WASHINGTON – In the 2008-2009 Supreme Court Term, the justices heard oral arguments for 78 cases and returned opinions in 77 of them. One case, Citizens United v. FEC, is scheduled for a second round of oral arguments on September 9, 2009. Below is a quick look at those cases and how the Court ruled.
#77) Cuomo v. Clearing House (decided June 29, 2009)
5-4. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of New York State. The ruling holds that the New York Attorney General can pursue an investigation into the lending practices of major national banks (Wells Fargo, Citibank, etc.) but may not issue subpoenas related to that investigation.
In 2005, New York's attorney general sent letters of inquiry to various banks in response to newly released federal statistics suggesting those banks might have discriminated against minority borrowers who took out home mortgages. The statistics indicated that minority borrowers were more likely to have higher interest rates on home loans than white borrowers. The letters asked for the banks to provide the attorney general proprietary information that could have been used against them in any subsequent lawsuit.
The banks and their trade association filed their own legal challenge to stop the investigation. They were eventually joined by the federal Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) which regulates large national banks. Together, they argued the attorney general cannot investigate a matter that falls within the exclusive purview of the OCC. A federal district court judge agreed and granted the banks relief from the investigation. It ruled the OCC can preempt any state investigation or prosecution of national banks even if those banks violate state laws. A divided panel of the Second Circuit of Appeals affirmed that judgment saying the OCC is entitled to due deference in its interpretation of federal law.
But the high court's opinion said that deference only goes so far and that federal laws do not foreclose on state's ability to enforce its own laws.
#76) Ricci v. DeStefano (decided June 29, 2009)
5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of Frank Ricci. This case is at the center of the upcoming Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearing. Soon after the opinion's release, conservatives were championing the decision as a judgment against Sotomayor's jurisprudence in this racially charged case.
Frank Ricci and his fellow firefighters sued New Haven, Conn. after city leaders tossed out the results of a promotions exam because no African Americans scored well enough to merit advancement. "The City's action in discarding the tests violated [federal law,]" Kennedy held. The city argued its action was prompted by concern that disgruntled African American firefighters would sue. But that reasoning didn't hold sway with the Court's majority. "Fear of litigation alone cannot justify the City's reliance of race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions."
This decision, like so many of the close cases before the high court divided along its familiar ideological lines. The Court's more liberal members joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent which she read from the bench. "The white firefighters who scored high on New Haven's promotional exams understandably attract the Court's sympathy," she said. "But they had no vested right to promotion."
Last year, Sotomayor, a judge on the New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals twice ruled against the white firefighters. Her decision in this case has prompted significant criticism-especially from conservatives who have charged that Sotomayor didn't show empathy towards them. The criticism is also a thinly-veiled attack on President Obama who said he would look for a Supreme Court nominee who showed empathy towards litigants. Sotomayor will undoubtedly be asked about this opinion at her confirmation hearing that will start on July 13.
#75) Safford (AZ) Unified School District v. Redding (decided June 25, 2009)
8-1. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of April Redding and her daughter Savana. A middle school student told school officials in Safford, Arizona that her friend, Savana Redding, possessed prescription strength ibuprofen in violation of school rules. The assistant principal ordered a female nurse to effectively conduct a strip search of Redding which revealed that she did not possess the banned drugs.
Justice Souter said while there was reasonable evidence to suspect that Redding may have possessed the pills, that evidence didn't rise to a level necessary to conduct such an invasive search which Redding described as embarrassing, frightening and humiliating. "Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion," Souter wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court to contend the search was lawful. In his dissent, Thomas said the majority's opinion "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."
#74) Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend (decided June 25, 2009)
5-4. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of Edgar Townsend. In July 2005, Edgar Townsend was working on a tugboat when he slipped and injured his shoulder and clavicle. His bosses told him they would not cover his medical claims which under maritime traditions are covered by ship-owners. Townsend sued and sought punitive damages from Atlantic Sounding. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Townsend is able to sue for punitive damages noting a "willful and persistent failure" to cover his medical expenses. The Supreme Court agreed with that assessment.
#73) Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (decided June 25, 2009)
5-4. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Luis Melendez-Diaz. This ruling expands upon one of Justice Scalia's hallmark rulings about the Sixth Amendment rights of criminal defendants to confront all witnesses presented against them.
This case from Massachusetts involves an alleged drug dealer who at trial was presented with a lab report detailing that the drug found on him was cocaine. But the Court ruled that the defendant, Luis Melendez-Diaz, has a constitutional right to call to the witness stand the technician who prepared the lab report.
The decision could lead to an increase in subpoenas for lab technicians to testify about their methodology and conclusions. These appearances could lead to lengthier trials and the absences from their labs could also lead to delays by the technicians in finishing their pending lab work. Issues that even Scalia acknowledges may be burdensome but he says the Confrontation Clause "is binding, and we may not disregard it at our convenience."
Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissent says the opinion "confidently disregards a century of jurisprudence" in which scientific analysis could be presented at trial without the need for calling the analyst who produced the work. Kennedy says "laboratory analysts who conduct routine scientific tests are not the kind of conventional witnesses to whom the Confrontation Clause refers."
#72) Horne v. Flores (decided June 25, 2009)
5-4. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of the Arizona school system. The case focused on Arizona's funding of its English Learner Language program for non-native English speakers. The decision overturns a lower court ruling that efforts by the state to improve the quality of education and amount of money spent on programs for non-native English speakers are insufficient.
Alito effectively scolded the lower courts for its refusal to recognize the improvements Arizona has made since it was first ruled to be deficient. He also said Arizona's compliance with the more recent federal No Child Left Behind program is a sign of significant progress that was not sufficiently considered.
The ruling remands the case for further review to see if Arizona's progress is enough to escape a federal judge's oversight. In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower courts did take the state's recent progress into consideration and ruled fairly. He says the majority's decision places at risk the education of Arizona's schoolchildren who need the English language program.
#71) NAMUDNO v. Holder (decided June 22, 2009)
8-1. Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion in favor of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District #1. The legal legitimacy of the historic Voting Rights Act was called into question by a nearly unanimous Supreme Court. "The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable, but the Act now raises serious constitutional concerns," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
This opinion does not overturn the 1965 law but it does weaken it by expanding the ability of all voting entities covered by a specific provision of the law to escape its oversight. The opinion will undoubtedly lead to an increase in voting districts seeking exemption from the Act's "preclearance" requirements and with the apparent open invitation from the Court lead to a future lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law itself. Such a case would likely reach the Supreme Court which has had no trouble upholding the law in the past. But this opinion clearly suggests another review could lead to a different outcome.
Preclearance requires voting entities in certain—mostly southern states—to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to its election procedures. The rule was instituted to combat attempts by local voting officials to suppress minority turnout-a significant problem in the Jim Crow era. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the Court's holding as far as it went but said it should have done much more. "The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass [the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act] and this Court to uphold it no longer remains."
