2014 Archive: Supreme Court of the United States

Introduction to the Supreme Court’s 2014 Term

Cases We’re Following, In Order of Oral Argument:

A North Carolina police officer stopped Heien and the friend driving Heien’s car because only one brake light was working. Officers found cocaine in the car and charged Heien with trafficking cocaine. Police mistakenly believed the missing brake light violated North Carolina law, but it did not; North Carolina requires only one working brake light. Heien argues that the police search lacked reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.” Oral argument was held on Oct. 6. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided commentary about the oral argument here and an analysis of the decision here.

In an 8-1 decision in December, the Court ruled that an officer’s reasonable, but erroneous, mistake of law does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Professor Shoebotham worries that the decision seems likely to incentivize police to engage in catch-and-release policing using arguably ambiguous criminal statutes. Justice Sotomayor’s solo dissent emphasized the vast expansion of law enforcement authority that the majority’s approach will produce.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has a grooming policy allowing trimmed mustaches but no other facial hair except for quarter-inch beards for prisoners with skin problems. Prisoner Gregory Holt filed a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) arguing that Islam requires him to wear a beard. He requests a half-inch beard as an accommodation of his religion. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had proven its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling penological interest.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. § 2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious belief.” Oral argument was held on Oct. 7. Professor Hamilton provided commentary about the case for our website.

On January 20, 2015, the Court ruled 9-0 that Arkansas had violated RLUIPA. Professor Hamilton provided an analysis of the decision here.

Teva Pharmaceuticals argues that, in resolving its patent case, the federal district court made accurate findings about the nature of polypeptide chemistry. Although the district court’s findings would usually not have been set aside on appeal unless they were clearly erroneous under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), the Federal Circuit conducts de novo instead of clearly erroneous review in patent cases. Teva argues that, consistent with FRCP 52(a) and the other circuit courts, the Federal Circuit should defer to the detailed scientific findings of the district court.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires.” Oral argument was held on Oct. 15. Professor Greg Vetter of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary about the case hereThe Court ruled 7-2 that the district court must apply a clear error standard.

The parents of Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky want their son’s birth in Jerusalem to be recorded as “Jerusalem, Israel” on his birth certificate and passport in accordance with a federal statute. The State Department’s policy is to put only Jerusalem on these documents. The D.C. Circuit held that the statute violated separation of powers by encroaching on the president’s power to recognize foreign states.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a federal statute that directs the Secretary of State, on request, to record the birthplace of an American citizen born in Jerusalem as born in “Israel” on a Consular Report of Birth Abroad and on a United States passport is unconstitutional on the ground that the statute ‘impermissibly infringes on the President’s exercise of the recognition power reposing exclusively in him.’” Oral argument was held on Nov. 3. Professor Malvina Halberstam of Cardozo School of Law provided commentary about the case here and here.

On June 8, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that the President has exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign and that that power was infringed by the statute.  Professor Malvina Halberstam of Cardozo School of Law provided commentary about the opinion here.

Robert MacLean, a federal air marshal working for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was concerned when he received an unencrypted text message in 2003 canceling all overnight missions even though federal law required marshals to be present on all flights with high security risks. MacLean revealed the information, and Congress quickly reversed DHS’s action. MacLean was later fired on the grounds that the text contained Sensitive Secuity Information (SSI).

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether certain statutory protections codified at 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8)(A), which are inapplicable when an employee makes a disclosure ‘specifically prohibited by law,’ can bar an agency from taking an enforcement action against an employee who intentionally discloses Sensitive Security Information.” Oral argument was held on Nov. 4. Professor Griffin provided commentary about the case here. On Jan. 21, 2015, the Court ruled 7-2 that MacLean was protected by the whistleblower statute.

Yates and his crew were on the Miss Katie, a fishing vessel. A marine officer, who noticed three red grouper on the ship that might be under the legal length for fishing, came on board and issued a citation for undersized fish. The officer put the undersized fish in a crate and told Yates to keep the fish on board. Instead, Yates and his crew threw them overboard and replaced the undersized with oversized fish. After a four-day trial, the jury found Yates guilty of (1) knowingly disposing of undersized fish in order to prevent the government from taking lawful custody and control of them, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2232(a) (Count I); and (2) destroying or concealing a “tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” the government’s investigation into harvesting undersized grouper, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (Count II). Yates was sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment, followed by 36 months’ supervised release.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which makes it a crime for anyone who ‘knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object’ with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation, where the term ‘tangible object’ is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying ‘tangible object’ in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose.” Oral argument was held on Nov. 5. Professor Lisa McElroy of Drexel University School of Law provided commentary about the case here. On February 25, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that Yates could not be prosecuted under the statute because the fish were not a tangible object.

