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February 28, 2019 SCOTUS Review

SCOTUS Term in Review - Spring 2019

Samaneh Pourhassan

The Spring term of the Supreme Court covers a range of issues from Immigration Rights to the Eighth Amendment. With the 2020 presidential election close, there are several controversial cases on gerrymandering in front of the Justices. Here’s a look at the Highlights of the 2019 Term.


Madison v. AlabamaEighth Amendment (Opinion 2/27/19)

Nielsen v. PreapImmigration Law, Criminal Law (Opinion 3/19/19)

Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.Native American Concerns (Opinion 3/19/19)

Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-HillGerrymandering, Election Law (Heard 3/18/19)

Rucho v. Common CauseGerrymandering, Election Law (Opinion forthcoming)

Lamone v. BenisekGerrymandering, Election Law (Opinion forthcoming)

Kansas v. GarciaImmigration Law, Employment Law (To be Heard)

County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife FundEnvironmental Justice (To be Heard)

Kahler v. KansasCriminal Justice, Death Penalty, Fair and Impartial Courts, Health Rights and Bioethics (To be Heard)

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, New YorkGun Rights, Second Amendment Right (To be Heard)

Madison v. Alabama: Eighth Amendment (Opinion 2/27/19, 5-3, J. Kagan)

Summary: Petitioner, who was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death suffered a series of strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia while waiting for execution. Madison petitioned the court for a stay of execution reasoning that he was mentally incompetent and could not recollect committing the crime. The Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit executing a prisoner diagnosed with vascular dementia merely because he or she could not remember committing the crime. If this person rationally understand why he or she is being executed, the Eighth Amendment would pose no bar to the execution. The holding was a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Kagan. Justice Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Nielsen v. Preap: Immigration Law, Criminal Law (Opinion 3/19/19, 5-4, J. Alito)

Summary: Two classes of aliens detained under 8 U. S. C. §1226(c)(2), alleged that because they were not immediately detained by immigration officials after their release from criminal custody, they are not considered aliens “described in paragraph (1) of statute,” even though all of them fall into at least one of the four categories covered by §1226(c)(1)(A)-(D). The District Courts ruled for respondents, and the 9th Circuit affirmed holding that aliens who are deportable for certain specified crimes, are not subject to §1226(c)(2)’s mandatory-detention requirement because they were not arrested by immigration officials as soon as they were released from jail. The Supreme Court reversed this holding and held that both of § 1226(c)’s mandates, for arrest and for release, applied to any alien linked with a predicate offense identified in § 1226(c)(1)(A)-(D), regardless of exactly when or even whether the alien was released from criminal custody. Therefore, anyone who fit the description fell under § 1226(c)(2)’s detention mandate, even if the Secretary of Homeland Security did not arrest them immediately when they were released.

Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.: Native American Concerns (Opinion 3/19/19, 5-4, J. Breyer)

Summary: The Washington state attempted to collect taxes on millions of gallons of fuel that a corporation owned by a member of the Yakama Indian Nation, brought into the state to sell at wholesale to gas stations owned by other Yakama members. Cougar Den countered that an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Indian Nation that gives members of the tribe the “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways” exempted it from the tax. The Supreme Court affirmed the Supreme Court of Washington’s judgment that the “right to travel” provision of the 1855 Treaty between the US and the Yakama Nation of Indians pre-empts the state’s fuel tax as applied to Cougar Den’s importation of fuel by public highway for sale within the reservation.

Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill: Gerrymandering, Election Law (Heard 3/18/19)

Facts: A group of African American voters allege that the Virginia legislature violated the constitution by engaged in racial gerrymandering and significantly relying on race in drawing 11 of the state’s districts, illegally packing African American voters into these districts, diluting their strength in neighboring districts and making the situation advantageous for Republicans. The district court held that race had been the main factor motivating the design of districts and legislature had not shown that each district needed to have a voting-age population of 55% African-American. The legislature stepped in to defend the law and appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that the districts were not the product of racial gerrymandering.


  1. Whether the district court conducted a proper “holistic” analysis of the majority-minority Virginia House of Delegates districts under the prior decision in this case; 
  2. Whether the Bethune-Hill “predominance” test is satisfied merely by a lengthy description of ordinary VRA compliance measures; 
  3. Whether the district court erred in relying on expert analysis it previously rejected as unreliable and expert analysis that lacked any objective or coherent methodology;
  4. Whether the district court committed clear error in ignoring the entirety of the house’s evidentiary presentation under the guise of credibility determinations;
  5. Whether Virginia’s choice to draw 11 “safe” majority-minority districts of around or above 55 percent black voting-age population (“BVAP”) was narrowly tailored in light of the discretion the Voting Rights Act afforded covered jurisdictions to “choose to create a certain number of ‘safe’ districts and “to prove the absence of racially polarized voting” to justify BVAP reductions towards or below 50 percent BVAP; 
  6. Whether the district court erred in ignoring the district-specific evidence before the house in 2011 justifying safe districts at or above 55 percent BVAP; and 
  7. Whether appellants have standing to bring this appeal.

