Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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After the 2010 census, the Virginia Legislature drew new lines for 12 state legislative districts, to ensure that each district would have a black voting-age population of at least 55%. Voters challenged the redistricting under the Equal Protection Clause. As to 11 districts, the district court concluded that the voters had not shown that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision, reasoning that race predominates only where there is an “actual conflict between traditional redistricting criteria and race.” As to District 75, the court found that race did predominate, but the use of race was narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest--avoiding violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court vacated in part, stating that the proper inquiry concerns the actual considerations that provided the essential basis for the lines drawn, not post hoc justifications. A legislature could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles, but if race is the overriding reason for choosing a map, race still may predominate. Challengers may establish racial predominance without evidence of an actual conflict. A holistic analysis is necessary to give the proper weight to districtwide evidence, such as stark splits in the racial composition of populations moved into and out of a district, or the use of a racial target. The judgment regarding District 75 is consistent with the basic narrow tailoring analysis; the state’s interest in complying with the Voting Rights Act was a compelling interest and the legislature had sufficient grounds to determine that the race-based calculus it employed was necessary to avoid violating the Act. View "Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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Buck was convicted of murder; under Texas law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Buck was likely to commit future acts of violence. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist, Dr. Quijano, who had been appointed to evaluate Buck. While concluding that Buck was unlikely to be a future danger, Quijano stated, in his report and testimony, that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury returned a sentence of death. In his first post-conviction proceeding, Buck did not argue ineffective assistance of counsel. In the meantime, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment in a case in which Quijano had testified that Hispanic heritage weighed in favor of a finding of future dangerousness. The Texas Attorney General then identified six cases in which Quijano had testified and, in five cases, consented to resentencing. Buck’s second state habeas petition, alleging ineffective assistance, was dismissed for failure to raise the claim in his first petition. Buck sought federal habeas relief (28 U.S.C. 2254). His claim was held procedurally defaulted. The Supreme Court subsequently issued holdings (Martinez and Trevino) under which Buck’s claim could have been heard, had he demonstrated that state post-conviction counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to raise a claim that had some merit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed rejection of Buck’s motion to reopen, finding that Buck had not established extraordinary circumstances or ineffective assistance. The Supreme Court reversed. The question was not whether Buck had shown that his case is extraordinary; it was whether jurists of reason could debate that issue. No competent defense attorney would introduce evidence that his client is liable to be a future danger because of his race. There is a reasonable probability that Buck was sentenced to death in part because of his race, a concern that supports Rule 60(b)(6) relief. The Court rejected, as waived, the state’s argument that Martinez and Trevino did not apply. View "Buck v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Two women called 911 to report Daniel as a “‘drunk driver’” on a highway near Santa Fe, then followed Daniel with their bright lights on. Daniel, feeling threatened, pulled over at an off-ramp to confront them. After a nonviolent encounter, Daniel drove to a secluded house where he lived with his brother, Samuel. Officer Truesdale interviewed the women at the off-ramp and obtained Daniel’s license plate number. The dispatcher identified the brothers’ address. Truesdale was joined by Officers White and Mariscal. The three agreed there was insufficient probable cause for arrest, but decided to speak with Daniel. White remained behind in case Daniel returned. Truesdale and Mariscal drove separately, less than a half mile, to the address, without flashing lights. They approached the house in a covert manner, found Daniel’s pickup truck, and spotted two men moving inside the residence. They radioed White, who left the off-ramp to join them. At approximately 11 p.m., the brothers became aware of their presence and yelled, “‘Who are you?’” and “‘What do you want?’” Mariscal and Truesdale laughed and responded: “‘Hey, (expletive), we got you surrounded. Come out or we’re coming in.’” Truesdale shouted: “‘Open the door, State Police, open the door.’” Mariscal yelled: “‘Open the door, open the door.’” The brothers heard, “We’re coming in” and did not hear the officers identify themselves. They armed themselves and yelled, “We have guns.” Truesdale positioned himself behind the house and shouted “‘Open the door, come outside.’” White, walking toward the house, heard “We have guns,” drew his gun and took cover behind a stone wall. Mariscal took cover behind a truck. Daniel fired two shotgun blasts from the back door while screaming loudly. Seconds later, Samuel opened a window and pointed a handgun in White’s direction. Mariscal fired at Samuel but missed. “‘Four to five seconds’” later, White shot and killed Samuel. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the district court denied the officers summary judgment on the defense of qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated. Officer White did not violate clearly established law. The Court declined to consider whether a reasonable jury could infer that White witnessed the other officers’ deficient performance and should have realized that corrective action was necessary before using deadly force because neither lower court addressed that argument. The Court expressed no opinion on whether Truesdale and Mariscal are entitled to qualified immunity. View "White v. Pauly" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Bravo and Martínez of bribery (18 U.S.C. 666), simultaneously acquitting them of conspiring to and traveling in interstate commerce to violate section 666. The only contested issue was whether they had violated section 666; the other elements of the acquitted charges (agreement and travel) were undisputed. The verdicts were, therefore, inconsistent. The convictions were vacated. The First Circuit held that section 666 proscribes only quid pro quo bribery, while the charge had permitted the jury to convict on a gratuity theory. On remand, the defendants moved for acquittal, arguing that the issue-preclusion component of the Double Jeopardy Clause barred retrial because the jury necessarily determined that they were not guilty under section 666 when it acquitted them of the related conspiracy and Travel Act offenses. The First Circuit and a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed denial of the motions. Double Jeopardy Clause issue preclusion does not bar retrial after a jury has returned irreconcilably inconsistent verdicts, where the convictions are later vacated for legal error unrelated to the inconsistency. The defendants bear the burden of showing that whether they violated section 666 has been “determined by a valid and final judgment of acquittal.” A conviction that contradicts their acquittals is plainly relevant to that determination, even if later overturned on appeal for unrelated legal error. A verdict of guilt is a jury decision, even if subsequently vacated. View "Bravo-Fernandez v. United States" on Justia Law