The case was brought by a small utility district in Austin, Texas. After holding elections in the garage attached to Jack Steuber's house for a number of years, the District decided the local elementary school would a more appropriate venue. However, because Texas is a state covered by the 1965 law, the district's change required DOJ approval—something the district did not feed was necessary. The district sued the federal government on the belief that as an entity created after the Voting Rights Act took effect and with no history of race related election problems it should be able "bail out" of federal oversight. The high court's opinion agreed with that assessment.
#70) Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (decided June 22, 2009)
6-3. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of student T.A. and his parents. This decision makes it easier for parents of special education students to receive federally approved tuition reimbursements from their local school district while their children attend private schools.
A provision of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that when a school district fails to provide a student who "previously received special education and related services" needed by that student then the school district must pay for the costs associated with private education. The confounding issue in this case is that T.A. was never enrolled in a public school special education program. The school district argued this fact should have prevented them from having to reimburse T.A.'s educational costs when his parents unilaterally decided to remove him from his public high school. But the high court ruled otherwise saying that since the private school placement was appropriate it didn't matter if the child had previously received services through the public school.
#69) Coeur Alaska v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (decided June 22, 2009)
6-3. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of mining operator Coeur Alaska. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency are the federal agencies charged with regulating commercial use and alteration of wetlands. Coeur Alaska is a mining operation that applied for a permit to redeposit soil and other accumulated mining waste into a lake. The Corps approved Coeur Alaska's permit. But environmental groups sued and found success in the Ninth Circuit which ruled language in the Clean Water Act controlled the permitting process. That language was not followed by the Corps and therefore the lower court invalidated the permit. But the high court ruled in favor of Coeur Alaska when it determined the Corps has the authority to issue the approval permit.
#68) District Attorney's Office of Anchorage, AK v. Osborne (decided June 18, 2009)
5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion in favor of Alaska. This ruling states that a convicted rapist does not have a constitutional right to retest DNA evidence in the hope that the results will set him free. William Osborne and another man were convicted of raping and beating a prostitute near the Anchorage Airport. At trial, Osborne's lawyer decided against independently testing the DNA evidence gathered by investigators. Instead, it was determined that the state's broader DNA analysis was more helpful to Osborne's case. Nonetheless, the jury found Osborne guilty and sentenced him to 26 years behind bars.
After a maze of mostly unsuccessful appeals seeking to retest the DNA evidence, Osborne finally found success with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court reasoned Osborne has a Constitutional right to force prosecutors to release the evidence so he can order more detailed DNA tests. Depending on the results of those tests, a court could order a new trial. The district attorney's office argued Osborne had his chance for more advanced DNA evidence at trial and the Constitution doesn't guarantee him a second crack now.
That opinion was shared by the Court's majority who concluded the courts were not the proper venue for making such a determination. Chief Justice Roberts said "the task of establishing rules to harness DNA's power to prove innocence without unnecessarily overthrowing the established criminal justice system belongs primarily to the legislature." The impact of this ruling may be minimal as Alaska is but one of a handful of states that does not establish post-conviction testing procedures. Nonetheless, Justice John Paul Stevens in dissent argued "there is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done in this case."
#67) Yeager v. United States (decided June 18, 2009)
6-3. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of F. Scott Yeager. At his first trial, former Enron executive F. Scott Yeager was acquitted on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. But the jury couldn't reach a verdict on five counts of insider trading and eight counts of money laundering. The government wanted to retry Yeager on those charges but this ruling means such a prosecution would be a violation of Yeager's Fifth Amendment right against double jeopardy.
Justice Stevens wrote that "an apparent inconsistency between a jury's verdict of acquittal on some counts and its failure to return a verdict on other counts does not affect the acquittals' preclusive force under the Double Jeopardy Clause."
#66) Travelers Indemnity v. Bailey (decided June 18, 2009)
7-2. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of Travelers Indemnity. This "narrow ruling" from the Court approves of the way a bankruptcy court judge gave legal protection to Travelers Indemnity. This case had its roots in the terrible medical problems suffered by tens-of-thousands of Americans exposed to asbestos.
Johns-Manville Corporation was a major asbestos manufacturer and after many lawsuits for health related claims it filed for bankruptcy in 1982. The bankruptcy agreement called for a trust fund to pay all current and future claims and was supplemented by the inclusion of millions of dollars from Johns-Manville's insurers including Travelers. That agreement protected Travelers from any asbestos-related litigation.
But that didn't stop some victims from filing "direct action" lawsuits against Travelers. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the bankruptcy judge lacked the authority to protect Travelers from the litigation and allowed those suits to proceed. Travelers appealed to the Supreme Court which affirmed the bankruptcy judge's original decision protecting Travelers from litigation.
#65) Gross v. FBL Financial Services (decided June 18, 2009)
5-4. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of FBL Financial Services. This ruling will make it more difficult for employees to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits. The Court held that an employee must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged discrimination occurred "but for" his or her age. Evidence that age was one of multiple factors is not sufficient to secure a judgment.
Jack Gross claims his bosses demoted him because of his age. He was 54 when a younger worker was promoted and given more responsibility at their insurance company. Gross sued claiming age discrimination. This ruling means that in order for Gross to win his case, he will need to prove how age was the motivating factor in his employer's decision.
#64) Nijhawan v. Holder (decided June 15, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of the government. Manoj Nijhawan entered the United States in 1985 from his native India. In 2002, he and others at his New Jersey-based metal-sales company were arrested for duping banks into lending them money for bogus overseas operations. Nijhawan was convicted of conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison and along with his fellow co-workers was ordered to pay $683,632,800.23 in restitution.
While Nijhawan was in prison, the Bureau of Immigration Affairs moved to have him kicked out of the country. Immigration law says anyone convicted of fraud in which the victim loses more than $10,000 is subject to removal. But the amount that was swindled never came up during the criminal trial. It was not necessary for prosecutors to determine the loss in order secure their conviction. It was only during sentencing that the staggering amount of money involved was brought to light. Nijhawan says information only gathered at trial and considered by a jury may be presented before an immigration judge. The immigration judge in his case disagreed and so has every other court that has reviewed the matter which now includes the Supreme Court.
#63) Polar Tankers v. Valdez, Alaska (decided June 15, 2009)
7-2. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of Polar Tankers Inc. City officials in Valdez, Alaska instituted a personal property tax targeting the oil tankers that fill its harbor. Valdez is the end of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and is the northernmost ice free port in North America. The ordinance uses a complicated formula to determine the assessment for each vessel. Not surprisingly, ship-owners objected to the tax and sued saying the tax is a violation of the Constitution's Tonnage Clause, which prohibits states from imposing duties on ships unless otherwise allowed by Congress. The city argued Tonnage Clause does not apply to property taxes. But the Court concluded the tax was unconstitutional because it essentially falls on large oil tankers. "Because the imposition of the tax depends on a factor related to tonnage and that tonnage-based tax is not for services provided to the vessel, it is unconstitutional."
#62) United States v. Denedo (decided June 8, 2009)
5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of Jacob Denedo. Denedo enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1989. Nine years later, he was busted for scamming a community college out of $28,000. Denedo's guilty plea before a court-martial resulted in a three month sentence and a bad-conduct discharge.
