Supreme Court Update
The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued opinions in a number of cases of interest to the Section. Use of the insanity rule, voting rights and election law, the First Amendment as applied in a prison context, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel were among the issues the Court considered.
On June 29, in Clark v. Arizona (No. 05-5966) the Court ruled (5-4) that an Arizona law allowing a defendant to plead insanity only when he is unable to discern right from wrong does not violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Seventeen-year-old Eric Clark was arrested for shooting a police officer. At trial, Clark argued that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which prevented him from “knowingly and intentionally” committing the crime. Although the trial court accepted his claim of mental illness, Clark was found guilty because he failed to show that he did not understand that his actions were wrong. Clark appealed, alleging that the current Arizona standard violated his Due Process. The lower court’s decision was affirmed and the Arizona Supreme Court denied discretionary review. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Arizona law stating that “ no particular formulation has evolved into a baseline for due process and that the insanity rule…is substantially open to state choice.”
On June 28, in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (No. 05-0204), the Court held (5-4) that changes made to District 23 in the 2003 Texas redistricting plan violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plan was challenged by the League of United Latin American Citizen (LULAC) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional gerrymander and effectively diluted the voting strength of minorities in the state. The District Court upheld the plan and the U.S. Supreme Court, affirming in part, reversing in part, vacating in part, and remanding for further proceedings, ruled that although states are free to redistrict as often as they like, the redrawing of District 23’s lines did, in fact, dilute the voting power of Latinos in Texas.
On June 28, in Beard v. Banks (No. 04-1739), the Court held (6-2) that although access to newspapers, magazines, and photographs is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, prison officials may revoke or curb this right when dealing with serious behavior problems. Ronald Banks, a prisoner confined to a unit of the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, sued the Pennsylvanian Department of Corrections, claiming that the unit’s policy against allowing its inmates to receive newspapers, magazines, and photographs was unconstitutional. Banks’ claim was dismissed by the trial court but on review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the policy was not performing its intended rehabilitative function. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and ruled that Banks failed to show that the policy was unjustified or that it was not fulfilling its intended purpose.
On June 27, in Kansas v. Marsh (04-1170), the Court held (5-4) that when a jury finds mitigating factors to be equal to the aggravating factors in a case where the defendant is charged with a capital crime, state law can mandate the death penalty. Michael Lee March II was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in accordance with a Kansas state statute requiring that the death penalty be imposed when mitigating circumstances do not outweigh aggravating circumstances, or when these circumstances are equally balanced. Previously, the Kansas Supreme Court held in State v. Kleypas that the statute requires mitigating factors to be wholly outweighed by aggravating factors for the death penalty to be mandatory. Marsh moved to invalidate the Kansas statute and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marsh. In its reversal, the Court ruled that although sentencing should be reasonable and individualized, Kansas may impose the death penalty at its discretion as long as aggravating factors outweigh or are equal to mitigating factors.
On June 27, in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez (No. 05-0352), the Court held (5-4) that, in accordance with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, a trial court may not refuse to accept a defendant's chosen attorney. Cuauhtémoc Gonzalez-Lopez, charged with conspiring to distribute marijuana, attempted to hire California defense attorney, Joseph Low. Responding to a motion filed by Gonzalez-Lopez’s previous defense attorney, the Eastern District of Missouri denied Low’s application for admission on the grounds that he had previously violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Following his conviction, Gonzalez-Lopez appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that the lower court erred in interpreting the disciplinary rule and that this Sixth Amendment violation would not be subject to harmless-error review. The Court affirmed and held that, as the counsel deeply influences both the framework and ultimate outcome of a trial, Gonzalez-Lopez’s conviction should be overturned.
On June 22, in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad v. White (No. 05-259), the Court held (9-0) that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any action taken by an employer intended to intimidate or discourage a reasonable employee from filing a discrimination complaint. Sheila White, claiming that her employer’s decision to change her job responsibilities and suspend her for 37 days was an act of unlawful retaliation, filed an action in federal court and was awarded compensatory damages. In affirmation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, applying a new “materially adverse change” standard of retaliatory behavior, held that, regardless of whether or not her employer’s actions were permanent, White was the victim of “adverse employment action.” On review, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, upholding the use of this new standard.
On June 19, in Samson v. California (04-9728), the Court held (6-3) that a California state law allowing police to conduct unwarranted and suspicionless searches of parolees is constitutional. While walking down the street, recent parolee Donald Samson was stopped and searched by a police officer. When a “usable” amount of methamphetamine was found in his possession, Samson was arrested. Despite his claim that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. On appeal, the California Court of Appeals affirmed and held that though the search had been conducted without a warrant and with no suspicion of criminal behavior, a diminished right to privacy for parolees had been established in the California Supreme Court case, People v. Reyes. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the state of California has an “overwhelming interest” in this instance because parolees are often likely to repeat past criminal behavior.