February 01, 2021

SCOTUS Update

Winter 2021 Edition

Priyanka Shingwekar, 2021 Spring Intern

Recent Decisions

Carney v. Adams

Oral argument date: October 5, 2020

Decided on: December 10, 2020

Facts: Adams considered applying for a judicial position but ultimately decided not to because the state required the candidate to be a Republican, and Adams was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Adams filed a lawsuit against the governor, challenging the provision of the Delaware Constitution that limits judicial service to members of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Issue(s): (1) Whether the plaintiff in this case have Article III standing to challenge Delaware’s judicial service requirements; (2) Whether a state law that effectively limits judicial service to members of the Democratic and Republican parties violate the First Amendment.

Holding: The Court held that because Adams had not shown that he was “able and ready” to apply for a judicial vacancy in the imminent future, he failed to demonstrate Article III standing to challenge the Delaware Constitution’s political balance requirement for appointments to the State’s major courts. Justice Stephen Breyer authored the unanimous (8-0) opinion of the Court. Article III standing requires that an “injury in fact” be “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent.” Because Adams did not adequately make this showing, his grievance is generalized and does not meet the requirement for an “injury in fact.”

Significance: With standing, the outcome of this case would have determined the constitutionality of provisions mandating partisan balance in state courts. The Court would have to decide whether political affiliation is a factor in judicial appointments, which could upset the long-standing traditions of keeping politics outside the court.

U.S. v. Briggs

Oral argument date: October 13, 2020

Decided on: December 10, 2020

Facts: In 2014, a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone found Michael Briggs guilty of rape in violation of Article 120(a), Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for conduct that occurred nine years earlier, in 2005. The UCMJ allows for a military offense that is punishable by death to be “tried and punished at any time without limitation.” Briggs argued on appeal that rape was not “punishable by death” and thus was subject to the five-year statute of limitations for non-capital crimes.

Issue(s): Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces err 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.

Holding: The Court found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces erred in concluding that the five-year statute of limitations applies to the prosecution of rape. Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion on behalf of a unanimous (8-0) Court. The UCMJ is a “uniform” code, meaning it refers only to other provisions within the UCMJ itself, rather than external sources of law. Second, statutes of limitations are intended to provide clarity, and having to consider “all applicable law” to determine whether an offense is punishable by death obscures, rather than clarifies, the filing deadline. Finally, it is “unlikely” that lawmakers would want a statute of limitations to refer to judicial interpretations of such provisions, given that the purposes of statutes of limitations differ from the ends served courts’ Eighth Amendment analysis.

Significance: SCOTUS determined that for military sexual assault and other severe crimes that are “punishable by death” under the Code, there is no statute of limitations. This decision resolves the dispute between the UCMJ and the Eighth Amendment in the context of what is considered a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Trump v. New York

Oral argument date: November 30, 2020

Decided on: December 18, 2020

Facts: On July 21, 2020, President Donald Trump announced that the population figures used to determine the apportionment of Congress would, in a reversal of long-standing practice, exclude non-citizens who are not lawfully present in the United States. Two sets of plaintiffs — one governmental and one nongovernmental coalition — challenged the decision to exclude illegal aliens from the apportionment base for Congress on the ground that it violates the Constitution, statutes governing the census and apportionment, and other laws.

Issue(s): (1) Whether the plaintiffs have standing under Article III of the Constitution to challenge a  memorandum by President Trump instructing the secretary of commerce to include in his report on the 2020 census information enabling the president to exclude noncitizens from the base population number for purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives; (2) Whether the memorandum is a permissible exercise of the President’s discretion under the provisions of law governing congressional apportionment.

Holding: The Court held that the plaintiffs in this case had not shown standing and that their claims were not ripe for adjudication. As such, the Court vacated the District Court’s judgment and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. For a federal court to have jurisdiction to hear a case, the plaintiffs must demonstrate they have standing, which requires “an injury that is concrete, particularized, and imminent rather than conjectural or hypothetical. Further, the case must be “ripe”—that is, it must not depend on “contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all.” In this case, it remained mere conjecture whether and how the Executive Branch might eventually implement this general statement of policy, and the plaintiffs had suffered no concrete harm from the policy itself.

Significance: If standing or ripeness were demonstrated, the Court would have to decide on the constitutional claims and legality of the memorandum in regard to legislative apportionment. The outcome of this case would have also shed some light about the constitutionality and applicability of the “citizenship question.”

The Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C.

The Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C.

Cases on the Docket for January through March 2021

Trump v. Sierra Club

Oral argument date: February 22, 2021

Facts: President Donald Trump ran for office in 2016 on a promise that Mexico would pay for his plans to expand a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico. In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to proceed with the transfers and contracts for construction. Then, in July 2020, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that it was unlawful for the administration to use funds intended for the Department of Defense on the wall instead, but the Supreme Court refused to block President Trump from using the funds while litigation continued.

Issue(s): Whether Section 8005 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act authorize President Trump to divert $2.5 billion in military funds to pay for the border wall.

Significance: The Court would determine whether this use of unauthorized funds from Congress to fund a border wall is or is not constitutional. Despite construction commencing without a final verdict, the outcome of this case could stall further developments and also clarify the executive use of Congressional funds for defense purposes.