In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against the Nigerian native because of his crime. Denedo, now six years removed from the service, filed a motion with the military appellate courts seeking review of his case based on claims of ineffective counsel. Denedo contends his military and civilian lawyers assured him his guilty plea would not lead to his removal from the United States. The Defense Department tried to block Denedo's case arguing the military courts do not have jurisdiction to review, but the Supreme Court ruled otherwise and Denedo's case will proceed.
#61) Iraq v. Beaty & Iraq v. Simon (decided June 8, 2008)
Unanimous. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Iraq. During the First Gulf War, CBS News reporter Bob Simon and cameraman Roberto Alvarez were kidnapped on the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The pair state they were beaten, tortured and used as human shields until they were released six weeks after their capture. In 2003, they and another man sued Iraq seeking $243 million in damages. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the lawsuit could go forward, the Supreme Court reversed that decision.
Iraq says it is an “important, democratic ally" of the United States and has sovereign immunity from this type of litigation—especially when the alleged bad acts were done under the deposed government of Saddam Hussein. They claim President Bush used his executive powers to protect Iraq and that these claims "should be addressed diplomatically" not in an American courtroom. Justice Scalia wrote that "when the President exercised his authority to make inapplicable with respect to Iraq all provisions of law that apply to countries that have supported terrorism, the exception to foreign sovereign immunity for state sponsors of terrorism became inoperative as against Iraq."
#60) Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. (decided June 8, 2009)
5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of Hugh Caperton. The ruling is a victory for groups interested in curbing the influence of money on judicial elections. Kennedy's opinion was joined by the court's more liberal justices. "There is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent," Kennedy concluded.
The case examined West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin's decision not to recuse himself from a $50 million lawsuit involving the man who spent millions of dollars to get him elected to the bench. The losing side in the West Virginia mining case before Justice Benjamin argued he should have stepped aside for his "probability of bias" in the case involving Massey Coal. Massey's CEO spent $3 million in ads to help Benjamin's election.
The Supreme Court had previously only recognized the need for recusals when judges have a personal financial interest or some other closely held connection to a case. This opinion expands that reach. The case also highlighted the concerns some have in curbing the influence of money in state judicial races. 39 states hold elections to determine who presides over their courtrooms.
In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the Court's decision will undermine not promote an independent judiciary. His concern is that "probability of bias" is indefinable and will "inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be." This case closely resembles the plotline authored by novelist John Grisham in his 2008 book "The Appeal."
#59) Eisenstein v. New York City (decided June 8, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of New York City. A provision of the False Claims Act allows for people like Irwin Eisenstein to file a lawsuit on behalf of the government. They are also entitled to a small percentage of any monetary awards. During appeals of these cases the law proscribes two deadlines depending if the government is an actual party to the case. If it is then 60 days are allowed to file an appeal. If not, then only half that time is allotted.
In this case from New York City, the federal government decided not to be a named party in the case. The appeal was filed in 54 days, which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that to be out of time. In similar cases, other appellate courts have ruled that because the government would stand to be the primary beneficiary of any favorable judgment or "real party in interest" then the 60 day timeframe was appropriate—even if the government wasn't a named party to the case. The Second Circuit disagreed with that analysis and so too the Supreme Court.
#58) Boyle v. United States (decided June 8, 2009)
7-2. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of the government. Edmund Boyle was part of a group called the "Night Drop Crew" that targeted banks in the New York City area looking for poorly secured safe deposit boxes. Its estimated Boyle and his cohorts—who had ties to the Gambino crime family—pulled off heists totaling in excess of $1 million. The gang operated much like the one seen in the popular Oceans movies featuring actor George Clooney, where each member of the crew had a designated role in the crime. Boyle was brought into the clan for his reputation at boosting cars.
Eventually, Boyle was arrested and charged under RICO laws with burglarizing eight banks. Prosecuting under RICO statutes is significant because that allowed the government to seek and eventually obtain longer prison terms. Boyle was sentenced to 12 ½ years behind bars. RICO has often been used by prosecutors to prosecute organized crime figures. It requires proof of a structured organization underlying the criminal activity. Boyle claimed no such organization existed. He says the collection of bank thieves was nothing more than a loose coalition of characters with no formal structure or hierarchy. The Supreme Court disagreed with Boyle's interpretation and affirmed his conviction.
#57) Bobby v. Bies (decided June 1, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of David Bobby, warden of the Ohio State Penitentiary. The ruling allows the state to ask for a new hearing to determine if convicted murderer Michael Bies is mentally fit to be executed. Bies claimed that a prior court ruling that he was likely to be mentally retarded precluded the state from now trying to prove otherwise. The state claimed it never had the opportunity to fully address the issue. In 1992, Bies and an accomplice brutally killed a 10 year old Cincinnati boy.
#56) Montejo v. Louisiana (decided May 26, 2009)
5-4. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Louisiana. The Court's holding is more significant for its decision overturning a 1986 ruling that precluded police from conducting certain interrogations once a suspect was appointed legal counsel even if that suspect agreed to the police interview without the presence of a lawyer. The Court's opinion concluded the rule had "marginal benefits" and needed to be overruled.
However, the Court's decision does allow for Jesse Montejo to appeal his murder conviction on other legal grounds that will examine the admissibility of a written confession he gave to officers after he was appointed legal counsel. His court-appointed lawyer was not present when he wrote his letter. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the 1986 Jackson opinion and dissented in this case. The Court's decision "rests on a flawed doctrinal premise," Stevens declared. "[B]ut the dubious benefits it hopes to achieve are far outweighed by the damage it does to the rule of law and the integrity of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel."
#55) Haywood v. Drown (decided May 26, 2009)
5-4. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Keith Haywood. Haywood is serving a 15-30 year stint behind bars in New York's Attica prison. Over the years, he's been involved in several disputes with corrections officers. Haywood filed charges in state court claiming civil rights violations. But his lawsuits have been dismissed because they are in conflict with state laws allowing only the state to file charges against correctional officers. The New York law is designed to protect its workers from frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates. The Court held that no matter the merits of the state ban it "is contrary to Congress' judgment that all persons who violate federal rights...shall be held liable for damages." The ruling frees Haywood to fully pursue his legal claims in state courts.
#54) Abuelhawa v. United States (decided May 26, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of Salman Khade Abuelhawa. Abuelhawa admitted to the FBI he was a cocaine user. During its investigation of another man, agents recorded a pair of phone conversations in which Abuelhawa made arrangements to purchase a gram of cocaine. Even though federal laws make personal drug use a misdemeanor crime, prosecutors charged Abuelhawa with a felony because of the phone conversation with the dealer. Abuelhawa's lawyers successfully argued that the government's decision to charge their client with a felony undermines the Congressional intent of the Controlled Substances Act.
#53) Ashcroft v. Iqbal (decided May 18, 2009)
5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other current and former government officers. The decision means that those officials—also including FBI Director Robert Mueller—cannot be sued for their official actions made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Justice Kennedy's opinion was joined by the Court's conservative members in upholding long-standing immunity protections given to government officers for their official duties.
