Case: Pleasant Grove City v. Summum

Date: Wednesday Nov. 12, 2008

Issue: Is a municipality that accepts and erects donated monuments for its town square also required to accept and place in that same square a specific monument by the Summum religious group?

Background: Pleasant Grove City, Utah is the epitome of an all-American community, complete with a town square that proudly displays monuments of the Ten Commandments and in memory of the victims of September 11. Summum is a religious group based in Salt Lake City that would like a tablet of its Seven Aphorisms placed in the same town square. The town has refused and is now seeking a ruling from the Supreme Court, after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because the city accepted and erected monuments dedicated by other organizations it must do so for the Summum.

The city argues the Tenth Circuit ruling was misguided, telling the High Court "there is no forum for private speech in the government's choice of what monuments to permanently display. ... The government's acceptance and display of one or more donated monuments does not require that a government park be turned into a cluttered junkyard of monuments contributed by all comers." In response, the Summum contends the "most basic of First Amendment rules is that in a traditional public forum like a public park, a city may not discriminate among speakers based on the content of their speech or the identity of the speaker." The Summum also argue Pleasant Grove City rejected its tablet based on no objective standards but rather out of dislike for them and their beliefs.

The group explains to the Court that the word Summum "is derived from Latin and refers to the 'sum total of all creation.' The Summum church incorporates elements of Gnostic Christianity, teaching that spiritual knowledge is experiential and that through devotion comes revelation, which 'modifies human perceptions, and transfigures the individual.'" According to Summum beliefs, The Seven Aphorisms were inscribed in the original tablet Moses received from God but were later destroyed. Moses then returned to the Mount to obtain the Ten Commandments. Mummification is a notable feature of the Summum faith. Their website claims they are the only organization in the world to offer modern mummification to practitioners.

Case: Bell v. Kelly

Date: Wednesday Nov. 12, 2008

Issue: Did lower federal courts improperly rule against Edward Nathaniel Bell in his attempts to seek relief from a death sentence based on a question of evidence — or lack thereof — presented at his sentencing?

Background: There is no dispute that Edward Nathaniel Bell killed Winchester, Virginia police officer Ricky Timbrook in 1999. Bell is a Jamaican national who was involved in the town's illegal drug trade. Following his capital murder conviction, prosecutors presented the jury with additional evidence it saw fit to merit a death sentence. Bell's experienced defense lawyers offered minimal mitigating evidence to keep their client off of death row. And the jury sentenced Bell to Virginia's death row.

After failing in his attempts at review in Virginia courts, Bell has twice argued unsuccessfully in federal courts that he was poorly served by his lawyers at sentencing. Bell contends that the jury should have been presented with information about his upbringing that could have given them reason to decide on a lighter sentence. The state argues Bell's lawyers were correct in their assessment that any presentation of evidence along those lines would have likely enraged the jury and not make them sympathetic to their client's cause. The lower federal courts have concluded that while Bell's lawyers could have done a better job he did not suffer "prejudice" from their defense. Earlier this year the Supreme Court stayed Bell's execution and agreed to consider his case. That stay remains in effect pending the outcome of this case.