Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

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The State petitioned to commit Nicholas Needham California under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA). Preparing for trial on the petition, the district attorney retained a psychological expert to evaluate Needham and testify at trial that he qualified as an SVP. Needham moved to exclude the expert’s testimony at trial, but the trial court denied his motion. Needham appealed, seeking a declaration that the SVPA did not permit the State to call a privately retained expert to testify at trial. The Court of Appeal granted relief: “[G]iven the obvious dangers to essential liberty interests inherent in the SVPA, it must be carefully implemented and applied only where there is a high degree of certainty that it is warranted.” The Court found the statutory scheme deliberately limited when an SVP petition could be filed and brought to trial, as well as the evidence available to the prosecution. In light of this system, the Court concluded the expert-witness provisions of the Civil Discovery Act did not apply and that the State had no right to retain an expert witness to testify at trial. View "Needham v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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The First Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court concluding that the retroactivity rule from two Seventh Circuit opinions - United States v. Leach, 639 F.3d 769 (7th Cir. 2011), and Vasqez v. Foxx, 895 F.3d 515 (7th Cir. 2018) - controlled and that, therefore, a disputed ordinance applied prospectively, holding that the ordinance was retroactive.The ordinance at issue was passed by the Village of Hartland, Wisconsin and placed a moratorium against any new sex offenders residing there either temporarily or permanently. Plaintiff, a registered sex offender, brought this action against the Village, alleging that the ordinance violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of U.S. Const. art. I, 10. Under the Leach-Vasquez rule, a law is not retroactive and cannot violate the Ex Post Facto Clause if it applies "only to conduct occurring after its enactment." The district court only considered the retroactivity prong of the two-part analysis because, under Leach-Vasquez, the ordinance operated only prospectively. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case, holding (1) this Court overturns the Leach-Vasquez rule governing the retroactivity inquiry of the Ex Post Facto Clause, and instead, the critical question is whether the law attaches new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment; and (2) the subject ordinance applies retroactively. View "Koch v. Village of Hartland" on Justia Law

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Appellant pleaded guilty to one charge of being a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2), but reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of his vehicle after officers visually observed a glass stem pipe in the console of his car. Appellant now makes that appeal, arguing the stem pipe was insufficient to trigger the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches.   In finding neither clear factual error nor an error of law in the district court’s reasoning the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that for the plain view exception to apply, the government must show that: “(1) the officer [was] lawfully in a place from which the object [could] be plainly viewed; (2) the officer ha[d] a lawful right of access to the object itself; and (3) the object’s incriminating character [wa]s immediately apparent.” United States v. Jackson, 131 F.3d 1105 (4th Cir. 1997).   Here, even though a glass stem pipe may be put to innocent uses—uses that continue to expand and should be taken into consideration—here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and in its totality, the plain view exception applies, and the search of the vehicle was lawful. View "US v. Ricky Runner" on Justia Law

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Defendant believes that the statute criminalizing reentry into this country after removal violates his equal-protection rights. See 8 U.S.C. Section 1326(a), (b). He did not raise this issue before the district court. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and denied the pending motion for judicial notice.   The court explained that even constitutional arguments can be forfeited. Forfeiture occurs when a party has an argument available but fails to assert it in time. The court wrote that failure to raise an equal-protection challenge before the district court is a classic example of forfeiture. During the six months before he pleaded guilty, Defendant filed more than a dozen motions raising all sorts of issues, but not one of them questioned the constitutionality of the illegal-reentry statute or mentioned equal protection. Had he done so, the district court would have had an opportunity to potentially correct or avoid the alleged] mistake in the first place.   The court explained that under these circumstances, Defendant’s constitutional argument receives, at most, plain-error review. Here, to succeed, Defendant’ had to show, among other things, that there was a clear or obvious error under current law. In this case, there is one district court case on his side, see Carillo-Lopez, 555 F. Supp. 3d at 1001, but at most it shows that the issue is subject to reasonable dispute. The court explained that picking one side of a reasonable dispute cannot be clearly or obviously wrong. View "United States v. Salvador Nunez-Hernandez" on Justia Law

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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