The case focused on the FBI's round-up of mostly Muslim men in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. One of those men, Javaid Iqbal, eventually sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and two dozen other government workers who were supposedly responsible for his arrest and detention. Iqbal claims the FBI policy was so targeted towards Muslim men that it was discriminatory. Today's ruling rejects that argument and furthermore says that Iqbal lacked the evidence necessary to cross the high threshold required to hold government officials personally liable for their official acts.
"On the facts," Justice Kennedy wrote, "...the arrests Mueller oversaw were likely lawful and justified by his nondiscriminatory intent to detain aliens who were illegally present in the United States and had potential connections to those who committed terrorist acts."
#52) AT&T v. Hulteen (decided May 18, 2009)
7-2. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of AT&T. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 forced companies like AT&T to treat maternity leave on par with other benefit-giving leaves (i.e. temporary disability.) Prior to the law's enactment, AT&T forced new mothers to use personal leave. The distinction in benefits ultimately mattered to the time accrued for pension purposes. AT&T's seniority system is based on a time served calculation.
The company argued that women who took maternity (personal) leave prior to the PDA should not get pension credit for service rendered because the PDA was not made retroactive. Four retiring AT&T workers say the company discriminated against them while calculating their pensions under the old formula. That argument found success in the lower court. But the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in saying that since Congress didn’t make the PDA retroactive AT&T doesn't have to recalculate its pension program.
#51) Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway v. United States (decided May 4, 2009)
8-1. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway. This case concerns the Ninth Circuit's decision to overturn a lower court's calculus in determining the share of costs associated with the clean up of a contaminated tract of land in California. The lower court ruled the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad and Shell Oil Company only pay 9% of the more than $8 Million in clean-up costs. But the Ninth Circuit determined that the two companies had "joint and several liability" in the clean-up of the Superfund site. That ruling could make Shell and BNSF responsible for paying the EPA all of the costs associated with the clean-up.
#50) Arthur Anderson v. Carlisle (decided May 4, 2009)
6-3. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Arthur Anderson. After Wayne Carlisle and two associates sold their construction business they wanted help in setting up tax shelters for the proceeds of the sale. They eventually partnered with a firm called Bricolage who worked with other companies to help set up the shelter. As part of the agreement with Bricolage, Carlisle and his business partners signed a contract that provided for arbitration should a dispute pop up.
As it turned out, the IRS said the shelter was illegal and initially allowed Carlisle some extra time to make good on his tax obligations. But Carlisle says the firm the IRS reached out to never informed him of that grace period. Eventually the IRS cracked down on Carlisle for the failure to pay his original tax burden and added fines and interest all totaling in excess of $20 Million.
Carlisle sued Bricolage and eight other interests saying they were responsible for his tax mess. The arbitration agreement with Bricolage was enacted but only with Bricolage. The other eight firms were left to defend themselves in court. They argue they too should be covered by the arbitration agreement.
#49) Carlsbad Technology Inc. v. HIF Bio Inc. (decided May 4, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of Carlsbad Technology. A supposed cancer remedy is the subject of the dispute between two California firms. The legal issue before the Supreme Court is not one of life and death. There are conflicting claims of proprietorship between Carlsbad Technology and HIF Bio. The legal struggles eventually left the state courts and into a Federal courtroom to address a claim of racketeering and other issues. The federal district court judge tossed the racketeering complaint and ruled it did not have jurisdiction to review any of the other issues that were state-level disputes. The Federal Court of Appeals refused to intervene saying the lower court's decision to abstain from the case was not reviewable. This high court's opinion holds that "a district court's order remanding a case to state court after declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims is not a remand for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction for which appellate review is barred."
#48) Flores-Figueroa v. United States (decided May 4, 2009)
9-0. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa. Ignacio Flores-Figueroa left his Mexico home and found work at an East Moline, IL steel mill. Flores-Figueroa took the job under an assumed name and provided his employer with bogus documents. After six years he decided he wanted to use his real name and presented new but still bogus paperwork. His bosses became suspicious and reported him to immigration authorities leading to his arrest. He was found guilty of illegally entering the country and sentenced to more than four years behind bars. But he was also convicted of aggravated identity theft tacking on an additional two year sentence.
Flores-Figueroa's second set of identification papers were not only false but had been assigned to real people. That discovery prompted prosecutors to seek the additional charge. Flores-Figueroa claims the aggravated identity theft charge can't be proved because he didn't know his documents belonged to someone else. Instead he thought they were simply made-up papers. Even though the statute says a person must "knowingly" use the forged documents, lower courts have agreed with prosecutors that Flores-Figueroa is guilty of aggravated identity theft. The government argues Flores-Figueroa's reading is overly narrow and misses Congress's intent in trying to protect people from identity theft.
The Court's opinion holds that "the Government does not provide a single example of a sentence that, when used in typical fashion, would lead the hearer to a contrary understanding."
#47) Dean v. United States (decided April 29, 2009)
7-2. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion in favor of the United States. Federal law allows for convicted felons to serve an additional ten years behind bars if they fire a gun during the commission of a crime. This ruling says that law still applies even if there was no intent to fire the weapon.
In 2004, Christopher Dean robbed $3,642 from a Georgia bank. While inside the bank his gun accidentally discharged. No one was hurt and witnesses say Dean was himself shocked when the gun went off—clearly demonstrating he lacked the intent to fire the weapon. Police officers soon arrested Dean and he was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 8 1/3 years behind bars. But he was also given an additional ten year term in prison for firing the gun during the bank robbery. This opinion affirms that additional sentence.
Chief Justice Roberts offered some sage advice. "Those criminals wishing to avoid the penalty for an inadvertent discharge can lock or unload the firearm, handle it with care during the underlying violent or drug trafficking crime, leave the gun at home, or—best yet—avoid committing the felony in the first place."
#46) Kansas v. Ventris (decided April 29, 2009)
7-2 Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Kansas. In a victory for prosecutors, coerced testimony that is not allowed at trial can be used to impeach a defendant's inconsistent testimony. In 2004, Donnie Ray Ventris and his girlfriend robbed a Kansas man who died during the attack. At trial, Ventis took the stand in his own defense and claimed his girlfriend was responsible for the man's death. Prosecutors then introduced a jailhouse snitch to rebut Ventris's testimony. The informant told the court that Ventis had told him that he had pulled the fatal trigger—not the girlfriend. But the jury couldn't hash it out and acquitted Ventis on the murder charge. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of the robbery and sentenced to more than 23 years behind bars.
At trial, Ventis attempted to prevent the jailhouse informant's testimony. He claimed that the snitch was effectively hired by the State to gather information against him in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The judge overruled the objection. Ventis took his case to the Kansas Court of Appeals which ruled that such testimony would ordinarily be excluded from trial but is was permissible here because it was used to rebut Ventris's supposedly perjurious story.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled otherwise. It concluded that under no circumstances can the testimony of a hired jailhouse snitch who purposefully elicits information be used at court. But the Supreme Court said the trial court got it right. Justice Scalia wrote that "Ventris's statement to the informant, concededly elicited in violation of the Sixth Amendment, was admissible to impeach his inconsistent testimony at trial."
