Spring 2006

Supreme Court Update

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued opinions in a number of cases of interest to the Section. Reproductive rights issues are receiving much attention from the Court, which handed down decisions in several cases. In Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, it sided with Pro-Choice advocates, with Pro-Life advocates in Scheidler et al v. National Organization of Women, and it sent the issue of the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s abortion parental consent law back to the lower courts in Ayotte v. New Hampshire. The Court has also granted c ertiorari to Gonzalez v. Carhart et al., which challenges the partial birth abortion ban.

On Mar. 22, the Court held in Georgia v. Randolph (No. 04-1067) that police cannot search a home when one resident invites them in but the other refuses. The justices maintained that police responding to a domestic dispute call in 2001 did not have the authority to search a man’s home, which lead to drug-related charges, even though his wife invited them in. The majority opinion held that because there was no evidence of wrongdoing, Janet Randolph’s invitation to enter does not override her husband’s refusal to let the police in. Chief Justice John Roberts predicted in a dissenting opinion that this could have disastrous consequences for abused women who want the police to enter but are overruled by their husbands. Justice David Souter admitted that the Court was drawing a fine line, but maintained that this ruling would have no bearing on police authority to enter a house over objections in order to provide reasonable protection.

On Mar. 6, the Court held in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (No. 04-1152) that, under the Solomon Amendment, the government can withhold federal funds from law schools and universities that do not permit military recruiters equal access to school resources. Law schools refused to allow military recruiters onto campus because the schools viewed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as discriminatory. The Court reasoned, however, that the Amendment “neither limits what law schools may say nor requires them to say anything,” and that the Solomon Amendment gives universities a choice to either allow military recruiters the same access as other employers or to forgo federal funding. The Court held that that choice is a constitutional exercise of Congress’ spending power and one which does not violate the First Amendment.

In a unanimous decision handed down on Feb. 22, the Court held in Ash v. Tyson Food’s, Inc. (No. 05-379), that the word “boy,” in the context in which it was used, was sufficient enough to qualify as unlawful racial discrimination. Two African-American employees sued Tyson Foods for discrimination after being passed up for a promotion. In support of their claim, the employees presented evidence that the supervisor had referred to them each as “boy.” The court opined that though the term “boy” is not always used in a racial context, “it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign.”

On Feb. 22, in Oregon v. Guzek (No. 04-928), the Court ruled (8-0) in favor of the state of Oregon, holding that a state may limit the amount of additional or new evidence related to the innocence of the defendant during a sentencing hearing. Randy Guzek was convicted of shooting and killing two people and was sentenced to death. The Oregon Supreme Court overturned his sentence four times, stating procedural errors at trial. At his fourth sentencing, Guzek’s attorneys sought to admit testimony from his mother and grandfather to serve as his alibi, thereby presuming his innocence. The Oregon Department of Justice argued for admission of the testimony based on Eighth Amendment jurisprudence suggesting that a defendant is constitutionally entitled to introduce alibi evidence during the death penalty phase. The Court, however, disagreed, holding that there is no such Eighth Amendment right giving a capital defendant the right to introduce new evidence at sentencing.

On Feb. 21, in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Unaio do Vegetal (No. 04-1084), the Court held (8-0) that the government did not demonstrate a compelling state interest, as is required under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in prohibiting the practice of drinking hallucinogenic tea for religious purposes. The case arose when the government confiscated the tea containing traces of the controlled substance DMT from a Brazilian-based religious group known as the Unaio do Vegetal (UDV). The tea-drinking ritual is part of the group’s religious Doctrine of Christianity and Native American principles in reverence with nature. UDV argued that the confiscation was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the church’s First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights. The Court ruled in favor of UDV, stating that the government failed to provide any substantial evidence as to the adverse consequences of exempting UDV, thereby failing to show a compelling state interest in banning the tea.

On Jan. 18, the Court held (9-0) in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (No. 04-1144) that, in cases where enforcement of a state statute limiting access to abortion in medical emergencies might be unconstitutional, “the lower courts can issue a declaratory judgment and an injunction prohibiting (only) the statute’s unconstitutional application.” Planned Parenthood challenged New Hampshire’s new law regarding parental notification before it took effect stating that, “an exemption in the law for abortions necessary to prevent the death of the mother, but not for those abortions necessary to protect merely her health, was unconstitutionally narrow.” The Court ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood, stating that the statute would be unconstitutional when applied to the rare cases of emergency abortion and that the lower court’s decision to invalidate the entire statute was unnecessary.

On Jan. 18, the Court held (8-0) in Scheidler et al. v. National Organization for Women, Inc., et al./Operation Rescue v. NOW (No. 04-1244/04-1352) that physical violence unrelated to robbery or extortion falls outside of the Hobbs Act. NOW argued that anti-abortion organizations are similar to an organized crime ring in that the leaders sent its low level members to forcibly stop patients and staff from entering abortion clinics. The organization claimed that the violence amounted to a pattern of coercive theft, or extortion, rather than isolated violent crimes. The Court cited the natural meaning and history of the Hobbs Act, which was intended to combat racketeering in labor-management disputes, and concluded that it was not intended to prevent all violent crime, which is typically within state, not federal, jurisdiction.

On Jan. 17, the Court ruled (6-3) in Gonzalez, et al., v. Oregon, et al. (No. 04-0623) in favor of the state of Oregon, to uphold the 1994 Death with Dignity Act. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that Oregon’s Act violated the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, arguing that assisting in suicide was not a “legitimate medical purpose,” which is required to dispense any controlled substance. The majority opinion held the manner in which the Federal Government was interpreting the Controlled Substances Act, would give the Executive branch the power to dramatically shift the balance between the state and federal governments as it determined what constitutes a “legitimate medical purpose” for every locality. The justices looked to the intent of the Controlled Substances Act, which was not to disrupt the balance between the federal and state governments.

Also on the docket are the following cases:

Gonzales v. Carhart, Leroy, et al. (No. 05-0380). (Whether, notwithstanding Congress’s determination that a health exception was unnecessary to preserve the health of the mother, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is invalid because it lacks a health exception or is otherwise unconstitutional on its face?)

Jones v. Bock et al./Williams v. Overton et al. (No. 05-7058/05-7142). (When can inmates can file civil rights suits challenging prison conditions?)

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