Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Over the past eight years, the Hudson County family court has required Malhan to pay $300,000 in child and spousal support to his putative ex-wife, Myronova. Malhan claims that New Jersey officials violated his federal rights when they failed to reduce his support obligations after he was awarded custody of their two children and Myronova obtained a job that pays more than his own. The district court dismissed Malhan’s second amended complaint, holding that it lacked jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and that to the extent it had jurisdiction, it declined to exercise it under Younger v. Harris. The Third Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. Malhan does not complain of injuries caused by a state court judgment; none of the interlocutory orders in Malhan’s state case are “judgments.” Rooker-Feldman does not apply when state proceedings have neither ended nor led to orders reviewable by the U.S. Supreme Court. With respect to “Younger abstention,” the court noted that Malhan’s wife, not the state, began the family court case. The case has not sought to sanction Malhan for wrongdoing, enforce a parallel criminal statute, or impose a quasi-criminal investigation. Malhan is not trying to “annul the results” of a past garnishment. View "Malhan v. Secretary United States Department of State" on Justia Law

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Jury selection in Howell’s 2004 prosecution consisted of two venire panels. The first included 35 individuals, two of whom were black; both were excused for hardship. The second panel included 25 potential jurors, all of whom were white. Howell, a black man, was convicted for the 2002 felony murder of a white man by an all-white jury. Before jury selection, Howell filed a Motion to Ensure Representative Venire, arguing that he was entitled to a jury pool that represented a fair cross-section of the community, particularly with respect to race. The court held a hearing on Howell’s allegations that black individuals were systemically under-represented in Allegheny County’s jury pools and considered expert testimony that black individuals made up 4.87% of Allegheny County’s jury pool but made up 10.7% of the population of Allegheny County eligible for jury service. The court denied Howell’s motion. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Howell had not been denied a trial by a fair cross-section of the community. In Howell’s federal habeas proceeding, the court assumed, without deciding, “that the Superior Court erred in requiring [Howell] to show discriminatory intent,” but concluded that Howell failed to establish a Sixth Amendment violation because other courts found no constitutional violation in cases with higher percentages of disparity. The Third Circuit affirmed. Any underrepresentation in Howell’s jury pool was not caused by a systematically discriminatory process. View "Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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Bank of Hope sued Ryu for embezzling money from its customers. As the case went on, Ryu began sending letters to the Bank’s shareholders, alleging that the Bank’s claims were baseless and were ruining his reputation. He hoped that the letters would pressure the Bank to settle. The Bank asked the magistrate judge to ban Ryu from contacting its shareholders. The district court affirmed the magistrate’s order imposing that ban. The Third Circuit vacated. The district court marshaled no evidence that this restriction on speech was needed to protect this trial’s fairness and integrity and it considered no less-restrictive alternatives. Courts have inherent power to keep their proceedings fair and orderly. They can use that power to order the parties before them not to talk with each other, the press, and the public. The First Amendment, however, requires an explanation of why restricting speech advances a substantial government interest, consider less-restrictive alternatives, and requires that the court ensure that any restriction does not sweep too broadly. View "Bank of Hope v. Chon" on Justia Law

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Freethought proposed an ad to run on Lackawanna County public buses: “Atheists” with the group’s name and website. County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) rejected the ad under its 2011 policy, prohibiting ads for tobacco, alcohol, firearms, political candidates; ads that in COLTS’s “sole discretion” were “derogatory” to racial, religious, and other specified groups; and ads that are “objectionable, controversial[,] or would generally be offensive to COLTS’[s] ridership. In promulgating the policy, COLTS considered vandalism directed at atheist posts in other locations. In 2013, COLTS added a prohibition on ads: that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; or [that] are otherwise religious in nature. The Third Circuit concluded that the policy discriminates based on viewpoint and violates the First Amendment. Government actors cannot restrict speech because they “disapprov[e] of the ideas expressed.” That a message is “decidedly religious in nature” does not relegate it to second-class status Even if COLTS’s ban on religious speech were viewpoint neutral, it is not reasonable. COLTS never received a complaint about an ad, even one sponsored by a racist and anti-Semitic blog. No one complained about the religious and political ads COLTS ran before it enacted its policies. View "Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System" on Justia Law

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While investigating reports that Aviles was conducting a drug-trafficking operation, the Lebanon County Drug Task Force obtained a warrant to search Aviles’s residence. In the probable cause affidavit, officers relied upon information gathered through multiple controlled buys conducted by confidential informant “RCI-1,” describing the dates of the buys, the affiants and their Task Force experience, and a general explanation of controlled buys, including the use of recorded Task Force currency. In the resulting searches, officers recovered large quantities of controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, and firearms. Aviles and 12 co-defendants were arrested and charged. Aviles unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, claiming the officers included false information in their affidavit and omitted other information. He argued that, while the general description of controlled buys represented that currency is exchanged for drugs, some of Aviles’s buys may have involved RCI-1’s exchanging prescription drugs instead of currency. He claimed that RCI-1 had conducted additional drug-related transactions with Aviles outside of the controlled buys. The court conducted an evidentiary hearing, allowing both parties to question the officers but refusing the defense’s request to question RCI-1 based on concerns regarding her identity. Convicted, Aviles was sentenced to life imprisonment under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 841(b); the court found that Aviles’s prior state court convictions qualified as “felony drug offenses.” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress but, holding that at least two of his prior convictions do not qualify as felony drug offenses, vacated the sentencing order. View "United States v. Aviles" on Justia Law

