Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

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Petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal and his state habeas petition was also unsuccessful. Through state habeas counsel, Petitioner filed a motion for the appointment of counsel, under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3599(a)(2), to assist him in preparing a petition for federal habeas relief. Petitioner identified specific attorneys he wanted to represent him. The district court granted Petitioner's motion for counsel, but appointed an attorney other than those requested by Petitioner. Petitioner subsequently filed a motion under Sec. 3599(a)(2), seeking to substitute his court-appoitned counsel. The district court rejected Petitioner's request, holding he had not offered a sufficient basis for substituting counsel because the court-appointed conflict-free counsel was competent to handle death-penalty matters. Petitioner appealed the court's interlocutory order.On appeal, the Fifth Circuit dismissed Petitioner's appeal. The court noted that it routinely reviews challenges to the denial of a motion to substitute counsel on appeal from a final judgment. Thus, the judgment petitioner challenged did not trigger the court's jurisdiction under the collateral-order doctrine. View "Tracy v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged for the third time, the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In previous trips before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, PEDF challenged several 2009-2025 budgetary provisions enacted challenging the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In the first two cases, PEDF challenged several 2009-2015 budgetary provisions enacted in the wake of dramatic increases in oil and gas revenue resulting from Marcellus Shale exploration in Pennsylvania. Applying trust principles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the budgetary provisions violated Section 27 by utilizing the oil and gas revenue for non-trust purposes via transfers to the General Fund. PEDF v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017) (“PEDF II”); PEDF v. Commonwealth, 255 A.3d 289 (Pa. 2021) (“PEDF V”). The underlying case here was one for a declaratory judgment, and named the Commonwealth and Governor as parties. Here, PEDF raised numerous constitutional challenges to provisions of the General Appropriations Act of 2017 and 2018, as well as the 2017 Fiscal Code amendments, all of which were enacted after the Supreme Court’s decision in PEDF II. After review , the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court, whilst rejecting that court;s analysis derived from PEDF III. View "PA Enviro Defense Fdn, Aplt. v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law

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S.S. was a student in the Cobb County School District. S.S.’s parents challenged the adequacy of the individualized educational plans. S.S.’s parents fought the school district for two years and eventually filed an administrative complaint requesting a due process hearing under the Act with the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings. In the administrative complaint, S.S. alleged that the school district failed to provide her with a free and appropriate public education under the Act. The school district moved for summary determination of the administrative complaint. S.S. challenged the administrative law judge’s decision in the Northern District of Georgia.The district court denied the school district’s motion for summary judgment and remanded to the administrative law judge for a due process hearing. The school district appealed the district court’s remand order.   The DC Circuit concluded that remand orders from district courts to administrative agencies for further proceedings under the Act are not final and appealable under section 1291. And because the district court’s remand order was not final and appealable, the court wrote it lacks appellate jurisdiction to review it. Accordingly, the court dismissed the school district’s appeal. View "S.S. v. Cobb County School District" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jerry Vang was convicted by jury for multiple crimes against two different victims, including: kidnapping first degree felony murder with a special circumstance, infliction of corporal injury on a cohabitant, making criminal threats with firearm allegations, and firearms possession by a felon. Defendant had a long history of domestic violence, had an argument with his wife. After she fled in her car, defendant followed, eventually forced her to stop, and coerced her (through force or fear) into his vehicle. As defendant was driving away, his wife opened the door and jumped from the moving vehicle, resulting in her death. Defendant argued the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution to proceed on a legally inadequate theory of felony murder. He contends that under the current felony-murder rule, as amended by Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), he could be liable for felony murder only if he was proven to be the “actual killer.” Because the evidence showed that his wife jumped from the vehicle of her own volition, defendant contends he was not the actual killer and therefore his conviction for first degree felony murder with a special circumstance rested on a legally invalid theory. To this, the Court of Appeal agreed, and reversed that conviction as to first degree felony murder. The judgment and convictions were affirmed in all other respects. View "California v. Vang" on Justia Law

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The California Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal and later summarily rejected “on the merits” Petitioner’s state habeas petition. Petitioner argued primarily that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).Petitioner argued that the Ninth Circuit should review his Strickland claims de novo, because the California Supreme Court’s four-sentence denial of his claims “on the merits,” without issuing an order to show cause, signifies that the court concluded only that his petition did not state a prima facie case for relief such that there is no “adjudication on the merits” to which this court owes deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).The Ninth Circuit disagreed, citing Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170 (2011), in which the Supreme Court afforded AEDPA deference to the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of a habeas petition raising a Strickland claim. The court, therefore, applied the deferential AEDPA standard, asking whether the denial of Petitioner’s claims “involved an unreasonable application of” Strickland.The court held, however, under AEDPA's highly deferential standard of review, that the California Supreme Court could reasonably have concluded that Petitioner’s claim fails under the second prong of Strickland. The court wrote that comparing the mitigation evidence that was offered with what would have been offered but for Petitioner’s trial attorney’s alleged errors, the state court could reasonably have decided that there was not a substantial likelihood that the jury would have returned a different sentence if the attorney had not performed deficiently. View "RICHARD MONTIEL V. KEVIN CHAPPELL" on Justia Law

