Introduction to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Term
Cases We’re Following, In Order of Oral Argument:
In 2004, a Kansas state court convicted Sidney Gleason of capital murder. In the capital sentencing proceeding, the jury received instructions on both aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The jury found that the State proved all four aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt against Gleason, thereby convicting him to the death sentence. The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed Gleason’s conviction, but reversed his death sentence.
The Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court’s failure to “affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt” violated the Eighth Amendment. The Respondents argue that the Kansas Supreme Court’s holding is grounded in Kansas’s law, not the Eighth Amendment, and is therefore constitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide “Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances ‘need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,’ as the Kansas Supreme Court held in this case, or instead whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied by instructions that, in context, make clear that each juror must individually assess and weigh any mitigating circumstances.” The Court held oral argument on October 7, 2015. Professor David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary here. On January 20, 2016, the Court ruled 8-1 that the Eighth Amendment did not require the jury instruction.
Two brothers, Reginald Carr, Jr., and Jonathan Carr, were tried, convicted, and sentenced for a criminal spree collectively committed in December 2000. The Carrs were convicted of felony murder and four capital murders. Both brothers were sentenced to death for the four capital murders.
However, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Reginald Carr and Jonathan Carr’s death sentences due to three constitutional errors in the brothers’ penalty hearings. Most importantly here, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court failed to affirmatively inform the jury that mitigating circumstances do not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of this ambiguity, the Kansas Supreme Court held that the trial court violated the Eighth Amendment.
Accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide “Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances ‘need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,’ as the Kansas Supreme Court held here, or instead whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied by instructions that, in context, make clear that each juror must individually assess and weigh any mitigating circumstances; and whether the trial court’s decision not to sever the sentencing phase of the co-defendant brothers’ trial here – a decision that comports with the traditional approach preferring joinder in circumstances like this – violated an Eighth Amendment right to an ‘individualized sentencing’ determination and was not harmless in any event.” The Court held oral argument concerning both brothers’ appeals on October 7, 2015. Professor David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary here. On January 20, 2016, the Court ruled 8-1 that the Eighth Amendment does not require the capital-sentencing instruction and that the joint sentencing procedure was consistent with the Constitution.
In 1963, Henry Montgomery murdered a Baton Rouge police officer ten days after turning seventeen. The State of Louisiana indicted Montgomery for capital murder, but in 1966, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction, a new trial occurred, and Montgomery was sentenced to life imprisonment without an opportunity for parole.
In 2012, the U. S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment forbids states to enforce sentencing schemes requiring life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Montgomery now petitions for Louisiana to overturn his sentence, stating that because he was a juvenile and because of the decision in Miller, he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing with the possibility of parole. The district court denied his motion and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his writ application.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide two issues: “(1) Whether Miller v. Alabama adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison; and (2) whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to this Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama.” The Court held oral argument on October 13, 2015. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans’s College of Law provided a preview of the oral argument here, and an analysis of the oral argument here. On January 25, 2016, the Court ruled 6-3 that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case and that Miller applied retroactively. Professor Leslie Shoebotham provided an analysis of the Court’s decision here.
Timothy Lee Hurst was sentenced to death for the murder of his co-worker at a Popeye’s restaurant. The Florida Supreme Court rejected Hurst’s appeal on the grounds that Ring v. Arizona does not apply to death sentences. Ring held that the jury, not the judge, makes factual findings about aggravating circumstances in the death penalty context.
The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. The Court held oral argument on October 13, 2015. Professor David Dow of the University of Houston Law Center provided commentary here. On January 12, 2016, the Court ruled 8-1 that Florida’s death sentencing scheme violated the Eighth Amendment because of Ring.
