Cases on the Docket for October and November 2020
Military Sexual Assault: U.S. v. Briggs & U.S. v. Collins
Oral argument date: October 13, 2020
Issue Presented: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces erred in concluding – contrary to its own longstanding precedent – that the Uniform Code of Military Justice allows prosecution of a rape that occurred between 1986 and 2006 only if it was discovered and charged within five years.
Facts and Background: A military judge found Michael Briggs guilty of rape in 2014 for conduct that occurred in 2005 without advising Briggs that the statue of limitations might provide a basis for dismissal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled for Briggs, finding that Briggs would have sought dismissal if the military judge had informed Briggs of a possible statute of limitations defense. The facts of the case are discussed in more depth in the
Summer 2020 SCOTUS review.
Significance: In U.S. v. Briggs, the SCOTUS has the power to determine whether rape that occurs in the U.S. military has a five-year or unlimited statute of limitations.
The key issue in this litigation is whether military rape cases are subject to a statute of limitations. Section 843(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states that “any [military] offense punishable by death may be tried and punished at any time without limitation.” The government has applied this section to military rape, since Section 920(a) of the UCMJ renders rape an offense punishable by death. On the other hand, the defendants in the case assert that military rape is not punishable by death, because the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment precedents forbid capital punishment for non-fatality rape. If the Court’s precedents apply to military rape, then military rape would fall under section 843(b)—stating that all military offenses not punishable by death have a five-year statute of limitations—rather than section 843(a).
Rights of Immigrants: Pereida v. Barr
Oral argument date: October 14, 2020
Issue Presented: Whether free exercise plaintiffs can only succeed by proving a particular type of discrimination claim — namely that the government would allow the same conduct by
Facts and Background: Clemente Avelino Pereida, a citizen and native of Mexico, was convicted of attempted criminal impersonation in Nebraska for attempting to work with a fraudulent social security card. The Department of Homeland Security charged Pereida with removability, from which Pereida sought relief. An immigration judge found that Pereida's conviction constituted a crime involving moral turpitude, barring relief from removal. The facts of the case are discussed in more depth in the Summer 2020 SCOTUS review.
Significance: The Court’s ruling in Pereida will affect the ability of noncitizens who have committed certain offenses to apply for relief from deportations.
Eighth Amendment and Juvenile Rights: Jones v. Mississippi
Oral argument date: November 3, 2020
Issue Presented: Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.
Facts and Background: Brett Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole imprisonment in 2005 for stabbing his grandfather to death at age 15. Subsequently, the Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences for juveniles on the grounds of the Eighth Amendment in Miller v. Alabama (2012). Later in 2016, the SCOTUS made the Miller decision retroactive and qualified precedent to apply to “all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” in Montgomery v. Louisiana.
Significance: The Court’s ruling in Jones will determine whether trial courts have the burden to prove this “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing juveniles to life without parole.
Religious Freedom and LGBTQ Rights: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Oral argument date: November 4, 2020
- Whether free exercise plaintiffs can only succeed by proving a particular type of discrimination claim — namely that the government would allow the same conduct by someone who held different religious views — as two circuits have held, or whether courts must consider other evidence that a law is not neutral and generally applicable, as six circuits have held;
- Whether Employment Division v. Smith should be revisited; and
- Whether the government violates the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs.
Facts and Background: Several foster parents and Catholic Social Services (CSS) challenged the City of Philadelphia’s policy of halting foster children referrals to CSS for placement due to CSS’s refusal to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.
Significance: In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the SCOTUS has the power to set a new precedent that overturns Employment Division v. Smith and provides religious exemptions to general, anti-discrimination laws.
A blockbuster issue could be decided by this case—how to reconcile generally applicable laws with the Free Exercise Clause. This conflict between non-discriminatory provisions and the Free Exercise clause was previously visited but not resolved in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), where SCOTUS ruled that a Colorado baker cannot be forced to make a cake for a same-sex couple. The decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop was made on the narrowest grounds possible—that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has shown anti-religious bias in its consideration of the case—providing no precedent or guidance for future cases like Fulton.
In its decision on Fulton, the court could reconsider its ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that “there is no constitutional right to an exemption from a generally applicable law,” a precedent religious freedom advocates have long protested. If SCOTUS overrules its decision in Employment Division v. Smith and decides in favor of CSS, Fulton could serve as a new precedent prioritizing religious liberty over non-discrimination laws. The outcome could have dire implications for the LGBTQ community’s access to public services beyond the foster system. On the other hand, it is possible for the court to decide Fulton on narrow grounds like that of Masterpiece Cakeshop, minimizing its impact and leaving Employment Division v. Smith undisturbed.
Healthcare: Texas v. California
Oral argument date: November 10, 2020
- Whether the unconstitutional individual mandate to purchase minimum essential coverage is severable from the remainder of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act;
- whether the district court properly declared the ACA invalid in its entirety and unenforceable anywhere.
Facts and Background: The Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s “individual mandate” that created an income tax penalty for people without health insurance was previously examined by SCOTUS in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012); in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Court upheld the individual mandate in a 5-4 decision, citing that it was a constitutional exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Since then, Congress has reduced the required amount of health coverage to US$0 in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—stripping the individual mandate of its revenue and placing it outside the scope of Congress’s power to tax.
Significance: In Texas v. California, the SCOTUS has the power to strike down the entire ACA or the ACA’s individual mandate.
In Texas v. California, the Court will review whether the individual mandate is now unconstitutional due to its lack of revenue for the federal government, and whether the mandate’s constitutionality can be severed from the rest of the ACA. The defendant states are planning to defend the constitutionality of the mandate by claiming it to be a precatory law, which is not subject to constitutional challenges. However, the individual mandate is ineffectual regardless of the Court’s decision on the constitutionality question. The severability question is where the impact lies—the ACA is operating fine without the individual mandate, but striking down the entire ACA is possible if the mandate is not found to be severable. Texas v. California has picked up more media attention since Amy Coney Barrett, who openly criticized the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ACA in 2017, has been nominated to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.