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Jun 28 2016

The US Supreme Court Decides and Goes on Vacation

There was a of of speculation that the US Supreme Court would hand down numerous split decisions since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia this year and the refusal of the Republicans in the Senate to even give President Barak Obama’s candidate to replace him a hearing. There were some but not as many as expected. Late May and June are when the justices start to release their bulk decisions and opinions on the cases that were heard during the term. Here are some of the important ones from the last week:

On June 20, in Utah v. Strieff, the court decided 5 – 3 that evidence found during a search can be used in court if officers began the search once they learned defendants had outstanding arrest warrants, even if the initial stop was illegal.  The ruling erodes the 4th Amendment right against illegal searches.

In Taylor v. United States the 7- 1 decision the court made robbery a  federal crime.

Because of Taylor, more Americans, mostly minorities, will be exposed to federal prison cells for even more draconian periods of time than they are now. In Taylor, with the exception of (hold onto your hats) Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court gave all conscientious, sentencing-reform-minded folks – including Judge Dearie – a swift kick in the pants.

As summarized by scotusblog.comTaylor holds: “Because the Hobbs Act criminalizes robberies and attempted robberies that affect any commerce ‘over which the U.S. has jurisdiction,’ the prosecution in a Hobbs Act robbery case satisfies the act’s commerce element if it shows that the defendant robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds.”

The real fun started on June 23 with a 4 – 3 votes Fisher v. University of Tex. at Austin determined that affirmative action stands and your white privilege and poor grades don’t count.

The decision, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981, concerned an unusual program and contained a warning to other universities that not all affirmative action programs will pass constitutional muster. But the ruling’s basic message was that admissions officials may continue to consider race as one factor among many in ensuring a diverse student body.

The decision, by a 4-to-3 vote, was unexpected. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the author of the majority opinion, has long been skeptical of race-sensitive programs and had never before voted to uphold an affirmative action plan. He dissented in the last major affirmative action case.

Looks like justice Kennedy is leaning to port since Scalia’s death.

In Birchfield v. North Dakota which consolidated three cases the court ruled 5 – 3 that law enforcement may require a breathalyzer for suspected drunk drivers without a warrant after an arrest, a warrant is required for a blood test in the same circumstances.

Because there were three separate cases before the court, each defendant had a different result. The court held that Danny Birchfield, who was prosecuted in North Dakota for refusing a blood test, should have his conviction overturned.

William Bernard Jr., prosecuted in Minnesota for refusing a breath test, had his conviction upheld.

In the third case, Steve Beylund consented to a blood test under threat of prosecution in North Dakota; his case was sent back to lower courts in light of the court’s ruling that warrant-less blood tests can’t be mandated under threat of penalty.

In Mathis v. United States another 5 – 3 decision, the court made it harder for states to apply the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

Richard Mathis under a federal federal law for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory minimum sentence based on his prior burglary convictions in Iowa.  The Court said that because Iowa’s burglary law is broader than laws about generic burglaries, Mathis’s prior convictions couldn’t be applied under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

In Dollar General Stores v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tied court issued a per curium opinion upholding a lower-court ruling giving a tribal court jurisdiction over tort claims against defendants who aren’t official members of a tribe.

The last ruling of that day left millions of undocumented immigrants in limbo.

The Supreme Court couldn’t reach a majority for or against President Barack Obama’s plan to defer deportation for millions Thursday, effectively leaving his executive actions on hold and undocumented immigrants in limbo.

In a one-sentence ruling, the justices simply said, “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court.” But they didn’t indicate how they voted — a sign that the court was sharply at odds along ideological lines.

The split decision means a lower court ruling that effectively blocked the program will stand, and no national precedent will be set as to whether the president acted within the law when he announced it in November 2014.

The last big decisions came in rapid succession on June 27:

In McDonnell v. United States, the court handed down  a unanimous decision overturning the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) making it harder for states to prosecute elected officials for bribery.

Then voting 6 – 2  in Voisine v. United States, the court upheld that those convicted of domestic violence, even if it’s only a misdemeanor, cannot own a gun.

The Supreme Court ruled in a decision announced Monday that a domestic violence assault committed “recklessly” qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, and therefore triggers the federal ban on gun ownership.

“A person who assaults another recklessly ‘use[s]’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, who authored the majority opinion. She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito.

The case, Voisine v. United States, was brought by two men who lost their right to own or buy guns after being convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors in the state of Maine.

Under the Lautenberg Amendment, which Congress passed in 1996, individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors can’t legally own or buy guns. But lawyers for the two men argued that their crimes didn’t qualify for the federal gun ban because their assaults were committed “recklessly,” as opposed to knowingly or intentionally.

The last decision dealt a blow to the Republicans and Right to Lifers, not just in Texas but across the Untied States. With a 5 -3 vote in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the court struck down the state of Texas’ restrictive statute that threatened to shut down the states remaining abortion clinics denying millions of women access to a safe abortion. how this ruling will affect other states will be part of the discussion in another post.