CourtSide - The FindLaw Breaking Legal News Blog

June 2009 Archives

It's all but official: Al Franken will become the 60th Democratic senator.  The Minnesota Supreme Court just released its opinion in the long-contested election for Minnesota's seat in the US Senate, and unanimously found that there had been no constitutional or trial error in the case and Franken had won the election by a total of 312 votes.

The court did not, however, order the governor, Tim Pawlenty, to certify the election for Franken, even though the governor had indicated that he would abide by whatever order the court issued.  Instead, the court left the issue open until the ten day deadline for filing a petition for rehearing had passed, which would have given Coleman the opportunity to request another look at his case.

Instead, Coleman chose to end his challenge and conceded victory to Franken.  This means that Franken will almost certainly go on to be the 60th Democrat in the Senate, which would give the party a filibuster-proof number of seats if it is able to stay unified.

Farewell and Adieu, Justice Souter

Today was Justice David Souter's last day on the Supreme Court, and it probably wasn't exactly the kind of day he wanted to end on.  The Court ended up ruling in favor of a group of white firemen who claimed that a city's promotion policy constituted reverse discrimination.

Souter dissented from the majority opinion, joining the group of three other justices that have made up the Court's liberal bloc for the past fifteen years: Justices Ginsburg, Stevens and Breyer. 

While the outcome of the case wasn't what Souter had wanted, he had to have been touched by his colleagues' parting statements praising his "wisdom, civility and dedication."  While the justices were sad to see Souter go, the letter, which Chief Justice Roberts read in Court, also said that "[w]e understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains," referencing Souter's oft-stated desire to return permanently to his beloved New Hampshire.
Everyone knows Michael Jackson.  His face is universally recognized around the world.  People in every country are currently mourning his death, playing and replaying the music that made him an international superstar.

But he was almost as famous for his wildly eccentric lifestyle: a compound named after Peter Pan's fictional home, his friend Bubbles the chimp, his plastic surgeries, rumored drug dependencies, and the alleged purchase of the Elephant Man's bones all added to his mystery and led the tabloids to dub him Wacko Jacko.

And, of course, there were the hints and rumors of inappropriate contact with children.  Several people accused Jackson of molesting them, and some even went to court.  Jackson settled one of those civil lawsuits for a reported $20 million.

SCOTUS Rules Strip Search of Adolescent Unconstitutional

In a decision released today, the Supreme Court seemed to acknowledge that early adolescence is an awkward time during which individuals deserve a little more protection under the Fourth Amendment from certain kinds of searches.

The Court ruled in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1. v. Redding that a search at a school requiring a 13 year-old girl to "pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree" was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Souter, stated that the level of suspicion that the girl had prohibited items was insufficient to justify such an intrusive search.

US Senate Can't Wait to Try Kent

It's been a little while since I wrote about the impeachment of soon-to-be-former Judge Samuel Kent, and so much has happened, it's hard to know where to begin. 

First of all, he's been officially impeached.  The House voted on Friday to send articles of impeachment to the Senate.  The vote was unanimous.  Ouch.

Today, the Senate accepted those articles and began process leading up to Kent's trial.  It's the first impeachment since Bill Clinton's in 1999.

Where in the World Is the Supreme Court?

Over at the Blog of Legal Times, they're predicting that the Supreme Court will wrap up their term within the week.  The BLT points to the start of a conference featuring Justice Breyer and former Justice O'Connor on June 29 to back up its assertion.

That conference is in Colorado, but some of the other justices are traveling even greater distances this summer.  Four justices are traveling out of the country, in fact.  That makes an even 50% of the Court, considering Justice Souter's retirement. 

(I assume that Judge Sotomayor, who technically isn't a justice until sworn in, will be spending her time stateside preparing for her imminent confirmation hearings.)
In a surprise move, the Supreme Court passed over a chance to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act today, crafting relief based on an unanticipated interpretation of the statute instead.

Chief Justice Roberts' opinion was unexpected, to say the least, particularly given his brutal interrogation of section 5's proponents during oral arguments.  Many observers also didn't think that the case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder gave the Supreme Court much leeway to avoid the constitutional issue.

The case revolved around the Act's provision, laid out in section 5, that requires government bodies in areas that were historically involved in the disenfranchisement of minority voters to get "preclearance" from the Department of Justice before modifying their election procedures.  The plaintiff in the case, a small utility district in Texas that didn't exist until 1980 and had never been accused of discrimination, wanted a "bailout" from section 5, or, if exemption wasn't possible, a declaration that the section violated the Constitution.

The Supreme Court put out a few noteworthy decisions yesterday, covering issues ranging from postconviction DNA testing to age discrimination in the workplace. In one of the key 5-4 rulings, the Court said convicts had no Due Process right under the Constitution to access the state's evidence for DNA testing. The five justices felt that, considering the fact that federal law and 46 states' statutes already cover access to DNA evidence, it was best left to the states to deal with that postconviction issue.

In another close ruling (with the typically liberal-leaning justices in the minority), the Court held that a plaintiff bringing a federal law age discrimination claim must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the "but-for" cause of the challenged adverse employment action. The ruling noted that the age discrimination statute's language did not track that of Title VII, which deals with other types of discrimination (race, sex, religion, etc.). As a result, age discrimination claims will be gauged under a more scrutinizing light for the plaintiffs, as compared to Title VII.

Judge Says Dole Case Is "Bananas!"

The movie "Bananas!" purports to be an intense look at the struggles of Nicaraguan farmers to obtain compensation for sterility resulting of the use of pesticides on banana plantation.

If the Dole Food Co. and a California Supreme Court Judge are right, however, the movie might have to change its ending.

