eleven years after the country's first legally recognized same-sex marriages took place.

The decision, based on both due process and equal protection grounds, marks a major victory for the gay rights movement, which has seen a rapid shift from state and federal same-sex marriage bans to a judicial embrace of equal rights for same-sex couples. The opinion's release comes two days before anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic birth of the gay rights movement 46 years ago.

The Affordable Care Act allows the federal government to provide subsidies to poor and middle-class people purchasing insurance on the federal exchange, the Supreme Court ruled in King v. Burwell today. Opponents to Obamacare had claimed that federal subsidies were, based on the language of the Act, limited to plans purchased on exchanges individual states set up themselves, not those obtained through Healthcare.gov.

The exact language of the Act must yield to its overall intent, the Court decided in its 6-3 decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that, "Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them."

When Marvel Comics brought a super hero with them to the Supreme Court recently, they were hoping a pulp hero could help them defeat "outdated" patent rules. Spiderman's powers, however, were no match for stare decisis. As the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, stare decisis required them to uphold patent precedent, even if they thought, hypothetically, that it was wrongly decided.

In particular, Marvel was asking the Court to overrule Brulotte v. Thys Co., a 1964 case that applied a bright line prohibition on the payment of royalties after a patent had expired. Marvel wanted to continue an agreement where it paid royalties on certain toys -- particularly, one Spiderman figurine which shot foam string from its palm -- and urged the Court to reject what it thought was outdated economic reasoning behind the Brulotte rule. The High Court declined.

The Supreme Court ruled today that a government program that sought to prop up the price of raisins by seizing excess production is a taking that requires just compensation. Under the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act, a New Deal era attempt to protect agricultural markets, government-backed agricultural boards can set "marketing orders," under which a certain amount of a crop is set aside and sold off-market.

Since the raisins are actually seized, that constitutes a physical appropriation and a per se taking. The fact that the farmers retain an interest in the raisins and that they are compensated through higher market prices does not matter, according to the Court.

The Supreme Court released two important free speech decisions on Thursday, finding that the government can't limit temporary signage based on its content but can control what goes on specialty license plates. The difference? Who was speaking.

The twin cases coming up from an Arizona sign restriction and a Texas DMV decision, emphasize the Court's focus on not just the content of speech but on its speaker. The decisions taken together emphasize strictly protecting private speech while allowing greater regulation in government-sponsored speech.

We'd be shocked if abortion doesn't come before the Supreme Court next term, but it won't come in the form of North Carolina's invasive abortion ultrasound law. The High Court denied review of the Fourth Circuit's ruling invalidating the law, which required women to undergo a state-mandated ultrasound and scripted description of the fetus.

In not taking up the case, the Court leaves in place a broad split between the Fourth Circuit and the Fifth and Eighth, which have upheld similar "display and describe" laws. Is this a hint of things to come?

The Supreme Court released three new opinions this morning, slowly chipping away at the now 17 remaining cases it has to decide before the term's end two weeks from today. Chief among those three was Kerry v. Din, in which the Justices ruled that an American woman could not challenge the denial of a visa to her foreign-born husband on due process grounds.

Fauzia Din, an American citizen, had requested a visa for her husband, Kanishka Berashk, but her request was denied. The State Department refused to elaborate beyond stating that Berashk, an Afghani citizen who had been a government worker under the Taliban, had been involved in terrorist activities. Din argued that her husband's denial violated her due process rights and liberty interest in being together with her husband. The case is one of the first times the Court has taken up substantive due process in some time.

Happy Loving Day! June 12th marks the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down race-based limitations on marriage rights. Loving remains a landmark civil rights case and Loving Day, now in its 13th year, has become the nation's "biggest multiracial celebration," according to Time magazine.

Among lawyers, though, Loving has been getting renewed attention, and not just for its invalidation of state anti-miscegenation laws. The case, which helped strike down some of the last vestiges of official segregation, is now being taken up in the debate over same-sex marriage, where advocates argue that its logic, that the right to marry the one you love is fundamental, should be applied to bans on gay marriage today.

The culture wars are alive and well in the Supreme Court these days, as SCOTUS reviews everything from gay marriage, to affirmative action in higher education and abortion restrictions. It almost feels like it's the 90s again. Perhaps the Court could review the Clinton impeachment when they have a spare moment.

Having released only a single opinion this week -- the important separation of powers and Jerusalem passport case of Zivotofsky -- the Court shouldn't have too much time on its hands. Here's a preview of what might be on the Supreme Court's plate as the term winds down.

The Supreme Court released only one opinion this Monday, but it's a significant one. In Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the Court held 6-3 that the President does not need to follow a law requiring the State Department to label, on passports, that American children born in Jerusalem were born in Israel.

That seems like a minor issue, but it has significant implications, beyond even the conflict between Israel and Palestine over who controls the Holy City. With Zivotosfsky, the Court affirmed that the President has exclusive power to recognize foreign sovereigns, even over congressional objections.

In a unanimous decision released Monday, the Supreme Court held that debtors in bankruptcy cannot void a second mortgage lien on a wholly underwater property. The case was Bank of America v. Caulkett, which involved two debtors who each owned houses with a senior and junior mortgage lien. Both mortgages were underwater meaning that the amount owed on the senior mortgage was higher than the value of the home.

If the houses were sold in bankruptcy, the junior mortgage holder would receive nothing. The families sought to void the junior mortgage liens under section 506 of the Bankruptcy Code, which voids liens that are "not an allowed secured claim."

Religious discrimination in hiring and employment, prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, does not require actual knowledge of a victim's religious beliefs, the Supreme Court announced Monday. A discriminatory motive is enough, whether it's based on actual knowledge, suspicion or "merely a hunch."

Scalia, who authored the majority opinion in the 8-1 case, described it as a "really easy" verdict. The case comes after Abercrombie and Fitch, the retailer with the overpriced jeans and soft-core advertising, refused to hire Samantha Elauf because she wore a head scarf. It did not matter that Elauf hadn't announced her religion or asked for a religious accommodation -- the fact that the store's managers suspected that her headscarf was religious in nature and did not make accommodations was enough to violate the law.

SCOTUS Reverses 'Facebook Threats' Conviction

Anthony Douglas Elonis made statements on Facebook threatening his ex-wife, a local school, the local sheriffs, and the FBI agents who came to question him about all these threats.

Maybe that's how it happened. Or maybe Elonis was merely practicing his "rap lyrics" and exercising his constitutional rights in the process. Whatever he was doing, the Supreme Court vacated Elonis' conviction for making criminal threats -- but didn't do much beyond that.