Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Based on alleged work-related injuries, Nelson, a North Dakota resident, and Tyrrell, the administrator of a South Dakota estate, brought Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, suits against BNSF Railroad. Neither injury occurred in Montana. Neither incorporated nor headquartered there, BNSF maintains less than five percent of its workforce and about six percent of its total track mileage in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court held that Montana courts could exercise general personal jurisdiction over BNSF because the railroad “d[id] business” in the state within the meaning of 45 U.S.C. 56. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Section 56 does not address personal jurisdiction over railroads but is only a venue prescription. The Montana courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction did not comport with the Due Process Clause. Only the propriety of general personal jurisdiction was at issue because neither plaintiff alleged injury from work in or related to Montana. A state court may exercise general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations when their “affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.” The “paradigm” forums in which a corporate defendant is “at home” are its place of incorporation and its principal place of business. In an “exceptional case,” a corporate defendant’s operations in another forum “may be so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State,” but that constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued. View "BNSF Railroad Co. v. Tyrrell" on Justia Law

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had information that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While others searched the main house, deputies searched the property. Unbeknownst to the deputies, Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived. Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the shack's door. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. The deputies shot the men multiple times. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the court awarded nominal damages on warrantless entry and knock-and-announce claims. The court found the use of force reasonable, but cited a Ninth Circuit rule, which makes an otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation. The Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim; that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law; and that the provocation rule applied. The Supreme Court vacated. There is a settled, exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment: “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” The provocation rule instructs courts to look back to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force, mistakenly and unnecessarily conflating distinct Fourth Amendment claims that should be analyzed separately. If plaintiffs cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry. View "County of Los Angeles v. Mendez" on Justia Law

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North Carolina redrew Congressional Districts 1 and 12 after the 2010 census. Previously, neither district had a majority black voting-age population (BVAP), but both consistently elected candidates preferred by most African-American voters. The state needed to add 100,000 people to District 1 to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle; it took most of them from heavily black areas of Durham—increasing the district’s BVAP from 48.6% to 52.7%. District 12’s BVAP increased from 43.8% to 50.7%. State courts upheld the redistricting. The district court found it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court affirmed. Although the state court’s decision is relevant, the district court properly concluded that race furnished the predominant rationale for District 1’s redesign and that compliance with the Voting Rights Act could not justify that consideration of race, which subordinated other criteria. The redistricting cannot withstand strict scrutiny under the “Gingles” factors. For nearly 20 years, African-Americans made up less than a majority of District 1’s voters, but their preferred candidates scored victories. District 1 was a “crossover” district, in which members of the majority help a “large enough” minority to elect its candidate. History gave the state no reason to think that the Act required it to ramp up District 1’s BVAP. The evidence, even without an alternative map, adequately supported the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for District 12’s reconfiguration. “By slimming the district and adding a couple of knobs to its snakelike body, North Carolina added 35,000 African-Americans and subtracted 50,000 whites, turning District 12 into a majority-minority district,” indicating a determination to concentrate black voters. View "Cooper v. Harris" on Justia Law

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Nelson, convicted of felonies and misdemeanors arising from the alleged abuse of her children, was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees, and restitution. Nelson’s conviction was reversed; on retrial, she was acquitted. Madden was also convicted by a Colorado jury. The court imposed a prison sentence and ordered him to pay $4,413.00 in costs, fees, and restitution. Madden’s convictions were reversed and vacated; the state did not appeal or retry the case. The Colorado Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from Nelson’s inmate account between her conviction and acquittal. Madden paid the state $1,977.75 after his conviction. Once their convictions were invalidated, they sought refunds. The Colorado Supreme Court reasoned that Colorado’s Exoneration Act provided the exclusive authority for refunds and that neither petitioner had filed a claim under that Act; the court also upheld the constitutionality of the Act, which permits Colorado to retain conviction-related assessments until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The Supreme Court reversed. The Act’s scheme violates the guarantee of due process. Petitioners have an obvious interest in regaining the money. The state may not retain these funds simply because their convictions were in place when the funds were taken; once the convictions were erased, the presumption of innocence was restored. Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, guilty enough for monetary exactions. Colorado’s scheme creates an unacceptable risk of the erroneous deprivation of defendants’ property, conditioning refunds on proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence, while defendants in petitioners’ position are presumed innocent. When the amount sought is not large, the cost of pursuing a claim under the Act would be prohibitive. Colorado has no equitable interest in withholding petitioners’ money. View "Nelson v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Businesses challenged New York General Business Law section 518, which provides that “[n]o seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means,” as violating the First Amendment by regulating how they communicate their prices, and as unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit vacated a judgment in favor of the businesses, reasoning that in the context of singlesticker pricing—where merchants post one price and would like to charge more to customers who pay by credit card—the law required that the sticker price be the same as the price charged to credit card users. In that context, the law regulated a relationship between two prices: conduct, not speech. The Supreme Court vacated, limiting its review to single-sticker pricing. Section 518 regulates speech. It is not a typical price regulation, which simply regulates the amount a store can collect. The law tells merchants nothing about the amount they may collect from a cash or credit card payer, but regulates how sellers may communicate their prices. Section 518 is not vague as applied to the businesses; it bans the single-sticker pricing they wish to employ, and “a plaintiff whose speech is clearly proscribed cannot raise a successful vagueness claim.” View "Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman" on Justia Law