Robins filed suit against Spokeo, Inc. for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by publishing false information about his economic status on its website. However, because Robins failed to allege that he experienced any “actual or imminent harm” as result of Spokeo’s conduct, the district court dismissed his complaint in part for lack of standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. In an amended complaint, Robins claimed that he had suffered the loss of potential employment because Spokeo’s website portrayed him as wealthier than he was. Although the district court initially denied Spokeo’s subsequent motion to dismiss, upon reconsideration it again dismissed Robins’ claims for lack of standing due to failure to allege sufficient injury.
Robins appealed, arguing that the district court could not reconsider its previous decision and that he had sufficiently alleged an injury in fact to qualify for Article III standing. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the district court was permitted to reconsider its ruling, it reversed, finding that the allegation of a violation of a statutory right is sufficient injury to qualify for standing.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert on the issue of whether Congress may authorize a cause of action based on a violation of a federal statute and therefore confer Article III standing on a plaintiff who has not suffered concrete harm. Oral argument was held on November 2, 2015. Professor Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine school of law provided commentary here. In a 6-2 decision on May 16 2016, the Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to complete the Article III standing analysis. Professor Chemerinsky commented on the case in this podcast.
In 1986 at eighteen years of age, African-American Timothy Foster was charged with murdering Queen White, an elderly white woman. During his trial, the prosecution used peremptory strikes against all four qualified black jurors. The defense objected to the strikes based on the rule in Batson v. Kentucky, prohibiting peremptory strikes solely based on a prospective juror’s race. The trial court held that the prosecution met its burden for overcoming Batson, and allowed the strikes to stand. An all-white jury convicted Foster for murder and imposed the death penalty. All of Foster’s appeals resulted in the courts upholding the trial court’s verdict.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide, “Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.” The Court held oral argument on November 2, 2015. Professor Griffin provided commentary here. The Court ruled 7-1 on May 23, 2016 that a Batson violation had occurred.
Jorge Luna Torres, a citizen of the Dominican Republic and a lawful permanent resident of the United States, was convicted under a New York state arson statute in 1999. In 2007, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) charged Torres with inadmissibility because he was an alien and charged with a crime involving moral turpitude. Torres applied for a cancellation and removal of the order, but the judge held that Torres was removable because he was convicted of an aggravated felony.
Previously, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that a conviction under the New York arson statute constituted an aggravated felony. Torres appealed to the BIA and the BIA dismissed his case. Torres then appealed to the Second Circuit. Prior to it being argued before the Second Circuit, the Third Circuit vacated the BIA’s policy and held that the New York statute no longer constituted an aggravated felony because the statute did not include the federal statute’s interstate commerce element. However, the Second Circuit still upheld Torres’s removal order. With the Third Circuit and Second Circuit’s decisions, there is now a 6-1 circuit split concerning the issue.
The Court will decide, “Whether a state offense constitutes an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43), on the ground that the state offense is ‘described in’ a specified federal statute, where the federal statute includes an interstate commerce element that the state offense lacks.” The Court held oral argument on November 3, 2015. Professor Angela Morrison of Texas A&M University’s School of Law provided commentary here. On May 19, 2016, the Court ruled 5-3 that the state offense qualified as an aggravated felony even though it lacked a jurisdictional element. Professor Morrison provided analysis of the opinion here.
In 2010, Avondale Lockhart pled guilty to possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), an offense normally carrying no minimum prison sentence and a ten-year maximum term. However, Section 2252(b)(2) mandates a prison term of at least ten years if the defendant has a prior conviction related to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or a ward.
Lockhart has a prior conviction for sexual abuse that had involved his adult girlfriend, but not a minor or ward. However, the district court convicted Lockhart under the enhanced penalty, sentencing him to a ten-year mandatory minimum term. The Second Circuit affirmed the decision, joining the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits in holding that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” only modifies the abusive sexual conduct requirement, and does not modify the other identified prior convictions.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide, “Whether the mandatory minimum sentence of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2) is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to ‘aggravated sexual abuse’ or ‘sexual abuse,’ even though the conviction did not ‘involv[e] a minor or ward,’ an issue that divides the federal courts of appeals.” The Court held oral argument on November 3, 2015, and Professor Hamilton provided commentary here. On March 1, 2016, the Court ruled 6-2 that the limiting phrase “involving a minor or ward” applies only to the phrase “abusive sexual conduct.”
