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

June 2016 Archives

The Supreme Court's October 2015 Term, which ended this week, was not like many others. Sure, there were the high-profile, landmark cases, disputes over civil rights, affirmative action, abortion. But there were also events, inside and outside the Court, that sometimes seemed to overshadow the Supreme Court's legal work.

Here's a quick look back at the controversies, and not the cases, that mattered most this term.

The Supreme Court released its final batch of decisions for the term on Monday, major opinions in abortion rights, political corruption, and firearm ownership. But the justices didn't take off for summer vacation straight away. On Tuesday, the Court granted cert to eight new cases, to be scheduled for the October 2016 terms.

That brings the Court's cases for the upcoming term to 32. Many of them promise to be important and potentially controversial decisions, touching on everything from racial bias in criminal proceedings, to the death penalty, to the role of church and state, and even ATM fees. Here's a quick preview of what's to come.

The Supreme Court expanded the reach yesterday of a federal law that prevents domestic abusers from owning a gun. In Voisine v. United States, the Court held six to two that federal laws prohibiting gun ownership to those convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of violence" extend to those where the violence was merely reckless, as opposed to intentional.

The ruling reconciles the federal law, which requires a showing of violence, with state criminal laws that require no such showing. Touching on both criminal law and the Second Amendment, the case inspired Justice Clarence Thomas's first question from the bench in ten years when it was argued in February.

The Supreme Court struck down restrictive regulations on abortion providers in Texas today, in Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, ruling that those restrictions constitute an undue burden on a woman's access to abortion, in violation of the Constitution.

The restrictions, which required abortion providers to obtain admitting-privileges at hospitals and meet the requirements of surgical centers, would have forced the vast majority of Texas's abortion clinics to close. Those requirements created substantial obstacles to abortion access while doing little to protect the health of women, the Court ruled in a 5-3 decision.

Today marks the 100th day since D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland was nominated to the Supreme Court. That is 100 days without formal consideration of his nomination; 100 days without a hearing by the Senate; 100 days with no Senatorial advice and certainly no consent. As Senate Republican leaders continue to refuse to consider Garland's nomination, Justice Scalia's former seat might remain vacant for 100 more.

The situation is "appalling" in the eyes of the judiciary, according to a federal judge who recently spoke out about the delay. He was joined by two colleagues, all former judges, who recently spoke out against the extended vacancy on the Supreme Court, arguing that it made life more difficult for the judiciary and diminished the authority of the Supreme Court and the political system.

College admissions that consider applicants' racial background still do not violate the Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court ruled this morning. The ruling, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, ends a long-running dispute about the University of Texas's admissions criteria, which considers "intangible characteristics" of the incoming student body, including diversity.

In a surprise move, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority for the Court, which split 4-3, with Justice Kagan recusing herself. In the past, Justice Kennedy has supported affirmative action admission policies in theory, but not in practice. After contentious oral arguments, many speculated that he would cast the deciding vote to end university affirmative action programs altogether, not to save them.

The Supreme Court split four to four today in a case challenging one President Obama's signature immigration reform efforts. The case, United States v. Texas, was one of the Court's highest profile disputes of the term, touching on a host of significant issues, from the ability of states to challenge federal immigration programs, to the extent of executive branch power, and to, not insignificantly, the status of millions of immigrants.

The split essentially puts the program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA, on hold for the foreseeable future, leaving in place an injunction shutting down the program nationwide.

Supreme Court Won't Hear Assault Weapons Challenges

In the wake of the most deadly mass shooting in America's history, the US Supreme Court has declined to hear new challenges brought against assault weapons bans out of New York and Connecticut. Those bans were put into place following the tragic Sandy Hook shooting.

It seems to be a predictable pattern. A mass shooting takes place and the courts, for better or worse, refuse to hear challenges.

We might have found Justice Scalia's replacement. No, we're not talking about Merrick Garland, any of the potential justices proposed by Donald Trump, or even Justice Clarence Thomas, who broke his ten-year silence by piping up at oral arguments to defend Justice Scalia's approach to the Second Amendment. Nope, Justice Scalia's shoes may have been filled by a woman who shared the bench with him for the past seven years: Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Scalia, you'll remember, was always at his best in his dissents, which were impassioned, wry, and often well-argued, even when patently offensive. But with her dissent in yesterday's ruling in Utah v. Strieff, Justice Sotomayor may have claimed the mantel of the Supreme Court's greatest dissenter.

Justice Scalia's former seat on the Supreme Court has sat vacant for 125 days, as of today. That makes it the third longest Supreme Court vacancy in the 20th century, lasting almost three times as long as the average vacancy of 55 days. And in the three months since President Obama nominated D.C. Circuit Chief Justice Merrick Garland to fill that seat, the Senate has held no official meetings, hearings, or votes on the nomination.

When it comes to the battle over the empty Supreme Court seat, it looks like Senate Republicans are winning.

The Supreme Court has been in a generous mood this week. On Monday, the Court made it easier for patent holders to get treble damages for patent infringement and yesterday a unanimous Court ruled that the reasonableness of a party's claims should not be the determining factor when awarding attorney's fees under the Copyright Act's fee-shifting provisions.

The opinion, written by Justice Kagan, revived a $2 million claim for attorney's fees by Supap Kirtsaeng, a former Thai student who had been sued by an American textbook publisher. The ruling marks the second Supreme Court win for Kirtsaeng -- and his best chance at recovering legal fees after years of litigation.

Federal law makes it a felony for a habitual offender to commit domestic assault within Indian country, when the abuser has two or more prior convictions for domestic violence. And since the law seeks to protect Native American women from abuse, those predicate convictions can come from tribal courts.

