Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Under the Census Act, authorized by the Enumeration Clause, the Secretary of Commerce conducts the decennial census “in such form and content as he may determine,” 13 U.S.C. 141(a), aided by the Census Bureau. Census data is used to apportion congressional representatives, allocate federal funds, draw electoral districts, and collect demographic information. All but one survey between 1820 and 2000 asked at least some people about their citizenship or place of birth. In 2010, the citizenship question was moved to the American Community Survey, which is sent annually to a small sample of households. In 2018, Secretary of Commerce Ross announced that he would reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sought census data to use in enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Secretary indicated that other alternatives had been explored and that he “carefully considered” that reinstating the question could depress the response rate. The plan was challenged under the Enumeration Clause, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Equal Protection Clause. The Commerce Department’s administrative record indicated that the Secretary began exploring reinstatement of a citizenship question shortly after his 2017 confirmation, attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies, and eventually persuaded DOJ to make the request. The Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the objectors. While the Secretary may inquire about citizenship on the census questionnaire, his decision is reviewable under the APA, except “to the extent that” the agency action is “committed to agency discretion by law.” The Census Act confers broad authority but does not leave the Secretary's discretion unbounded. The census is not traditionally regarded as “committed to agency discretion.” The Secretary technically complied with the statutes; he explored obtaining the information from other sources, fully informed Congress, and explained his decision. Viewing the evidence as a whole, however, the Court concluded that the decision cannot adequately be explained by DOJ’s request. The Secretary took steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, with no concern for VRA enforcement. His staff attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies before turning to the VRA rationale. The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. The Secretary's explanation "was more of a distraction." View "Department of Commerce v. New York" on Justia Law

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Mitchell was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) triple Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving. Taken to a police station for a more reliable breath test using evidence-grade equipment, Mitchell was too lethargic for a breath test. Taken to a nearby hospital for a blood test, Mitchell was unconscious. His blood was drawn under a state law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so. Charged with violating drunk-driving laws, Mitchell moved to suppress the blood test results. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lawfulness of Mitchell’s blood test. The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that when a driver is unconscious and cannot take a breath test, the exigent-circumstances doctrine generally permits a blood test without a warrant. BAC tests are Fourth Amendment searches. A warrant is normally required but the “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence when there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant. The Court previously held that the fleeting nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone did not bring BAC testing within the exigency exception but that unconscious-driver cases involve a heightened urgency. When the driver’s stupor deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test using evidence-grade equipment, a blood test is essential for achieving the goals of BAC testing. Highway safety is a compelling public interest; legal limits on a driver’s BAC serve that interest. Enforcing BAC limits requires testing that is accurate enough to stand up in court and prompt because alcohol dissipates from the bloodstream. When a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious, health, safety, or law enforcement needs can take priority over a warrant application. A driver’s unconsciousness is itself a medical emergency and a driver so drunk as to lose consciousness is likely to crash, giving officers other urgent tasks. On remand, Mitchell may attempt to show that his case was unusual and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs. View "Mitchell v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law

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North Carolina plaintiffs claimed that the state’s congressional districting plan discriminated against Democrats. Maryland plaintiffs claimed that their state’s plan discriminated against Republicans. The plaintiffs cited the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, the Elections Clause, and Article I, section 2. The district courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court vacated, finding that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts because they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” Citing the history of partisan gerrymandering, the Court stated that the Constitution assigns electoral districting problems to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress, with no suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play. “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.” The Constitution does not require proportional representation, and federal courts are neither equipped nor authorized to apportion political power as a matter of fairness. Deciding among the different visions of fairness poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments. The Court distinguished one-person-one-vote and racial gerrymandering cases as susceptible to legal standards. Any assertion that partisan gerrymanders violate the core right of voters to choose their representatives is more likely grounded in the Guarantee Clause, which “guarantee[s] to every State in [the] Union a Republican Form of Government.” That Clause does not provide the basis for a justiciable claim. View "Rucho v. Common Cause" on Justia Law