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In Booth v. Maryland (1987), the Supreme Court held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence” that does not “relate directly to the circumstances of the crime.” In Payne (1991), the Court held that Booth was wrong to conclude that the Eighth Amendment required a ban with respect to a particular type of victim impact testimony, but stated that “admission of a victim’s family members’ characterizations and opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.” No such evidence was actually presented in Payne. An Oklahoma jury convicted Bosse of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Griffin and her children. The prosecution asked the victims’ relatives to recommend a sentence. They recommended death; the jury agreed. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence, concluding that Payne “implicitly overruled that portion of Booth regarding characterizations of the defendant and opinions of the sentence.” The Supreme Court vacated. Payne “specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect” Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. That should have ended its inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; the state court was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. Supreme Court decisions remain binding precedent until that Court reconsiders them, regardless of whether subsequent cases raise doubts about their continuing vitality. Oklahoma courts remain bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence. The court declined to consider an argument that error did not affect the sentencing determination, and the defendant’s rights were adequately protected by mandatory sentencing review in capital cases under Oklahoma law. View "Bosse v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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Texas House Bill 2 (2013) required that a “physician performing or inducing an abortion . . . must, on the date [of service], have active admitting privileges at a hospital . . . not further than 30 miles from the” abortion facility, and that the facility meet the state’s “minimum standards . . . for ambulatory surgical centers.” As a basis for enjoining enforcement, the district court found: as enforcement of the admitting-privileges requirement began, the number of abortion facilities dropped from about 40 to about 20, so that the number reproductive-age women living more than 50 miles from a clinic doubled and the number living more than 200 miles away increased about 2,800%; the number of facilities would drop to seven or eight if the surgical-center provision took effect; before H.B. 2’s passage, abortion was extremely safe with very low rates of complications and virtually no deaths; abortion was safer than many more common procedures not subject to the same level of regulation; and the cost of compliance with the surgical-center requirement would likely exceed $1.5 million-$3 million per clinic. The Fifth Circuit reversed, citing res judicata. The Supreme Court reversed: the constitutional claims are not barred by res judicata. This as-applied, post-enforcement challenge rests upon factual developments that occurred after an earlier facial challenge, once enforcement started and several clinics closed. Both of the challenged requirements place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion and constitute an undue burden on abortion access. Courts must consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits those laws confer. The state’s evidence did not show how the law advanced its legitimate interest in protecting women’s health when compared to prior law, which required providers to have a “working arrangement” with doctors who had admitting privileges and required abortion facilities to meet extensive health and safety requirements that were policed by inspections. View "Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt" on Justia Law