Alabama’s redistricting after the 2010 census has led to two lawsuits alleging that the redistricting was racial gerrymandering that diluted and isolated the strength of black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Alabama’s legislative redistricting plans unconstitutionally classify black voters by race by intentionally packing them in districts designed to maintain supermajority percentages produced when 2010 census data are applied to the 2001 majority-black districts.”

In Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, the Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Alabama’s effort to redraw the lines of each majority-black district to have the same black population as it would have using 2010 census data as applied to the former district lines, when combined with the state’s new goal of significantly reducing population deviation among districts, amounted to an unconstitutional racial quota and racial gerrymandering that is subject to strict scrutiny and that was not justified by the putative interest of complying with the non-retrogression aspect of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act; and whether these plaintiffs have standing to bring such a constitutional claim.” Oral argument was held on Nov. 12. In April, in the Court’s first opinion on Section 5 of the Act since dealing it a near-fatal blow in Shelby County v. Holder, a 5-4 majority preserved an important nuance of Section 5 that will enable the law to operate effectively, particularly once Congress restores that provision to full strength. Janai Nelson, the Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, provided commentary about the opinion here.

Amber Morrissey, one of Anthony Elonis’s employees, made five sexual harassment claims against him. Elonis put a picture of Elonis holding a knife to Morrissey’s neck with the caption “I wish” on Facebook. Elonis also posted violent threats against his ex-wife. Elonis was convicted of transmitting in interstate commerce communications containing a threat to injure the person of another.

The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort; and (2) whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten.” Oral argument was held on Dec. 1. Professor Nancy Leong of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law provided commentary about the case here.

On June 1, 2015, the Court ruled 8-1 that the Third Circuit’s negligence standard was not enough to support a conviction under § 875(c), but did not identify its own standard for prosecuting these cases. Professor Nancy Leong of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law provided commentary about the opinion here.

Peggy Young drove a delivery truck for UPS. After Young became pregnant, her doctor recommended a twenty-pound lifting restriction for the first twenty weeks of her pregnancy and a ten-pound restriction thereafter. UPS decided that Young could not perform the essential functions of her job and was not eligible for light duty assignment. UPS offered light duty to employees injured on the job, employees disabled according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and for some other reasons, but not for pregnancy.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” Oral argument was held on Dec. 3. Professor Jessica Roberts of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary for our website here. In March, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision in favor of UPS and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit to apply a new test. Professor Ann McGinley of the University of Nevada Boyd School of Law provided an analysis of the decision here.

The two parties in this case share the name Hana, which in Korean means number one, first, or top. Hana Financial filed a lawsuit complaining that Hana Bank had infringed its trademark name “Hana Financial.” Involved in the dispute is the “tacking doctrine” of trademark law, which allows a party to tack the date of its first use of a mark onto a subsequent use to establish trademark priority.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the jury or the court determines whether use of an older trademark may be tacked to a newer one.” Oral argument was held on Dec. 3. Professor David Fagundes of Southwestern Law School provided commentary for our website here. On Jan. 21, 2015, the Court ruled 9-0 that the jury determines whether an older trademark may be tacked to a new one.

Good News Community Church alleged that Town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance favored some noncommercial speech over other noncommercial speech in violation of the First Amendment. Good News usually erected about 17 signs around its place of worship until Gilbert told the church it was violating the town’s sign ordinance.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the Town of Gilbert’s mere assertion that its sign code lacks a discriminatory motive renders its facially content-based sign code content-neutral and justifies the code’s differential treatment of petitioners’ religious signs.” Oral argument was held on Jan. 12, 2015. Randal Morrison, of the law firm Sabine & Morrison, San Diego, CA, provided commentary here.

On June 18, 2015, the Court ruled 9-0 that the sign code was a content-based restriction on speech that couldn’t survive strict scrutiny.

Mach Mining was the target of an EEOC lawsuit for sex discrimination in hiring. Because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires the EEOC to negotiate an end to discriminatory practices before filing a lawsuit, Mach argued that it had an affirmative defense to the discrimination lawsuit that EEOC had failed to conciliate. The Seventh Circuit ruled that an alleged failure to conciliate is not an affirmative defense to the merits of a discrimination lawsuit.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether and to what extent a court may enforce the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s mandatory duty to conciliate discrimination claims before filing suit.” Oral argument was held on January 13, 2015. Professor Angela Morrison of the UNLV Boyd School of Law provided commentary here.

