Summer 2007

Supreme Court Update

On Apr. 18, in Gonzales v. Carhart, No. 05-380, the Court held by a 5-4 vote (opinion by Kennedy; dissent by Ginsburg) that the Respondents failed to show that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (the Act) on its face was void for vagueness or that it imposed an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion by being overbroad or for not having a health exception.

Respondent doctors who performed second-trimester abortions challenged the Act’s constitutionality in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. They argued that the Act’s scope was indefinite and unclear making it void for vagueness. In the alternative, they argued, the Act prohibited all D&Es (dilation & evacuation), the most common procedure performed during second-trimester pregnancies and therefore imposed an undue burden. The District Court agreed. Affirming, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit found that legislatures should include a health exception.

Respondents Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, and the City and County of San Francisco filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to enjoin enforcement of the Act. The District Court enjoined enforcement of the Act finding it unconstitutional because it was vague, burdened a woman’s right to choose a second-trimester abortion, and lacked a health exception. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the Eight and Ninth Circuits. It determined that the Act defined unlawful abortion in explicit terms such that doctors of ordinary intelligence could understand what is prohibited and provided guidelines for law enforcement. Based on this determination the Court found that the Act was not vague on its face. The Court assessed whether the Act was too broad and concluded that it was not because it did not prohibit the D&E procedure in which the fetus is removed in parts. Finally, the Court found that the Act did not impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion for not having a health exception. It held that there was medical uncertainty over whether the Act’s prohibition created significant health risks and that there were alternatives available to the prohibited procedure.

On May 14, in Schiro v. Landrigan, No. 05-1575, the Court held by a 5-4 vote (opinion by Thomas; dissent by Stevens) that the United States District Court for the District of Arizona did not abuse its discretion when it refused to grant respondent, Jeffrey Landrigan, an evidentiary hearing.

Landrigan’s attorney attempted to present mitigating evidence that Landrigan’s birth mother used drugs while she was pregnant with him and that some of his past violent acts were a result of self-defense, but Landrigan refused to allow him to do so at his sentencing hearing. Landrigan told the trial judge that he did not want to present any mitigating evidence. Ultimately, the trial judge found two statutory aggravating circumstances and two non-statutory mitigating circumstances (that his family loved him and there was no premeditation) and Landrigan was sentenced to death.

On appeal, Landrigan claimed that his attorney was ineffective because the attorney failed to fully investigate mitigating circumstances, specifically the biological aspect of his violent behavior. The court rejected his claim because Landrigan had told his attorney not to present evidence at the sentencing hearing. The Arizona Supreme Court denied Landrigan’s petition for review. He then filed a habeas petition in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. The District Court refused to grant him an evidentiary hearing but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s holding.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision remanding the case for an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective assistance claim, finding that the District Court was within its discretion to determine that even with the benefit of an evidentiary hearing, Landrigan could not develop a factual record that would enable him to obtain habeas relief. The state court’s factual determination that Landrigan did not allow counsel to present any mitigating evidence at sentencing was not an unreasonable determination of the facts under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and the mitigating evidence he sought to introduce would not have changed the result. (Under AEDPA, federal courts are prohibited from granting habeas relief unless a state court’s adjudication of a claim “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law or the relevant state-court decision.” AEDPA also requires federal habeas courts to presume the correctness of state courts’ factual findings).

On May 21, in Winkelman v. Parma City School District, No. 05-983, the Court held by a 7-2 vote (opinion by Kennedy; partial concurrence and dissent by Scalia) that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants parents independent, enforceable rights, which are not limited to procedural and reim bursement-related matters. These rights include the entitlement to a free appropriate public education for the parents’ child.

Parents of petitioner (Jacob Winkelman, a six year old child with autism spectrum disorder covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)) worked with the school district to develop an individualized education program as required by IDEA but could not reach an agreement. Jacob’s parents filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The District Court granted respondent’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Petitioners filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit without the assistance of an attorney. The Court of Appeals entered an order dismissing the appeal unless the petitioners obtained counsel to represent Jacob.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that various provisions of IDEA accord parents independent enforceable rights at the administrative stage and that it would therefore be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar parents from asserting these rights in federal court.

On May 29, in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., No. 05-1074, the Court held by a 5-4 vote (opinion by Alito; dissent by Ginsburg) that a Title VII pay discrimination claim must be presented to the EEOC within the period prescribed by statute, as relevant here, 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.

Petitioner, Lily Ledbetter, worked for respondent, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, from 1979 to 1998. During this period, Goodyear based its pay raises on the evaluation of the employees’ performance. Petitioner had been given poor evaluations and she asserts that she received these poor evaluations because she was a woman. As a result, her pay was not raised as it would have been had she received fair evaluations. Petitioner filed suit based on a Title VII pay discrimination claim and a claim under the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Goodyear on petitioner’s Equal Pay Act claim but allowed her Title VII discrimination claim to proceed to trial. The jury found for Ms. Ledbetter and awarded her backpay and damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that a Title VII pay discrimination claim cannot be based on any pay decision prior to the EEOC charging period (180 days prior to the EEOC questionnaire filing). Furthermore, the Court ruled, there was not enough evidence to prove that respondent had acted with discriminatory intent in its pay decisions during the 180 days prior to the EEOC filing. The U.S. Supreme Court held that if as petitioner alleges the discriminatory conduct occurred earlier, she should have filed an EEOC charge within 180 days after each incident. Since she did not, the Court ruled that the paychecks issued to her during the 180 day period do not provide a basis for her claim.