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The University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduate admissions system offers admission to all students who graduate in the top 10% of their Texas high school class, as required by the Texas Top Ten Percent Law. It fills the remainder of its freshman class, about 25%, by combining an applicant’s “Academic Index” (SAT score and high school academic performance) with a “Personal Achievement Index,” a holistic review containing numerous factors, including race. The University adopted the system in 2004, after a year-long-study of its admissions process—undertaken following two Supreme Court decisions—led it to conclude that its prior race-neutral system did not reach its goal of providing the educational benefits of diversity. Fisher was denied admission to the 2008 freshman class. She alleged that the University’s consideration of race disadvantaged her and other Caucasian applicants, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. On remand for application of the strict scrutiny standard, the Fifth Circuit again affirmed summary judgment in the University’s favor. The Supreme Court affirmed. The race-conscious admissions program is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. The compelling interest that justifies consideration of race in college admissions is not an interest in enrolling a certain number of minority students, but an interest in obtaining “the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.” The University articulated concrete and precise goals—e.g., ending stereotypes, promoting “cross-racial understanding,” preparing students for “an increasingly diverse workforce and society,” and cultivating leaders with “legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry” and gave a “reasoned, principled explanation” for its decision. The University’s conclusion that race-neutral programs had not achieved its diversity goals was supported by significant statistical and anecdotal evidence, while consideration of race has had a meaningful, but limited, effect on freshman class diversity. That race consciousness played a role in a small portion of admissions decisions is a hallmark of narrow tailoring, not evidence of unconstitutionality. The Top Ten Percent Plan had more of an impact on Fisher’s chances of admission. The Court noted the University’s continuing obligation to satisfy the strict scrutiny burden by periodically reassessing the program and by tailoring it to ensure that race plays no greater role than necessary to meet its compelling interests. View "Fisher v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin" on Justia Law

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Every state has a law that prohibits motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeding a specified level. BAC is typically determined by analysis of a blood sample or by using a machine to measure the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath. Implied consent laws require drivers to submit to BAC tests. Originally, the penalty for refusing a test was suspension of the motorist’s license. Some states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, now make it a crime to refuse to undergo testing. In consolidated cases, involving defendants prosecuted under such laws, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving but not warrantless blood tests. Breath tests do not implicate significant privacy concerns and are no more intrusive than collecting a DNA sample by rubbing a swab on the inside of a person’s cheek; they leave no biological sample in the government’s possession and are not likely to enhance the embarrassment inherent in any arrest. Blood tests, however, require piercing the skin and extract a part of the subject’s body, giving law enforcement a sample from which it is possible to extract information beyond a BAC reading. By making it a crime to refuse to submit to a BAC test, the laws at issue provide an incentive to cooperate and serve a very important function. Imposing a warrant requirement for every BAC test would likely swamp courts, with little corresponding benefit. The states have no satisfactory justification for demanding the more-intrusive alternative without a warrant. In instances where blood tests might be preferable—e.g., where substances other than alcohol impair the driver’s abilities, or where the subject is unconscious—nothing prevents the police from seeking a warrant or from relying on the exigent circumstances exception, if applicable. View "Birchfield v. North Dakota" on Justia Law

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Taylor and other gang members twice broke into homes of marijuana dealers, demanded drugs and money, found neither, and left relatively empty handed. At Taylor’s retrial on Hobbs Act charges of affecting commerce or attempting to do so through robbery, the court excluded Taylor’s evidence that he targeted dealers selling only locally-grown marijuana. The Fourth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed his conviction. The Hobbs Act's commerce element is satisfied by showing that the defendant robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds. The Act’s language is unmistakably broad and reaches any obstruction, delay, or other effect on commerce, 18 U.S.C. 1951(a), over which the United States has jurisdiction. Congress may regulate activities that have a substantial aggregate effect on interstate commerce, including “purely local activities that are part of an economic ‘class of activities’ that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce,” if those activities are economic in nature. One such “class of activities” is the production, possession, and distribution of controlled substances. A robber who affects even the intrastate sale of marijuana affects commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction. If the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that a robber targeted a marijuana dealer’s drugs or illegal proceeds, it has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction was affected. View "Taylor v. United States" on Justia Law

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Detective Fackrell conducted surveillance on a South Salt Lake City residence based on an anonymous tip about drug dealing. The number of people he observed making brief visits during the week made him suspect drug activity. After seeing Strieff leave the residence, Fackrell detained Strieff at a nearby parking lot, requested identification and relayed the information to a police dispatcher, who informed him that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Fackrell searched Streiff and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The Utah Supreme Court ordered that the evidence be suppressed. The Supreme Court reversed. The evidence Fackrell seized incident to Strieff’s arrest is admissible; Fackrell’s discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unconstitutional investigatory stop and the evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest. The exclusionary rule encompasses both the “primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure” and “evidence later discovered and found to be derivative of an illegality.” To ensure that the rule’s deterrence benefits are not outweighed by its substantial social costs, there are several exceptions, including the attenuation doctrine, which provides for admissibility when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is sufficiently remote or has been interrupted by intervening circumstances. The Court noted three factors: temporal proximity between the initially unlawful stop and the search favors suppressing the evidence; the presence of intervening circumstances (the existence of a valid warrant, predating the investigation and entirely unconnected with the stop) strongly favors the prosecution; the “purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct” also strongly favors the state. Fackrell was at most negligent; his errors did not rise to a purposeful or flagrant violation of Strieff’s rights. View "Utah v. Strieff" on Justia Law