WASHINGTON – So far in the 2008-2009 Supreme Court term, the justices have heard oral arguments for 47 cases and returned opinions in eight of them. Below is a quick look at those cases and how the Court ruled. The Court will next hear oral arguments on February 23.
8) Herring v. United States (decided Jan. 14, 2009)
5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion in favor of the United States. This case from Alabama examined whether evidence seized in an arrest made without probable cause and based on the erroneous existence of a warrant can still be used against a defendant. The majority ruling concluded that the evidence is admissible.
Officers arrested Bennie Dean Herring on the false but good-faith belief that he had an outstanding warrant. A search showed Herring possessed drugs and a gun for which he was found guilty at trial. Herring claimed the search — and conviction — was an unjustified breach of his Fourth Amendment rights because the Coffee County Sheriff's Department had no valid reason to arrest him in the first place.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "when police mistakes leading to an unlawful search are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements," no Fourth Amendment rights are violated.
7) Oregon v. Ice (decided Jan. 14, 2009)
5-4. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of Oregon. This case examined the need of a jury to consider evidence in order for a court to impose consecutive sentences. A pair of High Court decisions (Apprendi & Blakely) earlier this decade established guidelines that trial courts need to follow to increase sentences beyond what statutes would otherwise prescribe. Thomas Ice was convicted of twice molesting an 11-year-old girl. Prosecutors asked the sentencing court for consecutive terms of imprisonment and the judge agreed sentenced him to more than 28 years behind bars.
Justice Ginsburg and the unusual majority in this case affirmed the judge's decision in issuing the consecutive terms. The majority concluded that the history of common law practices does not indicate a jury's role in imposing consecutive sentences. It further ruled that the High Court's sentencing precedents do not constrain the states from making their own independent decisions about this matter. "[A]dministering multiple sentences has long been considered the prerogative of state legislatures," Ginsburg wrote. She was joined by Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Breyer and Alito.
Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent questions the seeming backtrack of the Court's earlier rulings. "Today's opinion muddies the waters, and gives cause to doubt whether the Court is willing to stand by Apprendi's interpretation of the Sixth Amendment's jury-trial guarantee."
6) Jimenez v. Quarterman (decided Jan. 13, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of Carlos Jimenez. This technical case focused on the right of the Texas man to appeal his burglary conviction citing ineffective counsel. Through a series of delays and errors which were not his fault lower courts concluded that his federal appeal wasn't made in a timely manner. The High Court ruled otherwise and remanded the case for further proceedings.
5) Chambers v. United States (decided Jan. 13, 2009)
9-0. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of Deondery Chambers. This case from Illinois examined if a person who "escaped" from custody could be subject to the federal government's enhanced sentencing laws for repeat offenders. That law mandates a minimum 15 year sentence for anyone convicted of three or more violent felonies. Chambers disputed the government's claim (supported by the lower courts) that his failing to report for a string of weekend stints behind bars constituted a violent felony. The High Court ruled Chambers' absence did not equate to an escape that could be classified as a violent felony. Justice Samuel Alito authored a concurring opinion which was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
4) Altria Group v. Good (decided Dec. 15, 2008)
5-4. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the majority opinion in favor of Good. This decision marks a victory for a group of Maine smokers who claim the "light" and "lowered tar" labels on cigarettes like Marlboro Light are fraudulent. They claim whatever intended health benefits from the light-branded cigarettes don't really exist. They sued Altria Group (corporate parent of Philip Morris USA) in state court. But lower courts tossed out the lawsuit claiming the federal Labeling Act preempted state-level lawsuits. This decision says that's not the case and the Maine smokers are free to pursue their claims. But they must still prove their case. This decision only allows them to get into the courtroom. Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissent that finds the majority ruling "... will have the perverse effect of increasing the nonuniformity of state regulation of cigarette advertising, the exact problem that Congress intended to remedy."
3) Hedgpeth v. Pulido (decided Dec. 2, 2008)
Per Curiam. The High Court remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further review. The Ninth Circuit had ruled that because the jury that convicted Michael Pulido of murder had been presented three different theories of the crime his conviction could not stand. But the Supreme Court ruled that the Ninth Circuit must reexamine the case to determine if the error of presenting the alternative theories was "harmless" in nature. Justice John Paul Stevens authored a dissent and was joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg. They agree with the overall legal analysis of the decision but contend the remand is not necessary in this particular case. Per Curiam means "of the Court" and is a ruling in which the Court generally speaks with one voice.
2) Bell v. Kelly (decided Nov. 17, 2008)
Per Curiam. The case was dismissed after the justices heard oral arguments. The decision appears to clear the way for Edward Bell's execution in Virginia. The exact language of the Court is "the writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted." The Court issued no other comment for the dismissal but the Court's order suggests the legal conflicts they thought were at issue in this capital case did not exist.
1) Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council (decided Nov. 12, 2008)
6-3. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion in favor of the U.S. Navy. The ruling overturns a lower court order that forced the Navy to conduct training exercises under certain restrictions. That order was was defended by environmental groups looking to protect marine life — particulary whales and dolphins — it said are harmed by the Navy's use of "mid-frequency active" sonar. But the Court's opinion found in favor of the military. "The Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarine plainly outweighs the interest advanced by the [environmentalists]," Roberts wrote.
The opinion however made no determination on the merits of the environmental claims. Rather, it focused on the relief granted by the lower courts forcing the Navy to halt and then later continue its exercises under limited conditions. The High Court concluded the injunctions against the Navy were excessive and that according to Roberts "there are many other remedial tools available....that do not carry such dire consequences."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fully dissented from the majority opinion and placed the onus on the Navy's failure to adequately assess the impact its sonar training would have on marine life. "If the Navy had completed the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before taking action ... the public could have benefited from the environmental analysis — and the Navy's training could have proceeded without interruption. Instead, the Navy acted first, and thus thwarted the very purpose an EIS is intended to serve.... [T]he District Court conscientiously balanced the equities and did not abuse its discretion."