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Garrett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs and retaliation. Garrett alleged that, while incarcerated, he had been prescribed a wheelchair and walker. When he was transferred to SCI Houtzdale in 2014, medical staff allegedly discontinued Garrett’s use of a walker and wheelchair, forbade him from receiving walking assistance from other inmates, and discontinued his “psych” medication. He acknowledged in his complaint that he had filed grievances but the grievance process was not complete. The district court dismissed many of pro se Garrett’s claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a), and dismissed the remainder for failure to satisfy the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “short and plain statement” requirement, Rule 8. The Third Circuit vacated. Garrett’s original complaint was defective because, as a prisoner when he filed it, he failed to first exhaust his administrative remedies. Two years later, Garrett filed an amended and supplemental complaint (TAC) under Rule 15, which superseded Garrett’s prior complaints. The TAC’s claims relate back to the original complaint because they concern the same core operative facts. When he filed the TAC, Garrett was no longer a prisoner and was not subject to the PLRA’s administrative exhaustion requirement. The TAC cured the original filing defect. The claims in Garrett’s pro se complaint are sufficiently “short” and “plain” and adequately put the defendants on notice of Garrett’s claims. View "Garrett v. Wexford Health" on Justia Law

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The Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717, allows private gas companies to exercise the federal government’s power to take property by eminent domain, if the company has a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); was unable to acquire the property by contract or reach agreement about the amount to be paid; and the value of the property exceeds $3,000. PennEast, scheduled to build a pipeline through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, obtained federal approval for the project and filed suit under the NGA to condemn and gain immediate access to properties along the pipeline route, including 42 properties owned, at least in part, by New Jersey or arms of the state. New Jersey sought dismissal, citing the Eleventh Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of PennEast. The Third Circuit vacated. The Eleventh Amendment recognizes that states enjoy sovereign immunity from suits by private parties in federal court. New Jersey has not consented to PennEast’s condemnation suits and its sovereign immunity has not been abrogated by the NGA. The federal government’s power of eminent domain and its power to hale sovereign states into federal court are separate and distinct. In the NGA, Congress has delegated only the power of eminent domain. View "In re: PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC" on Justia Law

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Under the now-repealed 8 U.S.C. 1432(a)(2), a “child” born outside of the U.S. to noncitizen parents became a citizen upon the naturalization of her surviving parent if one of her parents was deceased. Section 1101(c)(1) defined “child” as including a child born out of wedlock only if the child was legitimated under the “law of the child’s residence or domicile” or “the law of the father’s residence or domicile . . . except as otherwise provided in” section 1432, which exempted mothers of born-out-of-wedlock children from the legitimation requirement. That affirmative steps to verify paternity, including legitimation, may be taken if a citizen-parent is an unwed father has withstood constitutional scrutiny, on the basis that the relation between a mother and a child “is verifiable from the birth.” Tineo was born in the Dominican Republic to noncitizen parents who never married. His father moved to the U.S. and naturalized. His noncitizen mother died. At the time, under the laws of either the Dominican Republic or New York, legitimation could only occur if his birth parents married. Tineo’s father was forever precluded from having his son derive citizenship through him, despite being a citizen and having cared for his son. Threatened with removal, Tineo brought a Fifth Amendment challenge on behalf of his now-deceased father. The Third Circuit held that, in this circumstance, the interplay of the statutory sections are inconsistent with the equal-protection mandate of the Due Process Clause. View "Tineo v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Velazquez and his girlfriend had a physical altercation. He threatened her at his preliminary hearing and, from prison, sent threatening letters. Velazquez refused to enter his detention cell; the guard sustained scratches during the struggle. Velazquez was charged with burglary, intimidating a witness, terroristic threats, harassment, and aggravated assault. Due to Velazquez’s history of mental illness, his attorney advised him to enter a guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) plea under Pennsylvania law, waiving the right to a jury trial. If that plea is accepted, the defendant may receive mental health treatment while serving her sentence. A judge may not accept a GBMI plea unless she examines certain reports, holds a hearing, and determines that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. If the judge does not accept the GBMI plea, the right to a jury trial is returned. Velazquez’s GBMI plea was not accepted. The judge did not examine reports nor hold a hearing and did not determine whether Velazquez was mentally ill. Velazquez’s right to trial was not reinstated. The judge recorded that Velazquez had entered a normal guilty plea. Counsel did not object. The Third Circuit granted relief on Velazquez’s habeas petition, finding ineffective assistance of counseI. The district court had habeas jurisdiction although the petitioner merely asserted that the wrong guilty plea was entered. The requisite prejudice can be shown although the appropriate plea would not have resulted in a reduced sentence. View "Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives begins most legislative sessions with a prayer. Plaintiffs challenged two practices: the House invites guest chaplains to offer the prayer, but it excludes nontheists (those who do not espouse belief in a god or gods, though not necessarily atheists) from serving as chaplains on the theory that “prayer” presupposes a higher power and visitors to the House chamber pass a sign asking them to stand for the prayer, and the Speaker of the House requests that audience members “please rise” immediately before the prayer. At least once a House security guard pressured visitors who refused to stand. The Third Circuit upheld the practices as to the Establishment Clause because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power. Legislative prayer is government speech and not open to challenges under the Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection Clauses. With respect to the statement “please rise” for the prayer, the court held that the single incident involving pressure from a security guard is moot. The sign outside the House chamber and the Speaker’s introductory request that guests “please rise” are not coercive. View "Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives" on Justia Law