Lange v. California

Oral argument date: February 24, 2021

Facts: A California Highway Patrol officer observed a parked car “playing music very loudly,” and then the driver, Arthur Gregory Lange, honked the horn four or five times despite there being no other vehicles nearby. After following Lange for several blocks, the officer activated his overhead lights, and Lange “failed to yield.” Lange turned into a driveway and drove into a garage. The officer followed and interrupted the closing garage door. When asked whether Lange had noticed the officer, Lange replied that he had not. Based on evidence obtained from this interaction, Lange was charged with two Vehicle Code misdemeanors and an infraction. The prosecutor argued that exigent circumstances justified the officer’s warrantless entry into Lange’s garage.

Issue(s): Whether the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement apply when police are pursuing a suspect whom they believe committed a misdemeanor.

Significance: The ruling of this case could create a loophole for the police to pursue an individual into a private home without a warrant for a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This would create major implications for warrantless searches and seizures, especially in relation to police brutality and discrimination against minorities.

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee

Oral argument date: March 2, 2021

Facts: Arizona offers two methods of voting: (1) in-person voting at a precinct or vote center, or (2) “early voting” whereby the voter receives the ballot by mail. In counties using the precinct-based system, registered voters may vote only at the designated polling place in their precinct. After election day, election officials review all provisional ballots to determine the voter’s identity and address. If officials determine the voter voted out of precinct, the county discards the ballot in its entirety. The Democratic National Committee challenged this policy as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it adversely and disparately affects Arizona’s Native American, Hispanic, and African American citizens. Some counties permit voters to drop their early ballots in special drop boxes. Many voters who vote early use third parties to collect and drop off voted ballots. Republican legislators in 2016 passed H.B. 2023, which criminalized the collection and delivery of another person’s ballot. The DNC challenged H.B. 2023 as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment because it was enacted with discriminatory intent.

Issue(s): (1) Whether Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (2) whether Arizona’s ballot-collection law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or the 15th Amendment.

Significance: The outcome of this case would have significant effects on the voting rights of minorities, especially during one of the most contentious elections in national history. It would also allow the Court to reinterpret the Fifteenth Amendment under a new context, where voter disenfranchisement is still at large but under a different cover.

Cases Not Yet Set for Argument

Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra

Facts: The California Attorney General’s office has a policy requiring charities to provide the state, on a confidential basis, information about their major donors. The Petitioners filed a lawsuit alleging that the filing requirement unconstitutionally burdened their First Amendment right to free association by deterring individuals from financially supporting them. The district court reasoned that the government’s filing demands were not the “least restrictive means” of obtaining the information and thus did not satisfy “strict scrutiny.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, based on its conclusion that “exacting scrutiny” rather than “strict scrutiny” was the appropriate standard.

Issue(s): (1) Whether exacting scrutiny or strict scrutiny applies to disclosure requirements that burden nonelectoral, expressive association rights; (2) Whether the policy of the California attorney general’s office requiring charities to disclose the names and addresses of their major donors violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Significance: The Court could decide whether a state can routinely compel nonprofits to disclose their donors and affect organizations involved in election campaigns. This would affect campaign finance laws and precedents that have regarded the donation of money as protected speech.

Department of Justice v. House Committee on the Judiciary

Facts: Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of the Mueller Report in April 2019. In July 2019, the House Judiciary Committee asked a federal court in Washington, D.C., to require the disclosure of the redacted portions of the Mueller report, as well as the sealed grand jury transcript, for use in its impeachment investigation. The committee argued that Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permitted the court to authorize disclosure of the materials requested. That provision allows a court to authorize the disclosure of grand jury materials that would otherwise be kept secret “in connection with a judicial proceeding.”

Issue(s): Whether an impeachment trial constitute a “judicial proceeding” under Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Significance: The Court could either help or hamper requests for grand jury materials relating to investigations of impeachable offenses. This decision would not only provide clarity for the Trump impeachment trials, but also set precedent for future impeachment proceedings.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

Facts: B.L., a high school student, tried out for and failed to make her high school's varsity cheerleading team, making instead only the junior varsity team. Over a weekend and away from school, she posted a picture of herself with a profane caption directed at her school. The coaches decided B.L.’s snap violated team and school rules, which B.L. had acknowledged before joining the team, and she was suspended from the junior varsity team for a year. B.L. sued the school alleging (1) that her suspension from the team violated the First Amendment; (2) that the school and team rules were overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory; and (3) that those rules were unconstitutionally vague.

Issue(s): Whether the First Amendment prohibit public school officials from regulating off-campus student speech.

Significance: The Court could redetermine the scope of the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The outcome of this case would have implications in determining First Amendment protections based on the age and position of the speaker as well as the location of the speech.

Learn More

Curious about past Supreme Court terms and the status of case decisions? Check previous editions of our SCOTUS Updates (October 2020January 2020, October 2019, July 2019, April 2019, January 2019) from the Section's quarterly e-Newsletter on cases related to civil rights and social justice. 

Additionally, the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice routinely hosts webinars and panels, discussing social inequities and their legal connection. If you are interested in learning more about these issues, recordings of past webinars can be found on the Section’s YouTube channel. 

Please refer to the directory of Amicus Curiae Briefs on the Section’s website, which contains amicus briefs filed by the ABA pertaining to civil rights cases. 

For existing policy, check out the Policy Project, featuring a compilation of all policy drafted by the ABA relating to the committees of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.