On April 29, 2015, the Court ruled 9-0 that a court may enforce the EEOC’s duty to conciliate, but the scope of judicial review is narrow. Professor Angela Morrison of the UNLV Boyd School of Law analyzed the opinion here.

Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident, was found in possession of Adderall when arrested for driving under the influence, and pled guilty to the misdemeanor crime of possession of drug paraphernalia. The conviction documents did not mention the controlled substance. Mellouli was ruled to be deportable under the federal statute allowing deportation for conviction of a crime involving controlled substances.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether, to trigger deportability under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), which provides that a noncitizen may be removed if he has been convicted of violating ‘any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21) . . . ,’ the government must prove the connection between a drug paraphernalia conviction and a substance listed in section 802 of the Controlled Substances Act.” Oral argument was held on Jan. 14, 2015. Professor Fatma Marouf of the UNLV Boyd School of Law provided commentary here. On June 1, 2015, the Court ruled 7-2 that the conviction did not trigger removal.

Lanell Williams-Yulee received a public reprimand for professional misconduct from the Florida Bar for personally soliciting campaign funds during her state judicial election in violation of Florida Bar regulations. The Florida Supreme Court rejected Williams-Yulee’s First Amendment challenge, holding that the judicial canon banning solicitation was constitutional because it was narrowly tailored to the compelling interesting of protecting the integrity of the judicial system.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a rule of judicial conduct that prohibits candidates for judicial office from personally soliciting campaign funds violates the First Amendment.” Oral argument was held on Jan. 20, 2015. Professor Griffin provided a preview of the case here. On April 29, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that the judicial solicitation ban did not violate the First Amendment.

Dennys Rodriguez was pulled over for erratic driving. Some delay occurred between the time of the traffic stop and the arrival of another officer accompanied by a dog who alerted for drugs in the vehicle. Officers found methamphetamine in the car and Rodriguez was charged with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The district court and the Eighth Circuit rejected Rodriguez’s motion to suppress the evidence based on unreasonable delay between the traffic stop and sniff alert.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether an officer may extend an already completed traffic stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.” Oral argument was held on Jan. 21, 2015. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided a preview of the case here and an analysis of the oral argument here.

On April 21. 2015, the Court decided 6-3 that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t allow post-“traffic mission” dog sniffs without reasonable suspicion. Professor Leslie Shoebotham provided commentary about the opinion here.

United States citizen Fauzia Din filed a visa petition on behalf of her husband Kanishka Berashk, a citizen and resident of Afghanistan who had worked for the Afghani government while the Taliban was in control. The visa request was denied under a section of the U.S. Code that excludes aliens on terrorism-related grounds, but the government refused to provide more specific reasons for the denial. The district court dismissed the couple’s claim because the government had provided a facially legitimate and bona fide reason for the visa denial. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the grounds that a much more specific explanation for the denial was required.

The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether a consular officer’s refusal of a visa to a U.S. citizen’s alien spouse impinges upon a constitutionally protected interest of the citizen; and (2) whether respondent is entitled to challenge in court the refusal of a visa to her husband and to require the government, in order to sustain the refusal, to identify a specific statutory provision rendering him inadmissible and to allege what it believes he did that would render him ineligible for a visa.” Oral argument was held on February 23, 2015. Professor Fatma Marouf of the UNLV Boyd School of Law provided commentary about the case for our website here. On June 15, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that Din’s due process and statutory rights had not been violated.

The clothing store Abercrombie and Fitch hires Models to wear and promote clothing consistent with the store’s brand, which is “a classic East Coast collegiate style of clothing.” The store’s policy does not allow Models to wear black clothing or caps. Nonetheless, seventeen-year-old Samantha Elauf, who says she is a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab for religious reasons, applied to work as a Model and showed up for her job interview wearing a black hijab. Religion was not mentioned during the job interview; the interviewer did not ask Samantha about her religion and Samantha did not request an accommodation. After Samantha was not hired as a Model, the EEOC filed a complaint against Abercrombie for failure to accommodate Samantha’s religious belief by making an exception to the Look Policy that governed models. After a district court ruling for Samantha, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the grounds that plaintiffs in religious accommodation cases must inform the employer of their religious belief that needs to be accommodated.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether an employer can be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for refusing to hire an applicant or discharging an employee based on a ‘religious observance and practice’ only if the employer has actual knowledge that a religious accommodation was required and the employer’s actual knowledge resulted from direct, explicit notice from the applicant or employee.” Oral argument was held on February 25, 2015. Professor Hamilton provided commentary about the case here.

