Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Marshall, while under the age of 21, wished to purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer and sued to challenge the constitutionality of the federal laws and regulations that prohibited her from doing so while she was 18–20 years old. A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit found those laws violated the text, structure, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment. After the opinion was issued but before the mandate, Marshall turned 21, rendering her claims moot. She attempted to add parties and reframe her claimed injuries.The Fourth Circuit concluded that it is too late to revive the case and that it must be dismissed as moot. The court vacated the opinions and remanded with direction to dismiss. View "Hirschfeld v. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco & Firearms" on Justia Law

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Individuals and organizations affiliated with the West Virginia Democratic Party challenged West Virginia Code 3-6-2(c)(3), under which election ballots for partisan state and federal elections are organized for each contest by listing first the candidates affiliated with the political party whose candidate for President received the most votes in West Virginia in the most recent presidential election. The plaintiffs contend that because candidates appearing first on the ballot “almost always” receive an increased vote share based solely on this priority status, this system favors candidates based on their political affiliation, violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments.The district court rejected jurisdictional challenges, including that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the complaint presented a nonjusticiable political question, and agreed with the plaintiffs on the merits. The Fourth Circuit vacated after holding that the district court properly asserted subject matter jurisdiction and a court may consider the lawfulness of the statute despite its partisan context. A ballot-order statute, which provides a neutral rule for listing candidates’ names on the ballot, does not violate the Constitution even though the statute may impair a candidate’s ability to attract “the windfall vote.” Such a statute places at most a modest burden on free speech and equal protection rights. Any modest burden imposed by the statute on the plaintiffs’ rights is justified by the state’s important interests in promoting voting efficiency and in reducing voter confusion and error. View "Nelson v. Warner" on Justia Law

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Enrollees in the North Carolina State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees (NCSHP) sued, alleging that NCSHP discriminates against its transgender enrollees by categorically denying coverage for gender dysphoria treatments like counseling, hormone therapy, and surgical care, in violation of section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which prohibits “any health program or activity” that receives federal funds from discriminating against individuals on any ground prohibited by various federal statutes, including Title IX, 42 U.S.C. 18116(a).The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of NCSHP’s motion to dismiss, asserting that it was entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. NCSHP waived its immunity against this claim by accepting federal financial assistance. Under the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act (CRREA), “[a] State shall not be immune under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States from suit in Federal court for a violation of . . . any other Federal Statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance,” 42 U.S.C. 2000d-7. View "Kadel v. North Carolina State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Dylann Roof, then age 21, shot and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during a meeting of a Bible-study group. A jury convicted him on nine counts of racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstructing religion resulting in death, three counts of obstructing religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence. The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence on the religious obstruction, 18 U.S.C. 247, and firearm counts. He was sentenced accordingly.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, upholding findings that Roof was competent to stand trial and a ruling that allowed him to represent himself during the penalty phase of his trial. Neither the Constitution nor the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that mitigation evidence be presented during capital sentencing over a defendant’s objection. Isolated witness testimony describing Roof as “evil” and stating that he would go to “the pit of hell” did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. The court rejected arguments that his convictions for religious obstruction were invalid under the Commerce Clause or required proof of religious hostility; that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. 249, was an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s Thirteenth Amendment authority; that the Attorney General erroneously certified Roof’s federal prosecution; and that Roof’s firearm convictions under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) were invalid because the predicate offenses are not categorically crimes of violence. View "United States v. Roof" on Justia Law

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Doe, a student at a public school in Virginia, had recently undergone a gender transition. Vlaming, Doe’s French teacher, refused to use male pronouns to refer to Doe. Vlaming argued that using male pronouns to refer to someone who was born a female violated his religious beliefs. Eventually, the superintendent placed Vlaming on administrative leave and recommended his dismissal. After a hearing, the School Board dismissed Vlaming for failure to comply with his superiors’ directives and violations of policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. Vlaming sued, alleging statutory and constitutional violations and breach of contract. The Board removed the case to federal court, arguing the district court had removal jurisdiction because it had federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1441(c), over whether Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Board also argued that because Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681, was a “law providing for equal rights,” section 1443(2), the civil rights removal statute, authorized removal.The district court granted Vlaming’s motion for remand. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Because none of Vlaming’s state law claims necessarily raises a federal issue, federal question jurisdiction is lacking, and section 1441(c) does not provide a basis for removal. The Supreme Court has limited the meaning of a “law providing for equal rights” in section 1443 to only those concerning racial equality. View "Vlaming v. West Point School Board" on Justia Law