Plaintiffs are employees at one of Tyson’s pork-processing plants who are alleging that they are entitled to overtime compensation and damages due to Tyson’s failure to fully compensate them for part of their work duties. The district court certified the class of employees based on the existence of common questions of whether the activities at question were compensable work, although the length spent on the activities varied by employee. The court allowed the class to present evidence as to how each member was related to an average employee and then certified the class pursuant to this evidence. The jury found in favor of the certified class and Tyson appealed. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision.
The circuits are split as to whether a class may be certified where members seek to obtain an aggregate award by defining their commonality through a statistically average class member. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide, “(1) Whether differences among individual class members may be ignored and a class action certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified under the Fair Labor Standards Act, where liability and damages will be determined with statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to the average observed in a sample; and (2) whether a class action may be certified or maintained under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified or maintained under the Fair Labor Standards Act, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.” The Court held oral argument on November 10, 2015. Professor Angela Morrison of Texas A&M University’s School of Law provided commentary here. On March 22, 2016, the Court ruled 6-2 that the class was properly certified and upheld the jury verdict. Professor Angela Morrison provided analysis of the opinion here.
Green, a postmaster in Englewood, Colorado, applied for a postmaster position in Boulder, Colorado in 2008, but did not receive the position. Green filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC and settled the claim. During the subsequent year, Green was subject to investigations and threatened with criminal prosecution by the Postal Service. Consequently, Green filed another formal EEOC charge, alleging retaliation for his prior EEOC activity. Green ultimately signed an agreement that he would immediately give up his position and either retire or accept a much lower paying position. Green retired and again filed EEOC charges. After the EEOC dismissed the charges, Greed sued in district court for multiple claims, including constructive discharge. The district court dismissed Green’s constructive discharge claim as time-barred because he had not contacted the EEOC within 45 days of signing the agreement, which was the last allegedly discriminatory act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issue of whether, under federal employment discrimination law, the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begins to run when an employee resigns, as five circuits have held, or at the time of an employer’s last allegedly discriminatory act giving rise to the resignation, as three other circuits have held. Oral argument was held on November 30, 2015. Professor Angela Morrison of Texas A&M University’s School of Law provided commentary here.
Gilbert Hyatt moved to Nevada from California in October 1991. He represented his residence change to the State of California by filing a part-year resident income-tax return in California for 1991, shortly before he received substantial licensing fees. However, the California Franchise Tax Board (CFTB) classified Hyatt as a California resident until April 1992, and issued notices of proposed assessments and imposed substantial civil fraud penalties.
Hyatt filed suit against CFTB in Nevada, arguing that CFTB committed negligence and intentional torts during his audit. CFTB asserted that the Nevada state court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because full faith and credit mandated that the court apply California law, immunizing CFTB from the lawsuit. However, the Nevada Supreme Court allowed the intentional tort issues to proceed, holding that allowing CFTB to be immune from trial would counter Nevada’s interest in protecting its citizens from injurious torts and bad faith acts committed by neighboring states.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issues of: “(1) Whether Nevada may refuse to extend to sister States haled into Nevada courts the same immunities Nevada enjoys in those courts; and (2) whether Nevada v. Hall, 440 U.S. 410 (1979), which permits a sovereign State to be haled into the courts of another State without its consent, should be overruled.” The Court held oral argument on December 7, 2015. Professor Jeffrey Stempel of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law provided a two-part commentary here and here. On April 19, 2016, the Court ruled 4-4 that it was equally divided whether Hall should be overruled and 6-2 that the Constitution does not permit Nevada to apply a rule of Nevada law that awards damages against California that are greater than it could award Nevada in similar circumstances. Professor Stempel provided analysis of the opinion here.