#45) Cone v. Bell (decided April 28, 2009)
6-3. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Gary Cone. Cone is a Vietnam veteran who killed an elderly couple in Memphis in 1980. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Many years later it came to light that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have aided his insanity defense. Justice Stevens wrote that the mitigating evidence should have been disclosed and the Court remanded the case back to the trial court so that evidence can be included in a new sentencing hearing. His conviction is not subject to review.
#44) FCC v. Fox (decided April 28, 2009)
5-4. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion of the FCC. The decision upholds the Federal Communication Commission's decision to prohibit so-called "fleeting expletives" from the broadcast airwaves. Justice Scalia says the FCC policy cracking down on indecent language was neither arbitrary nor capricious and called its action "entirely reasonable." The ruling affirms the Commission's decision, made during the Bush Administration, to prohibit foul language that was fleeting in nature. Longstanding FCC policy had banned the use of dirty words used in repetition or with obvious deliberate intent.
The case revolves around the utterance of "f***" and "s***" by Bono, Cher and Nicole Ritchie during the live broadcast of award shows earlier this decade. The FCC in enforcing its new policy against "fleeting expletives" sanctioned the Fox Broadcasting Network for allowing those words to air unfiltered into American homes. Fox was joined by other broadcasters who argued the FCC's rule change was improper and arbitrary. They also argued the rule violated their First Amendment rights. The constitutional issue was not reached by today's opinion but is one that is likely to return to the Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg focused her dissent on this constitutional question. "There is no way to hide the long shadow the First Amendment casts over what the Commission has done. Today's decision does nothing to diminish that shadow." Interestingly, the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas suggests that even though the broadcasters lost their battle today, an ultimate victory may be within reach.
#43) Nken v. Holder (decided April 22, 2009)
7-2. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion in favor of Jean Marc Nken. The decision gives Nken hope that his asylum plea will be granted and makes it easier for other immigrants to seek court appeals. In 2001, Nken entered the United States on a travel visa and decided to stay even though he had no legal right to do so. The Cameroon native now claims asylum based on the contention he will be persecuted in his home country for having participated in student demonstrations many years ago. The initial immigration judge concluded that his claims lacked merit and was troubled by Nken's failure to seek asylum in Ivory Coast—where he first landed—before he came to the United States.
Nken argued the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals erroneously relied upon language in immigration law to deny his request for a stay preventing the final disposition of his case. Nken's lawyers argued the Fourth Circuit should have utilized a standard four-part test for determining the stay request. The high court ruled this standard is the one that should have been used by the lower court.
#42) Arizona v. Gant (decided April 21, 2009)
5-4. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Rodney Gant. The decision gives new guidelines to police officers on when they can search a suspect's car. The ruling instructs officers that even though they have someone in custody, they cannot search the suspect's car without a search warrant unless they have good reason to do so. The Court says those reasons only include the chance that the suspect may go back to the car or if the vehicle has evidence related to the arrest. In this case, Gant was pulled over for driving on a suspended license and the arresting officers searched his car and found drugs. Gant was charged and convicted of drug possession. But the high court's ruling affirms an Arizona court's conclusion that the search was impermissible and a violation of the Gant's Fourth Amendment rights.
Justice Samuel Alito authored a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Breyer. They contend that the majority ruling may possibly endanger arresting officers and that it is "virtually certain to confuse law enforcement officers and judges for some time to come."
#41) Shinseki v. Sanders (decided April 21, 2009)
6-3. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of the government and its Department of Veterans Affairs. The ruling affirms the process by which veterans are able to appeal adverse rulings by the VA. The decision therefore is a defeat for World War II veteran Woodrow Sanders who was looking for federal assistance in taking care of his poor eyesight. He contends a 1944 bazooka blast is the reason for his poor eyesight. On multiple occasions over the years the VA denied the claim. It determined the medical evidence available wasn't sufficient to warrant assistance.
Sanders then appealed the VA ruling through a special Veterans court. He eventually found success arguing the VA failed to adequately assist him in his efforts to obtain new and medically significant evidence. A 2000 law requires the VA to help clients in their efforts to process claims. But the Supreme Court agreed with the VA's contention that veterans making claims of error by the agency must themselves bear the burden of proof and must also show that the mistake was "prejudicial" in nature.
#40) Ministry of Defense of Iran v. Elahi (decided April 21, 2009)
6-3. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of the Iranian government. This is a messy case that has its roots in the American reaction to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. President Carter froze Iranian assets and then in a treaty the day before he left office reached terms on how those assets would be released. At the same time, the Iranian Government's Defense Ministry had a series of agreements to purchase military equipment from a California contractor. After protracted and still outstanding litigation, Iran is seeking to collect more than $2 million from the contractor which never delivered the promised goods.
Enter Dariush Elahi who won his own judgment against the Iranian government for its role in the murder of his brother. Elahi was seeking to recover money from the defense contractor case. But the Supreme Court agreed with the Iranian government's contention that Elahi has relinquished his right to "attach" the judgment in the defense contractor case to his own.
#39) United States v. Navajo Nation (decided April 6, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of the government. This was the second time this case about mineral leases on Navajo lands came before the Supreme Court. In 2003, a 6-3 decision concluded the government was not liable for $600 million in damages for supposedly not looking after the tribe's best interests in a dispute over royalties with a private coal company. But after further review in the lower courts, the Navajo were able to revive the case citing different laws. This time the Court ruled unanimously against the tribe's efforts. In short, Justice Scalia wrote, "this case is at an end."
#38) Corley v. United States (decided April 6, 2009)
5-4. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of Johnnie Corley. The ruling affirms a 1957 Court decision protecting criminal suspects from lengthy detentions before they’re formally charged in front of a judge. The opinion holds that voluntary confessions given by suspects held in custody longer than six hours must be reviewed by a trial judge before they’re admitted into evidence. In those instances, the judge must determine if a suspect held in excess of six hours was "unnecessary or unreasonable."
Johnnie Corley was convicted of robbing $47,532 from a Norristown, Penn. bank. A couple months after the heist, FBI agents arrested him. While in custody, agents interrogated Corley until he confessed to the bank robbery. But 29 hours had elapsed between Corley's arrest and his initial appearance before a judge. At trial, Corley's lawyers were unsuccessful in their attempts to have the confession tossed. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to more than 14 years behind bars.
The opinion says a lower appeals court—which had upheld the confession—must go back and examine if there was unnecessary or unreasonable delay in presenting Corley before the magistrate judge. If so, then the confession must be withheld from evidence. A dissenting opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by the Court’s more conservative members defended the admissibility of the confession saying a federal law passed after the 1957 Supreme Court decision shows the trial court judge’s decision to accept the confession was correct.