Group Sues White House Over Visitor Logs

Despite pledging to usher in a new era of government transparency, the Obama administration is continuing many of the most secretive policies of the Bush administration, including the invocation of the state secrets doctrine in terrorism and wiretapping cases. 

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit Tuesday over another of the Obama administration's leftover Bush policies, the refusal to turn over the logs that record visitors to the White House.

CREW wants the Secret Service to release logs related to visits by coal companies, which the Secret Service has refused to do. 
When President Obama released the so-called torture memos from the Bush administration, there was an immediate call to indict the lawyers responsible for the memos.  It doesn't look like that will happen, but the authors of the memos might end up in court anyway as defendants in civil lawsuits rather than criminal trials.

District Court Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California allowed most of Jose Padilla's suit against John Yoo, one of the authors of the memos, to go forward on Friday, despite Yoo's motion to dismiss the case.  Padilla, who is serving a 17 year sentence for a dirty bomb plot, alleges that Yoo, by drafting memos meant to act as a legal shield for constitutional violations, became personally responsible for those violations.

Judge White's decision represents the first judicial opinion holding that goverment lawyers are potentially responsible for detainee abuse.
Judge Samuel Kent received some good news and some bad news yesterday.  Well, it was really a case of bad news and it-could've-been-worse news.

Kent, you may remember, is the federal district court judge from Galveston, Texas who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice related to the investigation into allegations (which he later admitted were true) that he had non-consensual sexual contact with courthouse employees.

The Disposition of the Supreme Court

There has been much ado over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's supposed personality clashes with other members of the courts that she has served on.  According to her detractors, this demonstrates that she does not have the judicial temperament necessary for a Supreme Court justice.

But an interesting piece in the New York Times yesterday appears to debunk the myth of Supreme Court justices as a staid, stolid group, and exposes the personality quirks of justices, both past and present.  The message of the piece, written by Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, is that Supreme Court justices display the same personal fallibility and social gracelessness that any other human being does, but also that these flaws and blemishes do not impede their ability to rule on constitutional issues.  On the contrary, the author argues, they imbue each justice's constitutional jurisprudence with humanity, and eventually enhance the rich tapestry of constitutional law in this country.
The Supreme Court issued a decision on Monday that required a West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals justice to recuse himself in a case involving one of his campaign contributors. 

The case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al. (08-22), split the court 5-4, with Justice Kennedy joining the Ginsburg-Souter-Stevens-Breyer faction and writing the majority opinion.

The facts of the case can be summarized thusly: a jury found a coal company and its affiliates liable for fraudulent misrepresentation, concealment, and tortious interference with existing contractual relations and came back with a $50 million award.  Soon after, West Virginia held its 2004 judicial elections. 

House Panel Wants to Cut Off Judge Samuel Kent, and Quick

As much as I am loath to focus even more attention on a man who has already been publicly shamed, broken and will soon begin serving time in federal prison, Judge Samuel Kent is just too colorful and controversial of a figure to avoid commenting on.

In addition to his 33-month sentence for obstruction of justice during an investigation into allegations of sexual assault (which he later admitted to), it looks like the process of stripping Kent of his judicial robes has shifted into high gear in Congress.

The Supreme Court had a busy day today, one which was reportedly punctuated with an exclamation point. At least, that is, as far as Chrysler and various pension funds were concerned. Late today, the Supreme Court issued an order putting a screeching halt to the sale of Chrysler to Italian car maker Fiat. No reason was reportedly given for the order, and it is unclear when the Court will resolve the issue. CNN Money noted that executives for the struggling carmaker had argued (apparently futilely) against any delay, suggesting that the company's continued viability and existence was at risk.

If that was the punctuation to the day, the court still had plenty of other fireworks earlier. First off, the Court refused to take on consideration of the military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy in a lawsuit brought by veterans challenging the way the military deals with gay and lesbian members of the armed forces. However, considering that a federal appeals court in California previously allowed a separate suit against the military to proceed, it may just be a matter of time before the Supreme Court is faced with the issue from the flip-side of the coin.

Court Rejects Catholic League Suit Challenging San Francisco Resolution

A federal court of appeals has rejected a civil rights lawsuit challenging a 2006 San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution addressing a Catholic leader's directive on same-sex adoptions. The court ruled that the resolution did not have a predominantly religious purpose or an effect of expressing hostility towards the Catholic religion, but instead was "simply a statement of the Board's position on same-sex adoption."

However, taking a closer look, the language of the Board's non-binding resolution didn't exactly pull many punches, it should probably be noted. It urged Cardinal William Levada to withdraw his directive to the Archdiocese of San Francisco indicating that Catholic social services agencies should not place children in need of adoption with gay or lesbian couples. It went on to state that it was a "discriminatory and defamatory directive" that was "an insult to all San Franciscans", and "show[ed] a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered..."

U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent, who has appeared in the pages of this blog before both for his recent conviction on obstruction charges and his witty court opinions, announced his retirement today, but apparently he's in no rush to leave the bench.

In his letter to President Obama, Kent declares that he will step down on June 1, 2010, almost precisely one year from now.  In roughly two weeks, however, Kent will report to prison to begin his sentence for the obstruction conviction, which begs the question of why he's waiting so long to quit.
The Supreme Court today decided, in the case of Bobby v. Bies, that issue preclusion and the double jeopardy clause did not prevent Ohio from holding a post-conviction hearing on the issue of a defendant's mental retardation. 

The defendant, Michael Bies, was convicted of the brutal murder of a ten year-old boy and sentenced to death.  At the sentencing hearing, the jury considered Bies' mild to borderline mental retardation as a mitigating factor and found that the aggravating factors still warranted a death sentence.