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The City of Phoenix’s Police Department concluded that a Sergeant with the Department violated a Department policy by posting content to his personal Facebook profile that denigrated Muslims and Islam. When the Department took steps to discipline the Sergeant, he sued, alleging that the Department was retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s action. In analyzing the content, form and context of the Sergeant’s posts, the court concluded that the posts qualified as speech on matters of public concern. While it was true that each of the Sergeant’s posts expressed hostility toward, and sought to denigrate or mock, major religious faith and its adherents, the Supreme Court has made clear that the inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question of whether it deals with a matter of public concern.The court, therefore, reversed the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiffs’ First Amendment retaliation claim and his related claim under the Arizona Constitution. The court held that the district court properly rejected Plaintiffs’ facial overbreadth challenge to certain provisions of the Department’s social media policy, except as to the clauses prohibiting social media activity that (1) would cause embarrassment to or discredit the Department, or (2) divulge any information gained while in the performance of official duties, as set forth in section 3.27.9B.(7) of the policy. The court affirmed the district court’s rejection of Plaintiffs’ facial vagueness challenge to the same provisions discussed above and their municipal liability claim. View "JUAN HERNANDEZ V. CITY OF PHOENIX" on Justia Law

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Defendants Orlando Cortez-Nieto and Jesus Cervantes-Aguilar were convicted by a jury of four methamphetamine offenses committed within 1,000 feet of a playground. After their convictions Defendants moved for judgment of acquittal. The district court granted the motions in part, setting aside the convictions on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that any of the offenses of conviction occurred within 1,000 feet of a playground, but entering judgments of conviction on lesser-included offenses (the four offenses without the proximity element). In their consolidated appeal, Defendants argued: (1) that a jury instruction stating that the jury should not consider the guilt of any persons other than Defendants improperly precluded the jury from considering that two government witnesses were motivated to lie about Defendants to reduce or eliminate their own guilt, and the prosecutor improperly magnified this error by explicitly arguing that the jurors could not consider the witnesses’ guilt in assessing their credibility; (2) the district court should not have imposed judgments of conviction on the lesser-included offenses after determining that the original charges had not been proved because the jury had not been instructed on the lesser-included offenses; and (3) remand was necessary to correct a clerical error in the judgment forms. The Tenth Circuit determined only that the clerical error warranted correction. The Court affirmed the district court in all other respects. View "United States v. Cortez-Nieto" on Justia Law

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The Seventh Circuit dismissed this interlocutory appeal from a district court order denying qualified immunity to a law enforcement officer because of disputed facts, holding that because Defendant did not bring a purely legal argument that did not depend on disputed facts, this Court lacked jurisdiction.Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the City of Logansport and Defendant, alleging violations of his Fourteenth Amendment rights stemming from certain incidents involving the alleged use of excessive force. Defendant sought summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity based on a factual dispute precluding the grant of qualified immunity on summary judgment. Defendant appealed. The Seventh District dismissed the appeal, holding that this Court lacked jurisdiction to hear this appeal. View "Stewardson v. Biggs" on Justia Law

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In this case involving the fifty-year-old decision of a federal district court entering the 1972 "Shakman decree" precluding the Governor of Illinois and units of local government from conditioning governmental employment on political patronage the Seventh Circuit held that the power to hire, fire, and establish accompanying policies needs to return to the people of Illinois and the Governor they elected.In 2019, the Clerk of Cook County filed a motion to vacate the Shakman decree. The magistrate judge denied the motion, and the Clerk appealed. The Seventh Circuit court affirmed. Governor J.B. Pritzker then moved under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(5) to vacate the decree, claiming that the State had satisfied the requirements of the decree and that ongoing enforcement of the decree offended principles of federalism. The district court denied the motion. The Seventh District reversed and remanded with instructions to vacate the 1972 consent decree as it applied to the Illinois Governor, holding that Governor Pritzker had satisfied the objectives of the decree. View "Shakman v. Pritzker" on Justia Law

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Appellant was indicted for transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, attempted production of child pornography, and commission of a felony involving a minor by a person required to register as a sex offender. After a bifurcated jury and bench trial, Appellant was convicted on all counts.   On appeal, Appellant brings three challenges to his convictions. First, he contends that the district court abused its discretion by admitting the government’s expert testimony concerning the approximate locations of Appellant’s and the transported minor’s cell phones on the night of their meeting. Second, Appellant argues that the government should have been required to prove not just that he transported a minor to engage in sexual activity, but that he knew she was underage. Third, Appellant challenges the constitutionality of the Act that required him to register as a sex offender.   The DC Circuit affirmed Appellant’s convictions. The court held that the district court, in this case, did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert’s testimony under Rule 702. The court explained that the district court justifiably concluded that concerns about the specific distances the expert drove should be considered by the jury in assessing the weight of the expert’s testimony and not by the court in its threshold admissibility determination. Further, the court explained that in light of the probative value of the expert’s testimony and the deference the Circuit Court affords district courts in making determinations under Rule 403, it cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the jury to hear from the expert. View "USA v. Charles Morgan, Jr." on Justia Law