August 22, 2019

A Brief Recap of the Recent Supreme Court Session

Business as Usual with a Full Court

With a new Justice on the Bench, contentious issues, and renewed public interest in the Court’s proceedings at the forefront, the 2018-2019 Supreme Court term proved to be an interesting one.

The addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018 quickly brought the Supreme Court back to full strength after Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in July 2018. According to statistics posted on the SCOTUS blog, the Court heard 70 cases this term, issuing opinions in 67 cases, reversing more than half of them (almost 65 percent), and voting unanimously in 28 cases (almost 40 percent of the time). The SCOTUS blog also reports that the Court received the most cases from the 9th Circuit, and that Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the most total opinions with 28, including eight majority opinions, 14 concurrences and six dissents. 

Issues considered this term included the death penalty, excessive fees and fines, copyright, gerrymandering, the 2020 census, and more. Highlights from some of the Supreme Court’s decisions are described below. A slide deck featuring a brief description of all the cases, plus statistics regarding the number of cases from each federal circuit and the number of majority opinions authored by each Justice is attached here.

Three cases this term involved the Eighth Amendment, two of them death penalty cases and the third one an excessive fees and fines case. In the first death penalty case, Madison v. Alabama, an Alabama state court refused to block a prisoner’s execution because he had dementia. The lawyers for inmate Vernon Madison argued that his condition was disabling enough to prevent him not only from remembering the crime, but also from understanding the reality of his execution. After considering the state court’s brief ruling in the case, the Supreme Court issued a 5-3 decision remanding the case for further consideration of whether the Petitioner’s dementia impeded his rational understanding (and not just memory) of why the state wants to execute him, uncertain that the state court had adequately done so the first time.

The second death penalty case Bucklew v. Precythe, involved the concept that death row inmates must provide an adequate alternative execution method if they object to the state method. Petitioner Bucklew argued that the state’s execution protocol would cause him severe pain because of a medical condition he had, but he failed to produce evidence that an alternative procedure would substantially reduce his alleged risk of pain. The Supreme Court took the case to clarify the legal standards that govern an Eight Amendment challenge to a State’s method of execution. The Court commented that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. It then reconfirmed in a 5-4 decision that anyone bringing a method of execution claim alleging infliction of unconstitutionally cruel pain must show a readily available alternative that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.

The last Eighth Amendment case Timbs v. Indiana, involved the civil forfeiture of a vehicle that was valued at more than four times the maximum monetary fine assessable against the Petitioner for a drug conviction. A lower court held that the Eighth Amendment constrained only federal action and did not apply to state-imposed fines. The Supreme Court vacated that decision and issued a unanimous opinion holding that the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines also applies to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The American Bar Association echoed this sentiment by submitting an amicus brief urging the Court to consider the fundamental importance of the right to equal justice without regard to economic status and the essential role of the Excessive Fines Clause in preserving that right.

The Supreme Court also heard arguments in two copyright cases earlier this year, both of which resulted in unanimous decisions. In Rimini Street v. Oracle USA, the Court held that litigation expenses in copyright cases are limited to the six categories of taxable costs defined in the general provisions of the Judicial Code, thereby reversing part of the lower court’s decision that allowed nontaxable costs for items like expert witnesses and jury consulting. In Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall Street.com, the Court held that although the copyright statute confers rights on the author of a work as soon as it is created, the copyright owner cannot begin an infringement suit until the Register of Copyrights has registered the copyright claim. The ABA filed an amicus brief in this case preferring that the Court allow an infringement suit to start when the copyright holder delivers the registration materials, thereby focusing on the “copyright holder’s conduct not that of the Copyright Office.”  

The Court also considered cases with political implications this term, including two closely watched gerrymandering cases and a case involving a citizenship question on the 2020 census. In Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, the Court held that the state House, helmed by Republicans, lacked standing to appeal a lower court order striking down the original legislative district plan as a racial gerrymander. In another case Lamone v. Benisek, the Court held in a 5-4 decision that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions that fall beyond the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. The Court remanded the case to the lower court to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, without ever reaching the substantive legal questions surrounding whether a congressional district was unconstitutionally drawn for partisan purposes.

In the 2020 census case, the Supreme Court considered whether the Trump Administration could include a citizenship question to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Citizen questions have not been asked to all U.S. households in over 50 years and opponents of the question claimed it would deter noncitizens from participating, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the census and leading to a less accurate count of the total population. In Department of Commerce v. New York, the Court held that a citizenship question could be added to the census questionnaire, but it remanded the case for further proceedings after finding that the agency’s reason for adding the citizenship question “seems to have been contrived.”

To learn more about these and other decisions issued this term, click here.