Here’s What You Missed In All Things SCOTUS
To say the current Supreme Court session came to close in a phenomenal fashion wouldn’t be hyperbole; reproductive rights supporters were greeted with their biggest victory in a generation this week.
But as fervid Court watchers and reporters anxiously awaited the often harrowing month-long string of action on abortion, affirmative action, immigration, the death penalty, and gun control, some important moments have fallen a bit by the collective wayside, despite them being crucial issues that deeply affect our lives.
Here are a few things you may have missed and some follow-up action!
Following the Whole Woman’s v Hellerstedt opinion from Justice Stephen Breyer reaffirming precedent and clarifying the legal definition of what constitutes an “undue burden” on a person’s access to abortion care, the dominoes have begun to fall and the sound is sweet. Hours after the Whole Woman’s Health decision came down, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange announced that he was dropping his appeal of the federal court ruling, which declared the “Women’s Health and Safety Act” admitting privileges requirement was unconstitutional.
“While I disagree with the high court’s decision, there is no good faith argument that Alabama’s law remains constitutional in light of the Supreme Court ruling,” Strange said in a statement.
Then — as predicted here on Monday — The Court declined to hear Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, effectively creating a win for the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The clinic will now remain open despite the best efforts of Gov. Phil Bryant, who two years ago said: “My goal is to end abortion in Mississippi.” Also on Tuesday, The Court declined to hear a nearly identical attempt by Wisconsin to overturn a lower court decision blocking that state’s admitting privileges law.
Voisine v. United States — Guns & Domestic Violence
In a victory for domestic violence survivors and advocates, Justice Elena Kagan penned the straightforward 6–2 majority opinion declaring that even convictions for misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence are a constitutionally sound reason to deny a citizen a gun license. (Thomas and Sotomayor dissented.)
One of the plaintiffs, Stephen L. Voisine, was hardly a sympathetic figure. Voisine amassed 14 convictions for assault and domestic violence spanning 28 years; he was arrested in 2009 for possessing a gun illegally when officers followed a tip that he had shot and killed a bald eagle. (Long live ‘Murica!) Plaintiff number two, William E. Armstrong, received one of his multiple domestic violence convictions after flying off the handle because his wife had removed her wedding ring — to bake cookies.
The men claim that they had behaved “recklessly,” but not “intentionally” — the equivalent delineation between manslaughter and intentional homicide — and therefore should not have had their Second Amendment rights revoked. The tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) of Kagan’s opinion is: We don’t care whether or not you intended to injure your partners repeatedly because reckless behavior shouldn’t be rewarded with a gun.
Utah v. Strieff — Warrantless Searches
SCOTUSblog contributor Orin Kerr calls this 5–3 decision “a significant win for the police.” Justice Clarence Thomas penned the majority opinion (Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented) weakening protections against searches during unlawful police stops. The Court ruled that the discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant allows officers to use evidence found during such illegal stops.
Kerr boiled down the ramifications of Utah:
“I think Justice Kagan is right in her dissent that the majority’s approach practically invites police officers to make illegal stops. If you’re a police officer and you want to search a suspect to help investigate a crime, you just need to stop the suspect and ask for ID to see if he has an outstanding warrant…The police academies won’t teach officers to violate the law, of course. At the margins, though, officers will be encouraged to treat almost anything as reasonable suspicion to justify a stop. If in doubt, make the stop.”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent (page 14 of the opinion) in this case has made headlines and it’s worth reading in its entirety; she deftly quotes W.E.B. Du Bois and Ta-Nehisi Coates. She unequivocally refutes Justice Thomas’s claims that the police officer’s “errors in judgment hardly rise to a purposeful or flagrant violation of Streiff’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
She provides her own scathing, perfect tl;dr: “The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.”
“Outstanding warrants are surprisingly common,” the dissent continues. “When a person with a traffic ticket misses a fine payment or court appearance, a court will issue a warrant…The States and Federal Government maintain databases with over 7.8 million outstanding warrants, the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses.”
All three of The Court’s women participated in the dissents as authors or joining with a colleague. But it was Sotomayor practically declaring “Black Lives Matter!” that has earned her renewed appreciation and respect:
“The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner,” she wrote. “But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionately victims of this type of scrutiny. For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”
McDonnell v. United States — Public Corruption
The conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell for receiving gifts, money, and loans from the CEO of a Virginia-based company in exchange for “official acts” (aka bribery) was unanimously vacated. According to SCOTUSblog’s expert Lyle Denniston, McDonnell could possibly be retried, but the decision will make it “much harder for federal prosecutors to prove charges of public corruption against elected officials.”
The Court took the time to denounce the behavior of the former governor and his wife, but essentially labeled it business as usual and asked the lower courts to reevaluate the strength of their evidence before deciding to try him again. Chief Justice Roberts read from the opinion, saying that this was not a case of “tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” but “with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
The Court will be back in session in October — though how much business will be accomplished during that session is up for debate. The justices seem to be anticipating that the GOP leadership will continue to refuse to hold confirmation hearings on the president’s nominee Merrick Garland, having taken fewer cases than is typical according to the experts at SCOTUSblog.
In light of the 4–4 split on United States v. Texas leaving in place the injunction on the president’s “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents” (DAPA) executive order, the most interesting case for the next term could be Jennings v. Rodriguez. That case is born out of a class action lawsuit brought by immigrants being detained by the Department of Homeland Security in California. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that immigrants have the right to a regular review of their detention — a decision the Obama administration is appealing because the ruling would undermine border patrol and detention policy.
Should the vacancy linger into the next president’s administration, Jennings could easily be heard before a ninth, likely tie-breaking justice is seated. Also, both presumed presidential nominees are hawks on terrorism. This surfaces the possibility that this case could address how immigrants with supposed ties to terrorism should be released if authorities face challenges deporting them. The outcome will be relevant well beyond the end of Obama’s term in office.
This concludes The Establishment’s Supreme Court decision season coverage. Read the introduction to the series along with our reporting on SCOTUS action concerning assault weapons, affirmative action, immigration, and abortion.