#37) Harbison v. Bell (decided April 1, 2009)
7-2. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Edward Harbison. The justices ruled that Harbison, a state prisoner on death row, is entitled to federally-funded legal help to pursue a clemency request. The Terrorist Death Penalty Enhancement Act of 2005 provides federal funding for counsel to indigent defendants and post-conviction litigants in federal capital cases. This ruling expands the reach of that law to include purely state level clemency efforts. In January 1983, Edward Harbison killed a 62 year old woman inside her home. By year's end, a Hamilton County, Tennessee jury convicted him of first degree murder and sentenced him to that state's death row. Harbison's appeals through state and federal courts went nowhere.
The state set an execution date for February 2007 and Harbison sought legal help to gain clemency from the governor. He moved to have his government appointed counsel during the federal appeals process help him in his clemency request. However, the federal funds that would pay for his lawyer were not made available for what is entirely a state process. His lawyers argued "[i]t is indisputable that state clemency proceedings fall within the plain language" of the law that provides for capital case legal assistance. Today's opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens agrees with that assessment.
#36) Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper Inc. (decided April 1, 2009)
6-3. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of Entergy Corp. The ruling goes against an environmentalist group's attempt to force expensive infrastructure changes at America's power plants. It upholds an Environmental Protection Agency decision allowing power plants to use a cost-benefit analysis when calculating how to upgrade cooling water intake structures. The water inside these structures is necessary to cool super-heated machines and then it is returned back into the environment. This process forces the power plants to comply with regulations under the Clean Water Act.
New York based Riverkeeper Inc. contends the EPA's cost-benefit standard was lax and not in concert with a congressional mandate tasking the EPA to find the "best technology available" to mitigate environmental impact. Shellfish and other aquatic organisms close to the power plants are harmed when the water is returned to the environment. Riverkeeper sued in an attempt to have the EPA force power plants to spend upwards of $3.5 billion in upgrades. Instead, the EPA allowed power plants to install a much-less expensive alternative that was slightly less protective of the aquatic life as the costly option favored by Riverkeeper. Justice Antonin Scalia said today that the "determination by the EPA is entitled to deference and will be sustained if it is a reasonable interpretation of the statute. We conclude it is."
#35) 14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett (decided April 1, 2009)
5-4. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of 14 Penn Plaza. The Court ruled against three New York City security guards who tried to sure their employer. In 2003, Steven Pyett and two co-workers were reassigned from their nighttime security jobs at a New York City office building. The men claim the job transfers were not allowed under the terms of their union's collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) and the new job assignments amounted to age discrimination. Accordingly, they filed suit against their employer, 14 Penn Plaza, seeking damages. 14 Penn Plaza filed a counter-motion arguing the CBA compels resolution of the dispute by arbitration. A position the high court agrees with. Today's opinion holds that "a provision in a collective-bargaining agreement that clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate [age discrimination] claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law."
#34) Philip Morris v. Williams (decided March 31, 2009)
Per Curiam. The case was dismissed as "improvidently granted." The decision upheld a nearly $80 million judgment against tobacco giant Philip Morris. The Court’s decision, announced in a one sentence opinion, said it had "improvidently granted" the case. The dismissal upholds the Oregon Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Mayola Williams who sued Philip Morris after her husband Jesse-a three-pack-a-day smoker—died of lung cancer in 1997.
On December 3, the justices heard arguments in the Philip Morris for the third time. The nearly four-month delay for the Court to issue its one-sentence opinion likely means an attempt was made at crafting a more lengthy opinion. Yet for reasons not explained today, such an opinion did not happen.
At the original trial, Williams’ lawyers urged the jury to rule against Philip Morris not only for the harm the cigarettes supposedly caused to her husband but also to countless other smokers. And a jury instruction that is at the heart of this case effectively said the same. The jury ruled in her favor awarding $821,485 in compensatory damages and $79.5 Million in punitive damages. After an initial appeal was sent back to Oregon, Philip Morris appealed to the Supreme Court for the second time. In February 2007, Justice Stephen Breyer (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy and Souter) authored a 5-4 opinion in the company's favor.
That ruling ordered the Oregon courts to reexamine the case with the Court's holding that punitive damages cannot be based on the harm presumably done to others who are not parties to the case. In this instance, other smokers not named Jesse Williams. With the high court's ruling in hand, the Oregon Supreme Court did not order a new sentencing trial or reduce the punitive damages award. Instead, it concluded the proposed jury instructions offered by Philip Morris - asking the jury not to base damages on perceived harm to others - were altogether unconstitutional and the trial judge was right not to use them. The determination was based on a technical reading of how the Philip Morris instructions were presented. Accordingly, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the $79.5 million punitive award.
For the third time, Philip Morris sought relief in the Supreme Court, this time arguing the Oregon Supreme Court "disregarded" and "evade[d]" the High Court's '07 ruling." Lawyers representing Mrs. Williams argued the Oregon court "faithfully followed" the Supreme Court's ruling and asked the high court to leave Oregon's determination - and her $79.5 million judgment - alone. The Court's decision to dismiss the case does just that.
#33) Rivera v. Illinois (decided March 31, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of Illinois. The opinion agrees with the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision to maintain Rivera’s conviction even though a juror had been improperly impaneled. Both courts held that because the error was made in good faith and the jury as a whole was lawfully constituted; Rivera's conviction was legally sound.
#32) Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs (decided March 31, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of Hawaii. The ruling in favor of Hawaii comes in a dispute over 1.2 million acres claimed by a group representing native Hawaiians. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs filed suit to halt the state-sponsored sale of a small parcel of land to private developers that was part of a tract originally seized from the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. The disputed land is now under state control and a Hawaii law mandates that a percentage of the proceeds of the proposed land deal go to the native Hawaiians. But the OHA sued using a 1993 Congressional Apology as legal grounds to seek title to all disputed lands. Justice Samuel Alito's opinion said the Congressional Apology "has no such effect."
#31) Puckett v. United States (decided March 25, 2009)
7-2. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of the United States. James Benjamin Puckett robbed a Dallas bank and after four days on the run was arrested in Nevada. He initially pleaded not guilty but he eventually reached an agreement with the government for a significant reduction in his sentence by pleading guilty. But at the sentencing hearing the government backed out of the deal. It argued Puckett failed to live up to his end of the bargain and accordingly the judge sentenced him to almost 30 years in prison. Today's opinion upholds that sentence because Puckett and his lawyer failed to object to the government's move in a timely manner. He first raised the claim during his appeal and the Court ruled that was too late.
#30) Knowles v. Mirzayance (decided March 24, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of California and against convicted murderer Alexandre Mirzayance. This ruling overturns a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision giving Mirzayance a new trial. Mirzayance killed his 19 year old cousin. His lawyer originally planned an insanity defense but concluded the same jury that convicted his client of first degree murder would not in the second phase of the trial accept that defense. Instead, Mirzayance's lawyer persuaded him to accept a sentencing plea of 29 years to life behind bars. Mirzayance appealed his conviction citing ineffective counsel. The Ninth Circuit agreed believing his lawyer acted "rashly." Today's ruling keeps in place the original sentence.