But tribal courts are not required to provide lawyers for criminal defendants in many cases, including misdemeanor domestic assault charges. And while that would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment should it occur in state or federal court, that does not stop federal courts from relying on lawyerless tribal convictions as predicate offenses for the domestic violence law, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The Patent Act authorizes courts to impose triple damages in cases of infringement. But the Federal Circuit's Seagate test makes those damages hard to come by, imposing a relatively complicated two-part test to determine when damages are warranted, subject to trifurcated (yes, trifurcated) appellate review.

The Supreme Court tossed out that test yesterday, ruling unanimously that the Seagate requirements were not consistent with the Patent Act. The ruling is a boon to patent holders, who could see much more money coming from litigating patent infringement now. It's also on track with the Court's recent trend of striking down tests which "impermissibly encumber" a court's discretion to allow enhanced damages.

The Supreme Court ruled this morning that Puerto Rico cannot rely on its own bankruptcy legislation in order to restructure its public utility debt. In a five-to-two vote, from which Justice Alito abstained, the Court held that the federal Bankruptcy Code pre-empted Puerto Rico's attempts to deal with its public debts under its own bankruptcy laws -- even though the Code excludes Puerto Rican municipalities from its protections.

The ruling comes as Puerto Rico grapples with a fiscal crisis caused, in part, by $72 billion dollars in outstanding public debt, $20 billion of which is from its public utilities. The defeat follows another blow to Puerto Rico's limited independence, dealt out by the Supreme Court last Thursday. There, the Court ruled that Puerto Rico's sovereignty, at least as far as prosecutorial powers were concerned, stemmed from Congress, not the island's people. In response, Puerto Rico's governor has said he will bring his complaints regarding Puerto Rican self-government to the United Nations.

Getting a judge removed from a case is no easy task. After all, under federal law, it is up to the judges themselves to determine, on their own, whether a conflict of interest could lead to their impartiality being questioned. Other than a judge's own conscience, there's little to require recusals in cases of potential judicial bias.

But the Supreme Court took a small step towards establishing some hard and fast constitutional rules yesterday. The case that brought about the change was about as stark an example of judicial conflict of interest as one can get. Terrence Williams, a man sentenced to death for the brutal killing of a church deacon, appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to have it heard by that court's chief justice who had overseen his prosecution decades earlier.

Puerto Rico may have its own constitution, elect its own leaders, and pass its own laws, but when it comes down to it, Congress, not the people of Puerto Rico, is the ultimate source of the island government's power. That's the lesson from today's Supreme Court ruling in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, over whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico could prosecute criminals already tried by the federal government, as the 50 states can.

Under the dual-sovereignty doctrine, both federal and state governments may prosecute an individual for a crime, so long as they do so under their own laws. Puerto Rico argued that it was entitled to the same rights as the states when it came to double jeopardy. But, while acknowledging Puerto Rico's "distinctive, indeed exceptional status," the Court ultimately determined that Puerto Rico's prosecutorial power comes from the U.S. Congress, rejecting the island's claim to state-like sovereignty. The ruling is a blow to the island, and it may soon be followed by more Supreme Court losses in the near future.

Muhammad Ali won his first world heavyweight championship when he was just 22 years old. "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived," he declared after his victory. And he was more or less right. Ali would go on to win that title twice more, establishing himself as one of the most talented athletes of the 20th Century.

But Muhammad Ali wasn't just an athlete. He was a civil rights champion and a major cultural and political figure. And after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, he was a champion in the Supreme Court as well. Here's a look back at Ali's legal win.

Questions about race, intellectual disability, and the death penalty will return to the halls of the Supreme Court in the near future. Yesterday, the Court agreed to hear appeals in two capital punishment cases out of Texas.

The first, Buck v. Stephens, involves a defendant who was sentenced to death after a psychologist, called to the stand by his own lawyer, testified that black defendants were more dangerous than white ones. The second, Moore v. Texas, concerns whether Texas can rely solely on an outdated, 23-year-old standard for determining intellectual disabilities for purposes of capital punishment, to the exclusion of modern standards.

Prisoners can be a litigious bunch. Facing years of imprisonment and a dearth of engaging activities, scores of jailhouse lawyers file scores of (often pro se) claims, from civil rights suits, to writs of habeas corpus, to claims that Michael Vick stole their dogs.

But, pursuing those claims isn't easy. There are significant barriers set up to keep prisoners out of federal courts, not the least of which is the Prison Litigation Reform Act's administrative exhaustion requirement. And the Supreme Court shored up that particular barrier even more today, ruling unanimously that the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" exception to exhaustion was inconsistent with the PLRA.

Few faces are more familiar in the Supreme Court than Donald Verrilli's. As solicitor general, he's argued more cases before the Court over the last five years than any other attorney. And those included a large amount of landmark victories, from defending Obamacare to winning constitutional protections for same-sex couples.

But yesterday, Verrilli announced that he's stepping down at the end of this month. What's next for the future former Solicitor General? Our guess is he won't be away from the Supreme Court for too long.

Could the Supreme Court's next major civil rights case be about ... pooping? Possibly. The debate over where transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom could soon come before the Supreme Court. Arguing that "time is of the essence," Fourth Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer recently urged prompt appeal to the Supreme Court after the Fourth declined a petition to rehear the case en banc.

Of course, while the bathroom is the battlefield in this particular fight, the conflict implicates much more than the potty. It's about the dignity and respect to be afforded transgender youth, the continued acceptance of LGBT people in modern society, and the breadth of gender-based civil rights protections.

The Supreme Court made it easier for property owners to challenge Clean Water Act protections yesterday. A unanimous court ruled that a "jurisdictional determination," an agency decision that land contains waters protected by the act, is a final agency action that can be challenged in court.

Will the decision launch an Armada of new CWA lawsuits? Or will it stop the use of jurisdictional determinations altogether?