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Tennessee law requires applicants for an initial license to operate a retail liquor store to have resided in Tennessee for the prior two years; an applicant for license renewal must have resided in Tennessee for 10 consecutive years. A corporation cannot obtain a license unless all of its stockholders are residents. The state attorney general opined that the requirements were invalid. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) declined to enforce them and sought a declaratory judgment. The Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court held that the two-year requirement violated the Commerce Clause and is not saved by the Twenty-first Amendment. Under the dormant Commerce Clause cases, a state law that discriminates against out-of-state goods or nonresident economic actors can be sustained only on a showing that it is narrowly tailored to “advanc[e] a legitimate local purpose.” Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement favors Tennesseans over nonresidents but, because it applies to the sale of alcohol, must be evaluated in light of section 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment: The “transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” Section 2 grants the states latitude with respect to the regulation of alcohol but does not allow states to violate the non-discrimination principle and does not entirely supersede Congress’s power to regulate commerce. States have not historically enjoyed absolute authority to police alcohol within their borders. Tennessee’s objective of ensuring that retailers are subject to process in state courts could easily be achieved by requiring a nonresident to designate an agent to receive process. Tennessee can thoroughly investigate applicants without requiring residency. Nor is the residency requirement essential to oversight. The goal of promoting responsible alcohol consumption could be served by limiting the number of licenses and the amount of alcohol that may be sold to an individual, mandating more extensive training, or monitoring retailer practices. View "Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Haymond was convicted of possessing child pornography, which carries a prison term of zero to 10 years. After serving 38 months, while on supervised release, Haymond was found with what appeared to be child pornography. The government sought to revoke his supervised release and secure an additional prison sentence. A district judge, acting without a jury, found by a preponderance of the evidence that Haymond knowingly downloaded and possessed child pornography. Under 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(3), the judge could have sentenced him to a prison term of zero to two additional years. Because possession of child pornography is a section 3583(k) enumerated offense, the judge instead imposed that provision’s five-year mandatory minimum. The Tenth Circuit vacated, finding section 3583(k) unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that the application of section 3583(k) in this case violated Haymond’s right to trial by jury. A judge’s sentencing authority is limited by the jury’s factual findings of criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on the facts reflected in the jury’s verdict, Haymond faced a zero-10 year prison term, while the facts the judge found increased the legally prescribed range of allowable sentences. Rejecting an argument that Haymond’s sentence for violating his supervised release terms was authorized by the jury’s verdict because his supervised release was always subject to the possibility of judicial revocation and 3583(k)’s mandatory prison sentence, the justices stated the mandatory minimum five-year sentence becomes possible only as a result of additional judicial factual findings by a preponderance of the evidence. Unlike traditional parole or probation, section 3583(k) exposes a defendant to an additional prison term beyond that authorized by the jury’s verdict. The justices stated that the Tenth Circuit may address, on remand, whether declaring the last two sentences of section 3583(k) “unconstitutional and unenforceable” sweeps too broadly. View "United States v. Haymond" on Justia Law

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Defendants were convicted of Hobbs Act robbery and conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery and under 18 U.S.C. 924(c), which authorizes heightened penalties for using, carrying, or possessing a firearm in connection with any federal “crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.” “Crime of violence” is defined in an elements clause and a residual clause, 924(c)(3)(B). The residual clause defines "crime of violence" as a felony “that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” The Fifth Circuit declared the residual clause unconstitutional but held that the 924 (c) convictions having robbery as the predicate crime of violence could be sustained under the elements clause; the count that charged conspiracy as a predicate crime of violence could not be upheld because it depended on the residual clause. The Supreme Court agreed that section 924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutionally vague, citing its decisions addressing the residual clauses of the Armed Career Criminal Act and of 18 U.S.C. 16. Each required judges to use a “categorical approach” to determine whether an offense qualified as a violent felony or crime of violence, disregarding how the defendant actually committed the offense and imagining the degree of risk in an “ordinary case.” Section 924(c)(3)(B) required the same categorical approach. The Court declined to abandon that approach and hold that the statute requires a case-specific approach that would look at the defendant’s actual conduct and declined to adopt any “fairly possible” reading to uphold the statute. To expand the reach of a criminal statute to save it would “risk offending the very same due process and separation of powers principles on which the vagueness doctrine" rests and would be inconsistent the rule of lenity. Ambiguities about a criminal statute should be resolved in the defendant’s favor. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Brunetti sought federal registration of the trademark FUCT. The Patent and Trademark Office denied his application under a Lanham Act provision that prohibits registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise "immoral[ ] or scandalous matter,” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a). The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in holding that the provision violates the First Amendment. The Court noted that it previously invalidated the Act’s ban on registering marks that “disparage” any “person[ ], living or dead.” The “immoral or scandalous” bar similarly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Expressive material is “immoral” when it is “inconsistent with rectitude, purity, or good morals”; “wicked”; or “vicious”; the Act permits registration of marks that champion society’s sense of rectitude and morality, but not marks that denigrate those concepts. Material is “scandalous” when it “giv[es] offense to the conscience or moral feelings”; “excite[s] reprobation”; or “call[s] out condemnation”; the Act allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety. The statute, on its face, distinguishes between ideas aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them. The Court rejected an argument that the statute is susceptible of a limiting construction. The “immoral or scandalous” bar does not draw the line at lewd, sexually explicit, or profane marks. Nor does it refer only to marks whose “mode of expression,” independent of viewpoint, is particularly offensive. To cut the statute off where the government urges would not interpret the statute Congress enacted, but fashion a new one. View "Iancu v. Brunetti" on Justia Law