Rucho v. Common Cause: Gerrymandering, Election Law (Heard 3/26/19)

Facts: The district court struck down North Carolina’s 2016 congressional map, ruling first that the challengers do have standing and second that the map was the product of partisan gerrymandering. The district court blocked the state from using the map after November 2018. North Carolina Republicans took their case to the Supreme Court criticizing the lower court’s decision striking down the 2016 map.


  1. Whether the district court correctly found that plaintiffs have standing to challenge particular NC congressional districts on partisan vote dilution grounds because those districts unnecessarily crack or pack plaintiffs. 
  2. Whether the test for partisan vote dilution claims set forth by the district court requiring proof of: 
    1. The intent to subordinate adherents of one party and entrench a rival party in power; 
    2. The effect of such subordination and entrenchment; and 
    3. The lack of a legitimate justification for such subordination and entrenchment is judicially discernible and manageable. 
  3. Whether the district court’s unanimous decision that particular NC congressional districts are unconstitutional under this test is correct.

Lamone v. Benisek: Gerrymandering, Election Law (Heard 3/26/19)

Facts: The plaintiffs allege that a Maryland congressional district was gerrymandered to retaliate against them for their political views. The federal district court concluded that Maryland Democrats intentionally moved 66,000 Republican voters out of Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District in order to turn a district that would reliably elect a Republican member of Congress into one that would elect a Democrat.


  1. Whether the various legal claims articulated by the district court are unmanageable; 
  2. Whether district court erred when it resolved disputes of material fact as to multiple elements of plaintiffs’ claims, failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and treated as “undisputed” evidence that is the subject of still-unresolved hearsay; 
  3. Whether the district court abused its discretion in entering an injunction despite the plaintiffs’ years-long delay in seeking injunctive relief, rendering the remedy applicable to at most one election before the next decennial census necessitates another redistricting.

Kansas v. Garcia: Immigration Law, Employment Law (To be Heard)

Facts: The federal Immigration Reform and Control Act bars employers from knowingly employing undocumented immigrants. Therefore, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Garcia and two other defendants for identity theft when they used other people’s Social Security Numbers (SSNs). The Act also requires employees to show their eligibility to work in the U.S. by submitting a Form I-9, and it strictly limits the use of information on or attached to a Form I-9. The state court held as the SSNs that the defendants used appeared on their I-9s, the prosecution was trumped by the IRCA. The Supreme Court asked the U.S. solicitor general opinion last spring. In December, the federal government agreed with Kansas that the Supreme Court should review the case.


  1. Whether the IRCA expressly pre-empts the states from using any information entered on or appended to a federal Form I-9 in a prosecution of any person when that same, commonly used information also appears in non-IRCA documents; 
  2. If IRCA bars the states from using all such information for any purpose, whether Congress has the constitutional power to so broadly pre-empt the states from exercising their traditional police powers to prosecute state law crimes.

County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund: Environmental Justice (To be Heard)

Facts: Hawaii Wildlife Fund and several other environmental non-profit corporations filed a lawsuit, claiming that the County of Maui did not have a permit to discharge pollutants from its wells into the ocean and therefore, was violating the Clean Water Act (CWA). The federal district court granted a summary judgment for the Plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed that ruling and rejected the County’s contention that the point source itself must convey the pollutants directly into the navigable water to be considered a CWA violation. The County petitioned for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court. The Justices asked for the U.S. Solicitor General’s view and announced they would review the case in the October 2019 session.


  1. Whether the CWA requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater; 
  2. Whether the County of Maui had fair notice that a CWA permit was required for its underground injection control wells that operated without such a permit for nearly 40 years.

Kahler v. Kansas: Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Fair and Impartial Courts, Health Rights and Bioethics (To be Heard)

Facts: James Kahler is sentenced to death for murdering his wife, daughters and his wife’s grandmother in Kansas state. Kahler alleged he suffered from mental illness and insanity at the time of committing the crime. In Kansas, insanity is not considered as a separate defense and mental health is relevant only to the question of defendant’s intent in committing the crime. Kahler argued that Kansas’s rule violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments as people cannot be punished for crimes for which they are not morally culpable, and violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee.

Issue: Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York: Gun Rights, Second Amendment Right (To be Heard)

Facts: The NY State Pistol and Rifle Association and a group of gun owners challenged NY’s ban on transferring licensed, unloaded guns anywhere outside the city. The lower courts upheld the state’s restriction.

Issue: Whether New York City’s ban on transporting a licensed, locked and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits is consistent with the Second Amendment, the commerce clause and the constitutional right to travel.