In 2010, the Texas state legislature passed a redistricting plan pursuant to findings from the 2010 federal census. A three-judge panel of the federal district court found that a substantial claim existed that this redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act. The panel therefore issued an interim plan for the 2012 primary elections that was subsequently adopted and signed into law.
Plaintiffs and Texas registered voters Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenniger sued under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the adopted plan did not adhere to the “one person, one vote” principle because the districts were apportioned based on total population rather than registered voter population. Plaintiffs claim that while the new districts are relatively equal in terms of total population, they vary wildly in relation to total voter population. The district court found that Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence allows total population to be the basis for district apportionment and consequently dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issue “Whether the three-judge district court correctly held that the ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle under the Equal Protection Clause allows States to use total population, and does not require States to use voter population, when apportioning state legislative districts.” Oral argument was held on December 8, 2015. Janai Nelson, the Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, provided commentary about the argument here. On April 4, 2016, the Court ruled unanimously that a a state or locality may draw its legislative districts based on total population. Janai Nelson provided commentary on the opinion here.
The Supreme Court previously addressed this issue in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (“Fisher I”), where the Court held that traditional strict scrutiny applies when a party challenges a university’s use of racial preferences in its admissions process. In Fisher I, the Fifth Circuit originally deferred to the University of Texas in its practices, but the Supreme Court vacated the ruling and remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether the University offered sufficient evidence to meet the strict scrutiny standard.
Petitioners argue that the Fifth Circuit has again failed to apply strict scrutiny to the University’s admissions process, and that the Circuit continued to only apply rational basis. Therefore, the Supreme Court will reexamine the Fifth Circuit’s decision in light of the Court’s Equal Protection precedent.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide “Whether the Fifth Circuit’s re-endorsement of the University of Texas at Austin’s use of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions decisions can be sustained under this Court’s decisions interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, including Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.” Oral argument was held on December 9, 2015. Professor Ruben Garcia of UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law provided commentary here.
Under California law, unions may exclusively represent public school employees for bargaining purposes. Unions that do this may establish an “agency shop” arrangement, in which a school district may require a public school employee to either join the union or pay the equivalent of dues to the union in the form of a “fair share service fee.”
Pursuant to the First Amendment, unions may not compel nonmembers to support activities that are not exclusively devoted to negotiations, contract administration, and other duties as an exclusive bargaining representative. Thus, unions are required to send notices to all nonmembers laying out the breakdown of the chargeable and nonchargeable portions of the fee. To avoid paying for the nonchargeable portion of the fee, a nonmember must affirmatively opt out each year. Petitioners, a group of public school employees, argued that the agency shop arrangement and the opt out requirement violate the First Amendment. The district court held that precedent upholding those practices precluded its judgment on the issue. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issues of: (1) Whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment; and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech. Oral argument was held on January 11, 2016. Professor Ruben Garcia of UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law provided commentary here. On March 29, 2016, the Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment by a divided 4-4 vote. Professor Garcia commented on the dodged-bullet remand here.
Texas abortion providers from McAllen and El Paso sued State of Texas officials seeking relief against the enforcement of amendments to Texas’s abortions laws. Specifically, in 2013, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2 (H.B. 2), requiring any physician performing an abortion to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion was performed. Additionally, H.B. 2 required that all Texas abortion clinics comply with standards for ambulatory surgical centers. The Texas abortion providers argue that H.B. 2 denies equal protection, unlawfully delegated lawmaking authority, and constituted arbitrary and unreasonable state action.