#29) Bartlett v. Strickland (decided March 9, 2009)
5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the plurality opinion in favor of Dwight Strickland and other residents of Pender County, NC. This ruling is a defeat for proponents of increased minority representation—usually Democrats. It says state lawmakers may invoke a certain provision of the historic Voting Rights Act but only if they create a district that holds more than 50 percent of a minority group.
North Carolina redrew the lines of its 18th District statehouse seat in violation of a state law requiring statehouse districts to be drawn according to already existing county borders. The state board of elections justified the gerrymandered division of Pender County by saying its district comported with a section of the Voting Rights Act that forces states to create opportunities for minority representation.
But Justice Kennedy's opinion struck down North Carolina's district. His opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said in order for the state to rely on the Voting Rights Act the new district must be represented by at least 50 percent of a minority population. The 18th district created by North Carolina only had 35 percent African-Americans of voting age.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia agreed with the result but added their own opinion that under no circumstances can the Voting Rights Act be used to justify any attempt to influence election results. Justice David Souter's dissent takes issue with the 50 percent threshold. He argued that minority groups represented by less than 50 percent can still attract a number of so-called crossover voters to support their preferred candidate. Therefore he believes the Voting Rights Act can still be used to help minority voters elect the candidate of their choice.
#28) Vermont v. Brillon (decided March 9, 2009)
7-2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of Vermont. This ruling is a victory for prosecutors. Michael Brillon was arrested for hitting his girlfriend in 2001. But for various reasons—including Brillon firing his lawyers—his trial and conviction didn't happen until three years after his arrest. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Brillon's speedy trial rights were violated and that the state was to blame for not providing effective counsel. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion reversed that ruling. She wrote that because there is no systemic problem with Vermont's public defender program, any delays sought by Brillon's taxpayer-funded lawyers must be attributable to him and not to the state.
#27) Vaden v. Discover Bank (decided March 9, 2009)
9-0. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of Betty Vaden. Vaden was a Discover credit card holder for more than a decade. But when her outstanding balance topped $10,000 in 2003, Discover filed a lawsuit in Maryland state court to recover the debt. Vaden filed a counter-class action claim saying Discover had improperly assessed fees and other charges to her and other cardholders. Discover then sought to move the counter-claim into binding arbitration by a federal judge. Vaden claims Discover under the disputed terms of the credit card agreement cannot necessarily force arbitration in federal courts. Today's ruling agrees with that assessment.
#26) Kansas v. Colorado (decided March 9, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of Colorado. The two states have been at odds over water rights for many years. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over "original" cases involving disputes between the states. This case centered on the cost of expert witnesses hired for earlier litigation. Kansas sought to recover more than $9 million in costs while a special master hired to settle the dispute determined Kansas was only entitled to $162,000. Kansas asked the Supreme Court to determine the correct amount and in this case the justices agreed with the special master's finding.
#25) Wyeth v. Levine (decided March 4, 2009)
6-3. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion in favor of Diana Levine. In a victory for consumer rights, the Supreme Court rejected Wyeth's claims that because they complied with federal laws they are shielded from lawsuits in state courts. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals appealed a $6.7 million jury award given to Levine, a Vermont resident, who claimed the labeling on Wyeth's anti-nausea drug Phenergan was inadequate. In 2000, health workers at Diana Levine's local clinic incorrectly inserted the drug into Diana Levine's right arm. After several weeks of excruciating pain, the arm became gangrenous and was amputated.
Today's majority opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens says federal laws administered by the Food and Drug Administration do not preempt Levine's successful lawsuit filed under Vermont state law. The jury in that case said Wyeth's Phenergan label did not adequately convey the dangers associated with the drug in violation of state labeling laws. Justice Samuel Alito in his dissent said "this case illustrates that tragic facts make bad law." He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia in calling the ruling a "frontal assault" on the FDA's authority to regulate the drug industry.
#24) Summers v. Earth Island Institute (decided March 3, 2009)
5-4. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in favor of the United States aka Summers. This ruling strikes down environmentalists efforts to block a United States Forest Service policy they find objectionable. In 2003, the USFS authorized the sale of timber from a California forest without opening up that decision to public comment. Under federal law, the USFS is required to give notice and open for review any action it plans related to its land use management. But the USFS put into place its own policy disregarding that requirement on certain land matters.
A group of environmental groups including the Sierra Group sued saying the USFS's failure to provide time for public comment was illegal. Before this case reached the High Court the two sides settled their dispute over a specific 238 acre parcel of California forest burned by wildfires in 2002. The environmentalists claim nonetheless they are harmed by the USFS policy precluding public comment in certain cases. But Justice Scalia wrote that because they settled their dispute over the 238 acres, the environmentalists lack standing to challenge the USFS policy because they are unable to show harm. The ruling does not address the merits of the USFS policy. Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent calls the majority opinion "counter-intuitive" and argues the environmental groups are able to show how their members would be harmed by the policy that led to proposed sale of forest land.
#23) Negusie v. Holder (decided March 3, 2009)
8-1. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion in favor of Daniel Negusie. The Eritrean native is seeking asylum in the United States but his application was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals. The BIA denied the request because in 1994 Negusie helped the Eritrean government detain Ethiopians during their long-running feud. The Immigration and Nationality Act states that no one may be granted asylum if they persecuted anyone in their home country.
Negusie contends his role as a prison guard was not by choice but rather coercion by the Eritreans who forced him to watch over the prisoners. Negusie escaped to the U.S. and filed his asylum appeal. The High Court ruled the BIA was too rigid in its handling of the case—that it should have at least factored Negusie's coercion claims into its decision-making process. The BIA had concluded that the INA and prior Supreme Court rulings did not allow them to consider Negusie's mitigating factors. The Court's ruling directs the BIA to reexamine Negusie's appeal in light of its ruling.
#22) Pacific Bell Telephone v. Linkline Communications (decided February 25, 2009)
9-0. Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion in favor of Pacific Bell Telephone aka AT&T. This antitrust suit questioned AT&T's sales of DSL lines to other smaller retailers. Because of its reach, AT&T must sell some of its lines to the smaller retailers who allege that AT&T was doing so at inflated costs designed to squeeze them out of the marketplace. In spite of changing their arguments to the Court, Linkline was not able to convince the justices that AT&T's monopoly violates the Sherman Act. Justices Breyer, Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg agreed with the result of the case but felt more proceedings were warranted.
#21) Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum (decided February 25, 2009)
9-0. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of Pleasant Grove City, Utah. Government speech is not subject to First Amendment Freedom of Speech challenges. That was the essence of the ruling to come from this case in which a little known group attempted to force the placement of its religious tablet in a public park that included a statue of the Ten Commandments. "[A]lthough a park is a traditional public forum for speeches and other transitory expressive acts....the placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech and is therefore not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause," Alito wrote in the Court's opinion upholding Pleasant Grove City's decision to not allow the Summum group erect a religious tablet.
#20) Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association (decided February 24, 2009)
6-3. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion of in favor of Idaho. This ruling is a defeat of labor union attempts to more easily raise funds for political activities. A group of unionized Pocatello teachers filed suit claiming a state law ban preventing the automatic payroll deduction of money targeted to union political activities violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. While Idaho law permits the automatic deduction for union dues, the High Court upheld the states ban on political payroll deductions because "the ban plainly serves the state's interest in separating public employment from political activities."
#19) Carcieri v. Salazar (decided February 24, 2009)
8-1. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of Rhode Island. The issue in this case centered on the meaning of the word "now" as it relates to the federal oversight of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The Court's opinion holds that "now" only refers to 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act took place. The Narragansett Tribe was not federally recognized until 1983 and therefore the Secretary of Interior has no standing in this dispute over a 31 acre parcel the Tribe is looking to develop without conforming to local zoning codes.
#18) United States v. Hayes (decided February 24, 2009)
7-2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of the United States. This ruling reinforces the extension of federal gun control laws to include convicted domestic abusers. Reacting to a 911 call from the home of Randy Hayes, law enforcement officers found a rifle and further investigation revealed Hayes had recently handled other firearms. He was arrested and convicted of illegally possessing firearms as a convicted domestic abuser. Hayes had been found guilty in 1994 of beating his now ex-wife.
The Fourth Circuit overturned the conviction when it concluded that the West Virginia battery statute didn't specifically relate to domestic violence even though the violence was clearly domestic in nature. This High Court's ruling overturning the Fourth Circuit holds that no matter the statutory language, if the relationship between the abuser and the abused is domestic then the federal law prohibiting firearm possession is applicable.
#17) United States v. Eurodif (decided January 26, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of the United States Enrichment Corporation. This case centered on the objections lodged by USEC claiming its uranium enrichment business was harmed by the dumping of low cost uranium from the French company Eurodif. The High Court's ruling holds that Eurodif's uranium contracts were at below market price and therefore in violation of the Tariff Act. The ruling validates the efforts of the Commerce Department which lost its arguments on behalf of USEC before the International Court of Trade.
#16) Kennedy v. Plan Administer for DuPont Savings (decided January 26, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice David Souter authored the opinion in favor of DuPont Savings. A piece of paper not signed is why this estate and divorce case ended up in front of the Supreme Court. Even though the divorce decree between Liv and William Kennedy removed Liv from any claims on her ex-husband's estate upon his death, William's lifelong employer nonetheless paid out his pension benefits to Liv. Following his divorce, Kennedy failed to change his beneficiary information. Even though Liv made no claims on her ex-husband's estate DuPont in following the paperwork it had on file gave her the money. Kennedy's daughter as executor of the estate sued DuPont for giving the money to her mother but the Supreme Court ruled DuPont's actions were proper.
#15) Crawford v. Nashville, TN & Davidson County (decided January 26, 2009)
9-0. Justice David Souter authored the main opinion in favor of Vicky Crawford. A sexual harassment inquiry at the headquarters of the Nashville schools prompted a human resources investigator to ask Crawford about the alleged bad behavior. She told the investigator what she had witnessed and had been subjected to by the man at the focus of the investigation. While no action was taken against that man Crawford and two others were fired. She filed suit against the school district claiming her firing, ostensibly on allegations of embezzlement, was really in retaliation for her statements to the investigator. The High Court, overturning lower court decisions, ruled in her favor saying she has the right under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to sue the school district for its supposed retaliatory act.
#14) Arizona v. Johnson (decided January 26, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion in favor of Arizona. A Tucson police officer following through on a routine traffic stop frisked a passenger in the car and found a gun. Lemon Johnson was arrested and convicted of illegal gun possession. But the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the conviction saying the officer violated Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights by frisking him without cause. The Supreme Court overruled that decision therefore reinstating the conviction. The High Court holds that a "stop and frisk" is lawful when #1) the officer has justifiable cause to pull a car over and #2) "reasonably suspects" that the person in the car is or has committed a crime.
#13) Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (decided January 26, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of John Van de Kamp. This immunity case from Los Angeles presented the question of whether prosecutors who ran the district attorney's office but did not actually prosecute the murder trial at issue can be sued for their official conduct. The Court ruled there is no valid civil liability claim. Thomas Goldstein successfully challenged his murder conviction which was obtained with the discredited testimony of a jailhouse informant. Once free, Goldstein filed suit against the prosecutors who ran the D.A.'s office. He claimed the office failed to properly train its prosecutors to prevent the sort of legal abuse that occurred in his case. But the High Court's decision precludes this suit from going forward holding the prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from Goldstein's claims—even though he spent 24 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.
#12) Waddington v. Sarausad (decided January 21, 2009)
6-3. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in favor of Washington through its superintendent of corrections, Doug Waddington. The issue raised in this case concerned the jury instructions given at Cesar Sarausad's murder trial. He was convicted of being behind the wheel of a drive-by shooting in front of a Seattle high school. Even though the Washington Supreme Court determined the instructions about accomplice liability comported with state law, federal courts disagreed. The High Court's ruling concluded the jury instructions did not result in an "unreasonable application of...clearly established Federal law," thereby upholding the conviction.
#11) Locke v. Karass (decided January 21, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the opinion in favor of Maine through its state controller, Edward Karass. A group of state employees filed suit claiming that their union fees were being used for purposes that violated their First Amendment rights. Maine law requires and the Supreme Court previously ruled permissible the imposition of fees on non-member workers who are covered by union activities even through they choose not to be members of that union. In this case, the workers filed suit that their fees were being used for national union activities they objected to. But the High Court concluded that the fees are constitutional even if the money is kicked up to the national level provided that (1) those funds are used for activities that could be beneficial at the local level and (2) other locals contributed money to the national level for similar activities.
#10) Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (decided January 21, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of Lisa Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's young daughter was subject to repeated harassment from an older student. She believes the school district's solution to the problem was inadequate and sued under the federal legislation known as Title IX that addresses gender inequity issues. The High Court reversed the lower court ruling holding that Fitzgerald is able to pursue her lawsuit under Title IX. The Court's ruling makes no determination of the merits of Fitzgerald's claim that the school district's response to the harassment was discriminatory against her daughter.
#9) Pearson v. Callahan (decided January 21, 2009)
Unanimous. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in favor of Cordell Pearson and other Utah law enforcement officers. Alton Callahan was convicted of selling drugs inside his home. But the Utah man's conviction was overturned when questions arose over the method police officers used to make the arrest. Now free, Callahan sued the officers who had allegedly violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The case before the High Court examined the level of immunity available to the officers from the civil claims brought against them. The justices concluded that the officer's actions were made in good faith and they are entitled to protection from the lawsuit.
#8) Herring v. United States (decided January 14, 2009)
5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion in favor of the United States. This case from Alabama examined if 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 breech 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 January 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 proscribe. Thomas Ice was convicted of twice molesting an eleven 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 January 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. Though 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 January 13, 2009)
9-0. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the main 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 disagreed saying Chambers failure to show up for a weekend jail term 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 December 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 December 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 November 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. Bell was executed February 19.
#1) Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council (decided November 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 defended by environmental groups looking to protect marine life— particularly 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."