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Stokes’s South childhood included extreme abuse and neglect. When Stokes was 13, his mother died, leaving Stokes parentless. Stokes repeated the eighth grade three times. Stokes, at age 15, became involved with Smith, a friend of his mother’s. They married. In 1988, Stokes was convicted of assaulting Smith with a knife. The couple reunited. In 1991, Stokes assaulted Smith again. After his release from prison, Stokes participated in the rape and murder of his cellmate’s ex-wife. Stokes penned a detailed confession. The jury also heard about the subsequent murder of Ferguson, who had been aware of the murder plot. Stokes pleaded guilty to Ferguson’s murder.Sims’s appointed attorneys for the 1998 trial conducted a mitigation investigation. For the penalty phase, they planned to argue that Stokes’s HIV-positive status made him suitable for a life sentence. On the eve of sentencing, Stokes withdrew his consent, refusing to allow his counsel to mention his HIV status. Counsel did not present any personal evidence, believing that “an Orangeburg County jury” at that time would not be receptive to evidence about his childhood and “white jurors might react especially to Stokes, a Black man, raping Snipes, a white woman. They presented a single mitigation witness, a retired prison warden, who refused to meet Stokes, or interview anyone who knew Stokes. His testimony was counter-productive. The prosecution presented robust aggravating evidence. Evidence of Stokes’s 1991 assault of Smith was especially relevant; Stokes’s lead trial counsel had personally prosecuted that case against Stokes. Stokes was sentenced to death.The Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of habeas relief. Post-conviction counsel were ineffective, providing good cause for Stokes’s procedural default of his claim. The failure to adequately investigate and present personal evidence was objectively unreasonable and prejudicial. View "Stokes v. Stirling" on Justia Law

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In 1993, Plymail was convicted for a 1992 sexual assault. Plymail filed a notice of intent to appeal in March 1994. What followed was an ordeal spanning over 20 years, six lawyers, and multiple state courts. Many delays stemmed from disagreements with the attorneys, difficulty contacting them, various courts taking too long to rule on simple motions, and Plymail’s battle with ulcerative colitis. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed Plymail’s convictions in 2015.Plymail filed a federal habeas petition asserting that his incarceration was unconstitutional based on the delay of his appeal, comments made by the trial judge that coerced the jury into rendering a verdict, and improper statements made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. The district court rejected his claims. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Plymail is entitled to habeas relief based on the prosecutor’s improper statements exhorting the jury to protect women and send a message to the community and to “sadomasochistic” persons. Those statements rendered the trial so fundamentally unfair as to deny Plymail due process of law. View "Plymail v. Mirandy" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Zito purchased a beachfront house and lot on Nags Head (a barrier island). In 2016, the house burned down. The lot is governed by North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA): buildings with less than 5,000 square feet must be set back at least 60 feet or 30 times the local rate of erosion, whichever is farther, from the vegetation line. Buildings of less than 2,000 square feet built before June 1979 fall under a grandfather provision, requiring a setback of only 60 feet from the vegetation line. The Zito property qualifies for the grandfather provision but is set back only 12 feet from the vegetation line. In 2018, the coastline by the property eroded at an average rate of six feet per year. Experts indicate that coastal erosion and rising sea levels could cause the property to be underwater by 2024. The permit officer denied Zito’s application to rebuild The Coastal Resources Commission denied a variance, informing Zito of the right to appeal in state superior court.Zito filed suit in federal court, arguing that CAMA’s restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional taking. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Commission qualifies as an arm of the state subject to the protection of sovereign immunity; the Eleventh Amendment bars Fifth Amendment taking claims against states in federal court where the state’s courts remain open to adjudicate such claims. View "Zito v. North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission" on Justia Law

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Under the North Carolina Charter School Act, any child eligible to attend a public school may choose to attend a charter school, but no one is required to attend one. North Carolina charter schools are nominally public schools but are operated by private nonprofit corporations and are exempt from statutes applicable to local boards of education. Although charter schools must adopt policies governing student conduct and discipline, the state does not supervise the content of those policies. CDS, a nonprofit corporation, holds a charter to operate Charter Day School in rural Brunswick County, which currently educates over 900 elementary and middle school students. RBA (a for-profit entity) manages day-to-day operations at Charter Day, which operates as a school promoting traditional values. The school adopted a uniform policy. Three female students sued, challenging a requirement that girls wear either skirts, jumpers or skorts, instead of pants or shorts. The complaint cited the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX, 20 U.S.C. 1681. The district court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment on the equal protection claim but held that Title IX did not reach school dress codes. The Fourth Circuit reversed. The charter school was not a state actor when promulgating the dress code and is not subject to an equal protection claim but claims of sex discrimination related to a dress code are not categorically excluded from Title IX's scope. View "Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc." on Justia Law

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Before pleading guilty, Glover attempted to hire an attorney. The attorney sent thousands of dollars sent by Glover's family to the DEA, believing the funds were drug proceeds. The government seized the funds under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(6). Glover began filing pro se motions concerning the seized funds. Glover and his second appointed counsel (Ehlies) requested a “Farmer” hearing on the subject of the seized funds. The government acknowledged that a hearing pursuant to Farmer "might be necessary.” Instead of setting such a hearing, the court focused on Glover’s frequent pro se motions and whether Glover wanted to continue to be represented by counsel. The court stated that it would not appoint new counsel and indicated that it would not address the “Farmer” issue unless Glover chose to represent himself.Glover pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a drug containing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana; and conspiracy to conduct financial transactions involving proceeds of unlawful activity. Before sentencing, Glover filed a pro se motion requesting to withdraw his plea, making numerous allegations of misconduct by Ehlies. The court declined to appoint new counsel, determining that Glover could either proceed pro se (he again declined) or be represented by Ehlies, and denied the motion.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Precedent precluded Glover’s argument that the government wrongly seized untainted assets needed to hire the counsel of his choice but Glover’s attorney had a conflict of interest at his plea withdrawal hearing and substitute counsel should have represented him there. View "United States v. Glover" on Justia Law