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Rice formed a trust for the benefit of his children in his home state, New York, and appointed a New York resident as the trustee. The trustee has “absolute discretion” to distribute the trust’s assets to the beneficiaries. In 1997, Rice’s daughter, Kaestner, moved to North Carolina. The trustee later divided Rice’s initial trust into three subtrusts. North Carolina assessed a tax of $1.3 million for tax years 2005-2008 on the Kaestner Trust under a law authorizing the state to tax any trust income that “is for the benefit of” a state resident. During that period, Kaestner had no right to and did not receive, any distributions. Nor did the Trust have a physical presence, make any direct investments, or hold any real property in North Carolina. The trustee paid the tax under protest and then sued, citing the Due Process Clause. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed state court decisions in favor of the trustee. The presence of in-state beneficiaries alone does not empower a state to tax trust income that has not been distributed to the beneficiaries where the beneficiaries have no right to demand that income and are uncertain to receive it. The Due Process Clause limits the states to imposing only taxes that “bea[r] fiscal relation to protection, opportunities and benefits given by the state.” When a state seeks to base its tax on the in-state residence of a trust beneficiary, due process demands a pragmatic inquiry into what the beneficiary controls or possesses and how that interest relates to the object of the tax. The residence of the beneficiaries in North Carolina alone does not supply the minimum connection necessary to sustain the tax. View "North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust" on Justia Law

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Flowers was tried six times for the murder of four Mississippi furniture store employees. Flowers is black; three of the victims were white. At the first two trials, the prosecution used peremptory strikes on all qualified black prospective jurors. Two juries convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The convictions were reversed based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the state used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction again, citing Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the sixth trial, the state exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. The trial court rejected a Batson objection, finding that the prosecution had offered race-neutral reasons. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court twice affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the peremptory strike of black prospective juror Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination is established, the state must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The judge then must determine whether the stated reasons were pretextual. The Batson Court rejected arguments that: a defendant must demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes to make establish race discrimination; a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption that the black juror would favor a black defendant; race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors are “equally” subject to race-based discrimination; and that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them. The history of the state’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ earlier trials supports the conclusion that its sixth trial peremptory strikes were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. The prosecution spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of five black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors. Wright was struck, the state claimed, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked; several white prospective jurors also knew individuals involved in the case or had relationships with members of Flowers’ family. The prosecution did not ask questions to explore those relationships. View "Flowers v. Mississippi" on Justia Law

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Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring that “[a]ll cemeteries . . . be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” Knick, whose 90-acre rural property has a small family graveyard, was notified that she was violating the ordinance. Knick sought declaratory relief, arguing that the ordinance caused a taking of her property, but did not bring an inverse condemnation action. The Township withdrew the violation notice and stayed enforcement of the ordinance. The state court declined to rule on Knick’s suit. Knick filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claim, citing Supreme Court precedent (Williamson County) that property owners must seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal claim under section 1983. The Supreme Court reversed. A government violates the Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation; a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under section 1983 at that time. The Court noted that two years after the Williamson County decision, it returned to its traditional understanding of the Fifth Amendment in deciding First English Evangelical Lutheran Church. A property owner acquires a right to compensation immediately upon an uncompensated taking because the taking itself violates the Fifth Amendment. The Court expressly overruled the state-litigation requirement as "poor reasoning" resulting from the circumstances in which the issue reached the Court. The requirement was unworkable in practice because the “preclusion trap” prevented takings plaintiffs from ever bringing their claims in federal court. There are no reliance interests on the state-litigation requirement. If post-taking compensation remedies are available, governments need not fear that federal courts will invalidate their regulations as unconstitutional. View "Knick v. Township of Scott" on Justia Law