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Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for shooting a clerk during a robbery that occurred when Moore was 20 years old. A state habeas court determined that, under Supreme Court precedent, Moore was intellectually disabled and that his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court consulted the 11th edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities clinical manual (AAIDD–11) and the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and followed the generally accepted intellectual-disability definition, considering: intellectual-functioning deficits, adaptive deficits, and the onset of these deficits while a minor. The court credited six IQ scores, the average of which (70.66) indicated mild intellectual disability. Based on testimony from mental-health professionals, the court found significant adaptive deficits in all three skill sets (conceptual, social, and practical). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) declined the recommendation, concluding that the habeas court should have used standards for assessing intellectual disability contained in AAMR–9 and its requirement that adaptive deficits be “related” to intellectual-functioning deficits. The Supreme Court vacated. While precedent leaves to the states “the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce” the restriction on executing the intellectually disabled, that discretion is not “unfettered,” and must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” When an IQ score is close to, but above, 70, courts must account for the “standard error of measurement.” The CCA overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths—living on the streets, mowing lawns, and playing pool for money—when the medical community focuses on adaptive deficits. The CCA stressed Moore’s improved behavior in prison; clinicians caution against reliance on adaptive strengths developed in controlled settings. The CCA concluded that Moore’s record of academic failure, with a history of childhood abuse and suffering, detracted from a determination that his intellectual and adaptive deficits were related; the medical community counts traumatic experiences as risk factors for intellectual disability. The CCA also departed from clinical practice by requiring Moore to show that his adaptive deficits were not related to “a personality disorder.” View "Moore v. Texas" on Justia Law

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During a traffic stop, officers searched Manuel and found a vitamin bottle containing pills. Suspecting the pills were illegal drugs, officers conducted a field test, which came back negative for any controlled substance. They arrested Manuel. At the police station, an evidence technician tested the pills and got a negative result, but claimed that one pill tested “positive for the probable presence of ecstasy.” An arresting officer reported that, based on his “training and experience,” he “knew the pills to be ecstasy.” Another officer charged Manuel with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Relying exclusively on that complaint, a judge found probable cause to detain Manuel pending trial. The Illinois police laboratory tested the pills and reported that they contained no controlled substances. Manuel spent 48 days in pretrial detention. More than two years after his arrest, but less than two years after his case was dismissed, Manuel filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit against Joliet and the officers. The district court dismissed, holding that the two-year statute of limitations barred his unlawful arrest claim and that pretrial detention following the start of legal process could not give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment when it precedes or when it follows, the start of the legal process. The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person absent probable cause. Where legal process has begun but has done nothing to satisfy the probable-cause requirement, it cannot extinguish a detainee’s Fourth Amendment claim. Because the judge’s determination of probable cause was based solely on fabricated evidence, it did not expunge Manuel’s Fourth Amendment claim. On remand, the Seventh Circuit should determine the claim’s accrual date, unless it finds that the city waived its timeliness argument. View "Manuel v. Joliet" on Justia Law

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A Colorado jury convicted Peña-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Following the jury’s discharge, two jurors told defense counsel that, during deliberations, Juror H.C. had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward Peña-Rodriguez and his alibi witness. Counsel, with court supervision, obtained affidavits from the two jurors describing H.C.'s biased statements. The court acknowledged H.C.’s apparent bias but denied a motion for a new trial, stating that Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations during an inquiry into the validity of the verdict. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed, citing Supreme Court precedent rejecting constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment. The Supreme Court reversed. Where a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way. The Court noted that it has previously indicated that the rule may have exceptions for “juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged” and that racial bias, unlike the behavior in previous cases, implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns that, unaddressed, threaten systemic injury to the administration of justice. Before the no-impeachment bar can be set aside, there must be a threshold showing that a juror made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of deliberations and verdict. The statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. The Court did not address what procedures a court must follow when deciding a motion for a new trial based on juror testimony of racial bias or the appropriate standard for determining when such evidence is sufficient to require that the verdict be set aside. View "Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The court imposed a “career offender” sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1(a), finding that his offense qualified as a “crime of violence” under the residual clause. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his sentence and the denial of post-conviction relief. In the meantime, the Supreme Court held (Johnson v. United States) that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), section 924(e)(2)(b), was unconstitutionally vague. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed again. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Sentencing Guidelines, including section 4B1.2(a)’s residual clause, are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause. Johnson held that the ACCA’s residual clause fixed, in an impermissibly vague way, a higher range of sentences for certain defendants; the advisory Guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences. They merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range. Congress has long permitted a “wide discretion to decide whether the offender should be incarcerated and for how long.” The Guidelines have been rendered “effectively advisory” by the Supreme Court. The Guidelines do not implicate the concerns underlying vagueness doctrine: providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement. The statutory range, which establishes the permissible bounds of the court’s sentencing discretion, provides the required notice. The Guidelines do not invite arbitrary enforcement because they do not permit a court to prohibit behavior or to prescribe the sentencing ranges available. View "Beckles v. United States" on Justia Law

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A Nevada jury convicted Rippo of first-degree murder and other offenses and sentenced him to death. During his trial, Rippo received information that the judge was the target of a federal bribery probe, and he surmised that the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, which was prosecuting him, was playing a role in that investigation. Rippo unsuccessfully moved for the judge’s disqualification. After that judge’s indictment on federal charges a different judge denied Rippo’s motion for a new trial. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed, reasoning that Rippo had not introduced evidence that state authorities were involved in the federal investigation. State courts denied post-conviction relief, reasoning that Rippo was not entitled to discovery or an evidentiary hearing because his allegations “d[id] not support the assertion that the trial judge was actually biased.” The Supreme Court vacated the Nevada Supreme Court’s judgment, stating that due process may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge “ ‘ha[s] no actual bias.’ Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision-maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” View "Rippo v. Baker" on Justia Law