Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Enacted pursuant to Article I of the Constitution, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), gives returning service members the right to reclaim their prior jobs with state employers and authorizes suit if those employers refuse to accommodate veterans’ service-related disabilities, 38 U.S.C. 4301. Torres, a state trooper, was called to active duty in the Army Reserves and deployed to Iraq, where he was exposed to toxic burn pits. Torres, honorably discharged, returned home with constrictive bronchitis. Torres asked his former employer to accommodate his condition by re-employing him in a different role. Texas refused. A state court held that his USERRA claims should be dismissed based on sovereign immunity.The Supreme Court reversed. By ratifying the Constitution, the states agreed their sovereignty would yield to the national power to raise and support the Armed Forces. Congress may exercise this power to authorize private damages suits against nonconsenting states, as in USERRA.The test for whether the structure of the original Constitution itself reflects a waiver of states’ immunity is whether the federal power is “complete in itself, and the states consented to the exercise of that power—in its entirety—in the plan of the Convention.” Congress’ power to build and maintain the Armed Forces fits that test. Congress has long legislated regarding military forces at the expense of state sovereignty. USERRA expressly “supersedes any State law . . . that reduces, limits, or eliminates in any manner any right or benefit provided by this chapter, including the establishment of additional prerequisites to the exercise of any such right or the receipt of any such benefit.” View "Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" on Justia Law

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Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act provides that “[e]xcept in a medical emergency or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality, a person shall not intentionally or knowingly perform . . . or induce an abortion of an unborn human being if the probable gestational age of the unborn human being has been determined to be greater than fifteen (15) weeks.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed an injunction, prohibiting enforcement of the Act.The Supreme Court reversed, overruling its own precedent. The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; the authority to regulate abortion belongs to state representatives. Citing the “faulty historical analysis” in Roe v. Wade, the justices concluded that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition; regulations and prohibitions of abortion are governed by the same “rational basis” standard of review as other health and safety measures. The justices analyzed “great common-law authorities,” concerning the historical understanding of ordered liberty. “Attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy and to define one’s ‘concept of existence’ … could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.”Noting “the critical moral question posed by abortion,” the justices compared their decision to Brown v. Board of Education in overruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which “was also egregiously wrong.” Roe conflated the right to shield information from disclosure and the right to make and implement important personal decisions without governmental interference and produced a scheme that "looked like legislation," including a “glaring deficiency” in failing to justify the distinction it drew between pre- and post-viability abortions. The subsequently-described “undue burden” test is unworkable in defining a line between permissible and unconstitutional restrictions. Traditional reliance interests are not implicated because getting an abortion is generally an “unplanned activity,” and “reproductive planning could take virtually immediate account of any sudden restoration of state authority to ban abortions.” The Court emphasized that nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act is supported by the Mississippi Legislature’s specific findings, which include the State’s asserted interest in “protecting the life of the unborn.” View "Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization" on Justia Law

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Los Angeles County Deputy Vega questioned Tekoh at the medical center where Tekoh worked regarding the reported sexual assault of a patient. Vega did not inform Tekoh of his Miranda rights. Tekoh eventually provided a written statement and was prosecuted for unlawful sexual penetration. His written statement was admitted against him at trial. After the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, Tekoh sued Vega under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Ninth Circuit held that the use of an un-Mirandized statement against a defendant in a criminal proceeding violated the Fifth Amendment and could support a section 1983 claim.The Supreme Court reversed. A violation of the Miranda rules does not provide a basis for a section 1983 claim. In Miranda, the Court concluded that additional procedural protections were necessary to prevent the violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Miranda did not hold that a violation of the rules it established necessarily constitute a Fifth Amendment violation. The Miranda rules have been described as “constitutionally based” with “constitutional underpinnings,” but a Miranda violation is not the same as a violation of the Fifth Amendment right.Miranda warnings are “prophylactic,” and can require balancing competing interests. A judicially crafted prophylactic rule should apply only where its benefits outweigh its costs. While the benefits of permitting the assertion of Miranda claims under section 1983 would be slight, the costs would be substantial. View "Vega v. Tekoh" on Justia Law

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A prisoner who challenges a state’s proposed method of execution under the Eighth Amendment must identify a readily available alternative method that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain. Nance brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 to enjoin Georgia from executing him by lethal injection, the only method of execution that Georgia now authorizes. Nance proposes death by firing squad—a method currently approved by four other states. The Eleventh Circuit held that Nance could advance his method-of-execution claim only by a habeas petition. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1983 remains an appropriate vehicle for a prisoner’s method-of-execution claim where the prisoner proposes an alternative method not authorized by the state’s death-penalty statute. Both section 1983 and the federal habeas statute enable a prisoner to complain of “unconstitutional treatment at the hands of state officials.” When a prisoner seeks relief that would “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence,” he must proceed in habeas. Here, Georgia would have to change its statute to carry out Nance’s execution by firing squad, so an order granting relief would not “necessarily prevent” the state from implementing the execution. The state has a pathway forward even if the proposed alternative is unauthorized by present state law. Section 1983 can compel changes to state laws when necessary to vindicate federal constitutional rights. It would be strange to read state-by-state discrepancies into how section 1983 and the habeas statute apply to federal constitutional claims. View "Nance v. Ward" on Justia Law