On June 1, 2015, the Court ruled 8-1 that to prevail in a disparate-treatment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer actually knew of his need. Professor Hamilton provided commentary about the opinion here.

The Court granted cert. to decide the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, specifically asking the questions “1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?” Oral argument was held on April 28, 2015. Professor Mark Strasser of Capital University Law School provided commentary on the oral argument here. Professor Griffin provided commentary on the oral argument here.

On June 26, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Professor Hamilton provided analysis of the opinion here and here, and Professor Griffin provided analysis of the opinion hereProfessor Ruben Garcia of the UNLV Boyd School of Law provided analysis of the opinion here.

An Ohio preschool teacher observed three-year-old L.P. arrive at school with a bloodshot and bloodstained left eye and red marks on his face. School officials contacted police to make a report of suspected child abuse. Darius Clark, who lived with L.P.’s mother, was convicted of charges of assault, endangering children and domestic violence. The court found L.P. to be incompetent to testify but allowed the teachers to testify to L.P.’s statements at the school, specifically that L.P. answered “Dee” when asked who had injured him. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the admission of the two teachers’ testimony violated the Confrontation Clause of the Federal Constitution.

The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether an individual’s obligation to report suspected child abuse makes that individual an agent of law enforcement for purposes of the Confrontation Clause; and (2) whether a child’s out-of-court statements to a teacher in response to the teacher’s concerns about potential child abuse qualify as ‘testimonial’ statements subject to the Confrontation Clause.” Oral argument was held on March 2, 2015.  Professor Anne Traum of UNLV Boyd School of Law provided commentary about the case here.

On June 18, 2015, the Court decided 9-0 that the introduction of the child’s statements did not violate the Confrontation Clause. Professor Anne Traum of UNLV Boyd School of Law provided commentary about the opinion here.

Los Angeles hotel and motel owners succeeded on their Fourth Amendment challenge to  a city ordinance allowing police to inspect hotel records without a warrant. The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether facial challenges to ordinances and statutes are permitted under the Fourth Amendment; and (2) whether a hotel has an expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment in a hotel guest registry where the guest-supplied information is mandated by law and an ordinance authorizes the police to inspect the registry, and if so, whether the ordinance is facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment unless it expressly provides for pre-compliance judicial review before the police can inspect the registry.” Oral argument was held on March 3, 2015. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided a preview of the case here and commentary about the oral argument here.

On June 26, 2015, the Court decided 5-4 that the municipal code provision was facially unconstitutional. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided an analysis of the decision here.

Plaintiffs argued that the Affordable Care Act should be interpreted not to allow tax credits for individuals insured through the federal Exchanges. The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the Treasury Department permissibly interprets 26 U.S.C. 36B to make the Affordable Care Act’s federal premium tax credits available to eligible taxpayers through the Exchanges in every State.” Oral argument was held on March 4, 2015. On June 25, 2015, the Court ruled 6-3 that tax credits were available for both federal and state Exchanges. Professor Joan H. Krause of the University of North Carolina School of Law provided commentary on the decision here.

Police were called to a group home for individuals with mental illness. After resident Teresa Sheehan threatened them with a knife, they left her room, but then, without waiting for backup, reentered and seriously wounded her. The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody; and (2) whether it was clearly established that even where an exception to the warrant requirement applied, an entry into a residence could be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment by reason of the anticipated resistance of an armed and violent suspect within.” Oral argument was held on March 23, 2015. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided a preview of the case here and commentary about the oral argument here.

On May 18, 2015, the Court ruled 6-2 that the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity.  Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law provided an analysis of the opinion here.

Texas denied the Confederate Veterans’ request to include a Confederate flag on a Texas license plate. The state allowed other groups to add their slogans to the plates. The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether the messages and images that appear on state-issued specialty license plates qualify as government speech immune from any requirement of viewpoint neutrality; and (2) whether Texas engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” by rejecting the license-plate design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, when Texas has not issued any license plate that portrays the confederacy or the confederate battle flag in a negative or critical light.” Oral argument was held on March 23, 2015.  Professor Leslie Gielow Jacobs of the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law provided a commentary about the oral argument here.

On June 18, 2015, the Court ruled 5-4 that because the license plate was government speech, Texas could refuse to allow the Confederate flag on a license plate. Professor Leslie Gielow Jacobs of the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law provided a commentary about the opinion here.

 

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