Supreme Court Update
On Mar. 29, the Court held (5-4) in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education (No. 02-1672), that retaliation against individuals who report sex discrimination violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Jackson, a high school girl’s basketball coach, alleged he was fired because of his accusations of discriminatory practices against his team. The Court overturned decisions of both the District Court and Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that dismissed Jackson’s complaint. The Court found that under Title IX, “discrimination” covers a wide range of intentional unequal treatment, including retaliation against those who register complaints on behalf of others who are being discriminated against. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor stated, “Congress enacted Title IX not only to prevent the use of federal dollars to support discriminatory practices, but also to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices. We agree with the United States that this objective would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if persons who complain about sex discrimination did not have effective protection against retaliation.” The ABA filed a Section-sponsored amicus brief in this case.
In another Title IX case, the Court on June 6, refused to reinstate a lawsuit in National Wrestling Coaches Association v. Department of Education (No. 04-922), which alleges federal officials discriminate against male athletes in enforcing equal opportunities for women.
On May 24, the Court dismissed a writ of habeas corpus filed by Mexican national Jose Medellin who was convicted and sentenced to death for participating in the gang rape and murder of two girls in 1993. Medellin v. Dretke (No. 04-5928) held that a federal court is not bound by the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) ruling which states that U.S. courts must reconsider Mr. Medellin’s claim for relief under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Court ruled that Medellin’s claim that he was wrongly denied legal assistance from the legal consulate of his country of origin was premature. The ABA filed a Section-cosponsored amicus brief in this case.
In its opinion issued on May 31, in Cutter v. Wilkinson (No. 03-9877), the Court ruled in favor of three current and former inmates of the Ohio correctional system, all of whom are members of what are considered “non-mainstream” religions (Satanism, Wicca, and Asatru), who claimed that they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items and denied time to worship in violation of federal law. The Court held that the law in question, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), requiring states that receive federal money to accommodate prisoners’ religious beliefs, unless the government can show a compelling reason not to, is not an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.
On May 23, in Deck v. Missouri (No. 04-5293) the U.S. Supreme Court held (7-2) that routine use of visible shackles on capital defendant during the penalty phase of trial was unconstitutional. Carmen L. Deck was convicted of first-degree murder and was subsequently sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed. During a hearing on post conviction relief, during which the Missouri court upheld the death penalty sentence, Deck was shackled in leg irons, handcuffs, and belly chain. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer stated that, “The law has long forbidden routine use of visible shackles during a capital trial’s guilt phase, permitting shackles only in the presence of a special need.” The Court found that the Constitution forbids the use of visible shackles during the penalty phase unless that use is "justified by an essential state interest"--such as the interest in courtroom security-- specific to the defendant on trial.
In its June 6, opinion in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. (No. 03-1388), the Court held (5-4) that foreign cruise lines sailing in U.S. waters must furnish meaningful access for passengers in wheelchairs. In 1998 and 1999, three disabled passengers, after paying extra for handicapped-accessible cabins and crew assistance, found the ship’s restaurants, elevators and other facilities inaccessible. The Court ruled that even foreign-flag cruise ships must comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, calling for “readily achievable” modifications that do not excessively interfere with the internal affairs or safety of the ship.
On June 6, in Gonzales v. Raich (No. 03-1454), the Court held (6-3) that federal anti-drug laws are applicable to users of medical marijuana in California and nine other states that have legalized the use of the drug. The Court’s ruling affirmed that the federal government has the authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act against individuals acting within the limits of state law. In his majority opinion, Justice Stevens argued that even if the marijuana never crosses state lines, “[A] nationwide exemption for the vast quantity of marijuana (or other drugs) locally cultivated for personal use… may have a substantial impact on the interstate market for this extraordinarily popular substance.”
In a unanimous decision handed down on June 13, the Court declined to address in Bradshaw v. Stumpf (No. 04-637) whether or not the prosecutor’s actions amounted to misconduct. The Court did acknowledge, however, that the information in question may have had a mitigating effect on the sentencing body and remanded the case for consideration of re-sentencing. Stumpf, found guilty of aggravated murder, received the death penalty. At trial, prosecutors accused Stumpf of being the “triggerman”. In a separate trial, held before the same judge, the same prosecutor also accused a second defendant of the same crime. The second defendant was convicted and received a life sentence. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit threw out Stump’s conviction due to the state’s inconsistent theories. While the Court found no per se due process violation in prosecutors arguing inconsistent theories, the Court did recognize the possible existence of such a violation in this case.
On June 13, the Court released two decisions dealing with racially motivated preemptory strikes in jury selection. In Johnson v. California (No. 04-6964), the Court (8-1) examined its definition of constitutional review of preemptory strikes as set forth in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). Batson requires the objecting party to show that the “totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.” The Court found California’s additional requirement that the preemptory challenges be “more likely than not [based on purposeful discrimination]… if unexplained,” too narrow.
After granting habeas relief in Miller-El v. Dretke (No. 03-9659), a case reviewed in 2003, the Court determined (6-3) on June 13, through an independent assessment of the evidence regarding the voir dire hearing, that the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s determination that the peremptory strikes were not racially motivated was unreasonable. In Miller-El, a Dallas robbery-murder trial resulted in a death sentence for the defendant, who appealed on the grounds that prosecutors used ten of their preemptory strikes to exclude 91% of the qualified Black men in the pool. In concurrences to both the Johnson and Miller-El cases, Justice Breyer argued that preemptory strikes be disallowed altogether.
Also on the docket are the following cases:
Oregon v. Guzek (No. 04-928). (Seeking clarification of Supreme Court Case Franklin v. Lynaugh (1988) – involving a convicted individual’s attempt to bring into a death sentencing hearing evidence that would cast doubt on the conviction.)
Georgia v. Randolph (No. 04-1067). (Whether an occupant may give law enforcement [officers] valid consent to search the common areas of the premises shared with another, even though the other occupant is present and objects to the search.)
Maryland v. Blake (04-373). (When a police officer communicates with a suspect after invocation of the suspect’s right to counsel, does Edward v. Arizona  permit consideration of curative measures by the police, or other intervening circumstances, to conclude that a suspect later initiated communication with the police?)
Brown v. Sanders (04-980). (Is the California death penalty statue a ‘weighing statue’ for which the state court is required to determine that the presence of an invalid special circumstance was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to the jury’s determination of penalty?)
Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, et al. (04-1144). (Is a New Hampshire parental notification law unconstitutional because it makes no explicit exception for the health of the minor except in the case of death? Does the law’s option of a “judicial bypass”, by which a judge can find a minor mature and capable of giving informed consent, adequate to ensure access to an abortion in a medical emergency?)