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The State of .New York makes it a crime to possess a firearm without a license. An individual who wants to carry a firearm outside his home may obtain an unrestricted license to “have and carry” a concealed “pistol or revolver” if he can prove that “proper cause exists.” An applicant satisfies the “proper cause” requirement if he can “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” New York residents who unsuccessfully applied for unrestricted licenses to carry a handgun in public based on their generalized interest in self-defense challenged the “proper cause” requirement.The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of the suit. New York’s "proper cause" requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense. The “historical evidence from antebellum America does demonstrate that the manner of public carry was subject to reasonable regulation, but none of these limitations on the right to bear arms operated to prevent law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from carrying arms in public for that purpose.” The Court stated that the "constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.” The exercise of other constitutional rights does not require individuals to demonstrate to government officers some special need. View "New York State Rifle & Pistol Association., Inc. v. Bruen" on Justia Law

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Twyford was convicted of aggravated murder and was sentenced to death. Ohio courts affirmed his conviction and sentence, then denied post-conviction relief, rejecting Twyford’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present evidence of a head injury Twyford had sustained. The district court dismissed most of Twyford’s federal habeas claims but allowed others to proceed and ordered the state to transport him to a medical facility for neurological testing that might lead to evidence to support his claim. The court cited the All Writs Act, which authorizes federal courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions.” 28 U.S.C. 1651(a). The Sixth Circuit affirmed.The Supreme Court reversed. A transportation order that allows a prisoner to search for new evidence is not “necessary or appropriate in aid of” a federal court’s adjudication of a habeas corpus action when the prisoner has not shown that the desired evidence would be admissible in connection with a claim for relief. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) restricts the ability of a federal habeas court to develop and consider new evidence: Before a federal court may decide whether to grant an evidentiary hearing or “otherwise consider new evidence” under 28 U.S.C. 2254(e)(2), it must first determine that such evidence could be legally considered in the prisoner’s case. The All Writs Act cannot be used to circumvent statutory requirements or binding procedural rules. Twyford never explained how the results of neurological testing could be admissible in his habeas proceedings, given that AEDPA review is limited to “the record that was before the state court.” View "Shoop v. Twyford" on Justia Law

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Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law that applied only to Hanford site workers who were “engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States.” The Hanford site, once used to produce nuclear weapons, is undergoing decontamination. Most workers involved in the cleanup process are employed by private companies under contract with the federal government; a few are state employees, private employees, and federal employees. As compared to Washington’s general workers’ compensation scheme, the law made it easier for Hanford's federal contract workers to establish entitlement to workers’ compensation, thus increasing workers’ compensation costs for the federal government. The Ninth Circuit upheld the law as within the scope of a federal waiver of immunity, 40 U.S.C. 3172.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. Washington’s law facially discriminates against the federal government and its contractors; section 3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive immunity from discriminatory state laws, so Washington’s law is unconstitutional. While section 3172(a) says that “[t]he state authority charged with enforcing and requiring compliance with the state workers’ compensation laws . . . may apply [those] laws to all land and premises in the State which the Federal Government owns,” and “to all projects, buildings, constructions, improvements, and property in the State and belonging to the Government, in the same way, and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State,” the waiver does not “clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]” authorize a state to enact a discriminatory law that facially singles out the federal government for unfavorable treatment.The Court held that the case was not moot, despite Washington’s enactment of a new statute that, arguably, applies retroactively. View "United States v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Maine offers tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school nor contract with a school in another district. Parents designate the secondary school they would like their child to attend; the school district sends payments to that school to defray tuition costs. To be eligible for tuition payments, private schools had to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges or approved by the Maine Department of Education. Since 1981, Maine has limited tuition assistance payments to “nonsectarian” schools. The First Circuit affirmed the rejection of constitutional challenges to the “nonsectarian” requirement.The Supreme Court reversed. Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause, which protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” A state need not subsidize private education but if it does so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. A law that operates in that manner must be subjected to “the strictest scrutiny.” A neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause; a state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise. View "Carson v. Makin" on Justia Law

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs filed a CFR court complaint against Denezpi, a member of the Navajo Nation, charging Denezpi with crimes alleged to have occurred within the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation: assault and battery, terroristic threats, and false imprisonment. CFR courts administer justice for Indian tribes where tribal courts have not been established. Denezpi pleaded guilty to assault and battery and was sentenced to time served. Months later, a federal grand jury indicted Denezpi for aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country, under the federal Major Crimes Act. Denezpi unsuccessfully argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred the consecutive prosecution and was sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment.The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. The Double Jeopardy Clause does not bar successive prosecutions of distinct offenses arising from a single act, even if a single sovereign prosecutes them. Denezpi’s single act transgressed two laws: the Ute Mountain Ute Code’s assault and battery ordinance and the U.S. Code’s proscription of aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country. The two laws—defined by separate sovereigns—proscribe separate offenses, so Denezpi’s second prosecution did not place him in jeopardy again “for the same offence.” The Court did not address whether CFR prosecutors exercise tribal or federal authority because the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prohibit successive prosecutions by the same sovereign but only prohibits successive prosecutions “for the same offence.” The Double Jeopardy Clause does not ask who puts a person in jeopardy; it focuses on what the person is put in jeopardy for. View "Denezpi v. United States" on Justia Law