Spring 2004

Supreme Court Update

Supreme Court Decides Employment Discrimination, First Amendment, Criminal Procedure Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued decisions in several cases of interest to the Section, including in the areas of employment discrimination, First Amendment protection, and criminal procedure, and has granted certiorari in two important civil liberties cases.

On Feb. 24, the Court decided 6-3 (opinion by Souter) in General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline (No. 02-1080) that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) does not prohibit an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one. In the case, current and former employees between the ages of 40 and 49 objected to a collective bargaining agreement that eliminated their retirement benefits but kept intact those of workers 50 and over. After unsuccessful attempts at negotiation supported by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the employees filed a federal claim. The district court dismissed the case, calling the claim one of "reverse age discrimination" upon which no court had ever granted relief under the ADEA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, reasoning that 29 U.S.C. §623(a)(1)'s prohibition of discrimination is so clear on its face that if Congress had meant to limit its coverage to protect only older workers, it would have said so. In reversing the Sixth Circuit's holding, the Supreme Court looked to "social history" in the United States, which, it said, indicates a universal understanding that age discrimination refers to disadvantages faced by older workers. The Court also pointed to the ADEA's text, structure, purpose, history, and relationship to other federal statutes in support of its holding.

Also on Feb. 24, the Court resolved one of several First Amendment issues on its docket this term. In Locke v. Davey (No. 02-1315), the Court decided 7-2 (opinion by Rehnquist) that a Washington State-funded scholarship program did not violate the Free Exercise Clause by excluding religious education. Under the Promise Scholarship Program, which was for gifted college students from low-income families, recipients could not receive state funding if they were pursuing a degree in theology. Davey lost his state funding through the program when he declared a double major in pastoral studies and business administration at Northwest College. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit invalidated the program because the restriction was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest under Church of Lukumi, 508 U.S. 520. The Supreme Court, however, rejected Davey's contention that the program was presumptively unconstitutional because it was not facially neutral with respect to religion. It also disagreed with the Ninth Circuit that the state action at issue was in line with the type of discrimination in Church of Lukumi, where the state had criminalized ritualistic animal sacrifices. Instead, the Court found a substantial and historic interest in the state's funding criteria and only a slight burden on Promise Scholars like Davey.

Among the criminal procedure cases the Court has heard this term was Banks v. Dretke (No. 02-8286), in which the ABA filed a Section-sponsored amicus curiae brief on behalf of Banks. In a 7-2 decision (opinion by Ginsburg), the Court held that Texas violated Banks's right to due process when it concealed information related to the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses. Banks had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. During his trial, the state failed to disclose that one of the witnesses was a paid police informant and that another had been intensively coached by prosecutors and law enforcement officers. Banks petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas for a writ of habeus corpus, which it granted for the death sentence but not the underlying conviction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed on the death sentence issue.

Overturning the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its opinion in Brady v. Maryland , 373 U.S. 83 (1963), "that the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." The Court therefore remanded the case, holding that Banks is entitled to present evidence in support of one Brady claim that had not been presented post-conviction and is entitled to a certificate of appealability on a second Brady claim.

On Feb. 20, the Court granted certiorari in Rumsfeld v. Padilla (No. 03-1027). Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in the U.S. by FBI agents pursuant to a material witness warrant in connection with a plan to build a dirty bomb and detonate it in the U.S. After being designated an enemy combatant by the government, he was taken to a military compound in South Carolina, where he remained without counsel for 18 months while he was questioned about his involvement with al Qaeda.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a District Court opinion that found that the Constitution and statutory law give the president authority to detain American citizens as enemy combatants and remanded the case, requiring a higher standard of government proof. The government appealed to the Supreme Court.

Advertisement