Winter 2006

Supreme Court Update

With the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the U.S. Supreme Court has been in transition for the past several months. As new Chief Justice John G. Roberts settled into his Chambers, confirmation hearings for nominee Samuel Alito, were held.

On Jan. 10, in a narrowly tailored unanimous decision, the Court ruled in Goodman v. Georgia (04-1203) that Congress has the authority to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to state prisons, at least insofar as it reaches conduct that could also be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was brought by Goodman, a Georgia State Prison inmate who uses a wheelchair, who claimed that he was denied medical treatment and access to virtually all prison programs and services because of his disability. While the Court’s decision is encouraging because it gives Congress more authority than the states have argued it has in this and other cases, the justices avoided the central issue of whether Congress has the power to apply the ADA to state prisons generally. The Section sponsored an ABA amicus curiae brief in support of petitioner Goodman in this case.

One of the most controversial cases being considered for certiorari this term is that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant for nearly four years without being charged. Padilla had filed an appeal challenging the right of the U.S. government to hold him indefinitely in a military jail without charges, but before his case could be considered, Padilla was indicted in Miami for being part of a North American terrorist cell. The U.S. Department of Justice now argues that his legal challenge to his detention should be dismissed. In a Dec. 29 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case after chastising the Administration for shifting its tactics in the Padilla case by using one set of facts in an earlier case to justify holding Padilla without charges and using another set to convince a grand jury in Florida to indict him. On Jan. 4, the Court overturned the Fourth Circuit when it ruled that Padilla can be transferred to civilian authorities in Miami.

The Court’s docket for the 2005-06 term includes numerous cases of interest to the Section, including Native American sovereignty, the mental competence of capital defendants, and the rights of persons with disabilities in regard to public education.

Recently, the Court issued decisions in several of these cases.

On Dec. 6, the Court held (7-2) in Wagnon v. Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation , that the application of tax on fuel being sold to non-Indian fuel distributors, which is later sold to Indian fuel distributors operating a gas station owned by and located on Reservation land, is not an impermissible affront to tribal sovereignty as the tax arises from a transaction between the state and a non-Indian that takes place off the Reservation. The State of Kansas imposes a tax on the receipt of motor fuel by fuel distributors within its boundaries. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation maintains that this application of the Kansas motor fuel tax is an impermissible affront to its sovereignty. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuitagreed but the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the lower court applied the incorrect balancing test and did not take into account that in this situation, the state tax is imposed on non-Indian distributors and takes place outside of Reservation land.

On Oct. 17, in Schriro v. Smith (No. 04-1475), the Court ( per curiam) reaffirmed its 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, overturning the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had ordered the lower court to conduct a jury trial to decide the mental state of Robert Douglas Smith, a man with a low IQ who was convicted of murder. The Court declared that the current Arizona law, which allows a judge, rather than a jury, to determine the mental competence of a defendant, fulfills the conditions prescribed by Atkins.

In Kane v. Espitia (No. 04-1538), the Court ruled ( per curiam) that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit erred in ruling that a pro se criminal defendant has a right to access a law library. Garcia Espitia, who represented himself at trial, was convicted in California of carjacking and appealed his conviction on the grounds that his lack of access to a law library violated his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation. The Court concluded that federal habeas relief could not be granted because a state owes no specific legal aid to a pro se defendant.

In Schaffer v. Weast (No. 04-698), the Court held (6-2) that in hearings which challenge an individualized education program, as prescribed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the burden of proof falls on the party seeking relief. Brian Schaffer, a student with learning disabilities was placed in an individualized education program that his parents found unsuitable. In such an instance, parents may request a hearing to determine whether the program meets the needs of the child under the requirements of IDEA. Plaintiffs argued that the burden of proof as to whether or not the program meets the needs of the child should fall on the school board rather than on the plaintiffs. The trial court agreed but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. In its majority opinion, written by Justice O’Connor, the Court stated there is no reason that the standard practice, in which the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff, should not apply in this case.

The following cases are also on the docket:

House v. Bell (No. 04-8990), to be argued Jan. 11, 2006. (Did the lower court err in applying this Court’s decision in Schlup v. Delo to hold that petitioner’s compelling new evidence, through presenting at the very least a colorable claim of actual innocence, was as a matter of law insufficient to excuse his failure to present that evidence before the state courts – merely because he had failed to negate each and every item of circumstantial evidence that had been offered against him at the original trial? Also, what constitutes a “truly persuasive showing of actual innocence” to warrant freestanding habeas relief?) The ABA filed a Section co-sponsored amicus curiae brief in this case.

Randall, et al. v. Sorrell, et al. (Nos. 04-1528, 04-1530, 04-1697, consolidated), to be argued Feb. 28, 2006. (Whether Vermont’s mandatory candidate expenditure limits violate the freedom of political speech guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.)

American Citizens, et al. v. League of United Latin Perry, et al. (05-204, 05-254, 05-276, 05-439, consolidated), to be argued March 1, 2006. (Whether the 2003 Texas Congressional Redistricting Plan, adopted using outdated, inaccurate 2000 Census date and resulting in malapportioned districts, in violation of one person, one vote when measured against 2003 Census data, and when “the single-minded purpose of the Texas Legislature in enacting the Plan was to gain partisan advantage” and when such purpose is realized, is an unconstitutional political gerrymander.)

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