The district court dismissed the claims, but granted declaratory and injunctive relief against these provisions’ enforcement. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, but partially reversed the injunctions, stating that the Texas abortion providers failed to show that the provisions from H.B. 2 placed a substantial burden on women seeking an abortion.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issues of: “(1) Whether, when applying the ‘undue burden’ standard of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a court errs by refusing to consider whether and to what extent laws that restrict abortion for the stated purpose of promoting health actually serve the government’s interest in promoting health; and (2) whether the Fifth Circuit erred in concluding that this standard permits Texas to enforce, in nearly all circumstances, laws that would cause a significant reduction in the availability of abortion services while failing to advance the State’s interest in promoting health – or any other valid interest.” Oral argument was held on March 2, 2016. Professor Griffin previewed the oral argument here. Professor Mary Ziegler of the Florida State University College of Law provided commentary here.
The Affordable Care Act includes an exemption from the contraception coverage mandate for the group health plans of religious employers. The exemption does not mean that such services are not covered, but that they are not covered through a cost-sharing mechanism.
Petitioners are multiple religious organizations that argue the ACA violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Congress enacted in 1993, because the mandate requires these organizations to “facilitate” the provision of insurance coverage for contraceptive services that they oppose on religious grounds. In several separate cases, the relevant district courts issued injunctions against the government, and the relevant Courts of Appeals reversed. The appellate courts held that the religious organizations were unable to show that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened the exercise of their religious freedom.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issue of whether the contraception coverage mandate and its “accommodation” violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by forcing religious nonprofits to act in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, when the government has not proven that this compulsion is the least restrictive means of advancing any compelling interest. Oral argument was held on March 23, 2016. Professor Griffin provided commentary about the cases here and here and a preview here. Professor Hamilton provided commentary on the oral argument here. Professors Griffin and Hamilton filed amicus briefs in the case, which are available here. On May 16, 2016, the Court remanded the cases in the hopes that the parties would agree to a compromise. Professor Griffin provided commentary here.
CRST is a long-haul trucking company that pairs two drivers together during trips in order to maximize the amount of road driven. Female employees working for CRST alleged a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII for actions of paired male supervisors during these trips. Specifically, female employees working in the New-Driver Training Program were constantly sexually harassed with offensive comments, and, during the Training Program, some women were forced to have sexual relations with the supervising trucking employee.
The district court granted summary judgment to CRST and dismissed the action. CRST moved for attorneys’ fees after the dismissal, which the district court granted. The EEOC appealed the dismissal, and the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded some of the plaintiffs’ claims due to genuine issues of material fact, and therefore vacated the award of attorneys’ fees
The EEOC and CRST settled the case, but the issue remained as to awarding attorneys’ fees. The district court awarded attorneys’ fees to CRST, and the EEOC appealed. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s award.
The Supreme Court granted cert. on the question: “Whether a dismissal of a Title VII case, based on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s total failure to satisfy its pre-suit investigation, reasonable cause, and conciliation obligations, can form the basis of a attorney’s fee award to the defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k).” Oral argument was held on March 28, 2016. Professor Angela Morrison of Texas A&M University’s School of Law provided commentary here. The Court ruled unanimously on May 19, 2016 a favorable ruling on the merits is not a predicate to receovery. Professor Morrison provided analysis of the opinion here.
Danny Birchfield drove into a ditch on October 10, 2013, in Morton County, North Dakota. After arriving to the scene, a highway patrol officer administered field sobriety tests, believing Birchfield was intoxicated. Birchfield failed the tests. The officer placed Birchfield under arrest and read him the implied consent advisory; Birchfield refused to consent to a chemical test.
Birchfield was charged with a misdemeanor for refusing to submit to the chemical test. He argued that the state statute requiring the chemical test violates his Fourth Amendment rights and the similar state law counterpart. The district court held that Birchfield’s rights were not violated. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on the issue of: “Whether, in the absence of a warrant, a state may make it a crime for a person to refuse to take a chemical test to detect the presence of alcohol in the person’s blood.” Oral argument was held on April 20, 2016. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans’s College of Law provide a preview of the case here and a review of the oral argument here.
Cases We’re Following, Not Yet Scheduled for Oral Argument: