Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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McDonough processed ballots as a board of elections commissioner in a Troy, New York primary election. Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots in that election. McDonough alleges that Smith fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure an indictment and at two trials before McDonough’s December 21, 2012 acquittal. On December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting fabrication of evidence. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit as untimely under a three-year limitations period. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute of limitations began to run when the criminal proceedings against McDonough terminated in his favor—when he was acquitted at the end of his second trial. An accrual analysis begins with identifying the specific constitutional right at issue--here, an assumed due process right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of a government official’s fabrication of evidence. Accrual questions are often decided by referring to common-law principles governing analogous torts. The most analogous common-law tort is malicious prosecution, which accrues only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. McDonough could not bring his section 1983 fabricated-evidence claim before favorable termination of his prosecution. The Court cited concerns with avoiding parallel litigation and conflicting judgments and that prosecutions regularly last nearly as long as—or even longer than—the limitations period. View "McDonough v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), intended to combat sex crimes and crimes against children, requires a broad range of sex offenders to register and imposes criminal penalties; 34 U.S.C. 20913 describes the “[i]nitial registration” requirements. Under subsection (b)'s general rule an offender must register “before completing a sentence of imprisonment with respect to the offense giving rise to the registration requirement.” Subsection (d) provides that the Attorney General “shall have the authority” to “specify the applicability” of SORNA’s registration requirements to pre-Act offenders and “to prescribe rules for [their] registration.” The Attorney General issued a rule that SORNA’s registration requirements apply in full to pre-SORNA offenders. The district court and the Second Circuit rejected a claim by a pre-SORNA offender that subsection (d) unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The Supreme Court affirmed. Four justices concluded that section 20913(d) does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Congress may confer substantial discretion on executive agencies to implement and enforce the laws as long as Congress “lay[s] down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to [exercise that authority] is directed to conform.” The Supreme Court has already interpreted 20913(d) to require the Attorney General to apply SORNA to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible. To “specify the applicability” does not mean “specify whether to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders but means “specify how to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders; no Attorney General has used section20913(d) in any more expansive way. Section 20913(d)’s delegation falls within constitutional bounds. View "Gundy v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1918, residents of Prince George’s County decided to erect a cross as a war memorial to stand at the terminus of another World War I memorial—the National Defense Highway connecting Washington to Annapolis. The 32-foot tall Latin cross has a plaque, naming the 49 county soldiers who died in the war. The Bladensburg Cross has since been the site of patriotic events honoring veterans. Monuments honoring the veterans of other conflicts have been added in a nearby park. The monument is now at the center of a busy intersection. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the Cross and the land in 1961 and uses public funds for its maintenance. The Supreme Court held that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause. Even if a monument’s original purpose was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment and the monument may be retained for the sake of its historical significance or its place in a common cultural heritage. The cross is a symbol closely linked to World War I. The nation adopted it as part of its military honors, establishing the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. The soldiers’ final resting places abroad were marked by crosses or Stars of David. As World War I monuments have endured through the years and become a familiar part of the physical and cultural landscape, requiring their removal or alteration would not be viewed by many as a neutral act. The Bladensburg Cross has acquired historical importance, reminding people of the sacrifices of their predecessors. Although the monument was dedicated during a period of heightened racial and religious animosity, it includes the names of Christian and Jewish and Black and White soldiers. Four justices noted that the “Lemon” test ambitiously attempted to find a grand unified theory of the Establishment Clause but the “expectation of a ready framework has not been met.” “Where monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in the tradition of the First Congress in respecting and tolerating different views, endeavoring to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and recognizing the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, they are likewise constitutional.” View "American Legion v. American Humanist Association" on Justia Law

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Gamble pleaded guilty under Alabama’s felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm statute. Federal prosecutors then indicted him for the same instance of possession under federal law. Gamble argued that the federal indictment was for “the same offence” as the one at issue in his state conviction, exposing him to double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his motion, invoking the dual-sovereignty doctrine, according to which two offenses “are not the ‘same offence’ ” for double jeopardy purposes if “prosecuted by different sovereigns.” The dual sovereignty doctrine is not an exception to the double jeopardy right but follows from the Fifth Amendment’s text. As originally understood, an “offence” is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign. Where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws and two “offences.” The Court stated that “Gamble’s historical evidence is too feeble to break the chain of precedent linking dozens of cases over 170 years.” View "Gamble v. United States" on Justia Law

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New York requires cable operators to set aside channels for public access. Those channels are operated by the cable operator unless the local government chooses to operate the channels or designates a private entity as the operator. New York City designated a private nonprofit corporation, MNN, to operate public access channels on Time Warner’s Manhattan cable system. Respondents produced a film critical of MNN. MNN televised the film. MNN later suspended Respondents from all MNN services and facilities. They sued, claiming that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. The Second Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of the suit, concluding that MNN was subject to First Amendment constraints. The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded. MNN is not a state actor subject to the First Amendment. A private entity may qualify as a state actor when the entity exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State” but “very few” functions fall into that category. Operation of public access channels on a cable system has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government. Providing some kind of forum for speech is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed and does not automatically transform a private entity into a state actor. The City’s designation of MNN as the operator is analogous to a government license, a government contract, or a government-granted monopoly, none of which converts a private entity into a state actor unless the private entity is performing a traditional, exclusive public function. Extensive regulation does not automatically convert a private entity's action into that of the state. The City does not own, lease, or possess any property interest in the public access channels. View "Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck" on Justia Law

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The company wants to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. Virginia law completely prohibits uranium mining. The company alleged that, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia’s and makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the lone regulator. The district court, the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court rejected the company’s argument. The AEA does not preempt Virginia’s law banning uranium mining; the law grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining, expressly stating that the NRC’s regulatory powers arise only “after [uranium’s] removal from its place of deposit in nature,” 42 U.S.C. 2092. If the federal government wants to control uranium mining on private land, it must purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land, indicating that state authority remains untouched. Rejecting “field preemption: and “conflict preemption” arguments, the Court stated that the only thing a court can be sure of is what can be found in the law itself and the compromise that Congress actually struck in the AEA leaves mining regulation on private land to the states. View "Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren" on Justia Law

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, 42 U.S.C. 2000e–2(a)(1). A complainant must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which notifies the employer and investigates. The EEOC may attempt informal methods of conciliation and has the first option to sue the employer. If the EEOC does not sue, the complainant is entitled to a “right-to-sue” notice and then may commence a civil action against her employer. Davis filed a charge against her employer, Fort Bend, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. While the charge was pending, Fort Bend fired Davis because she failed to come to work on a Sunday, going to a church event instead. Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on an “intake questionnaire.” She did not amend the formal charge document. Upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, Davis filed suit, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. After years of litigation, only the religion-based discrimination claim remained. Fort Bend then asserted for the first time that the court lacked jurisdiction because the EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The Fifth Circuit reversed dismissal of the suit. The Supreme Court affirmed. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional. A claim-processing rule requiring parties to take certain procedural steps during or before litigation may be mandatory so that a court must enforce the rule if timely raised. A mandatory rule of that sort, unlike a prescription limiting the kinds of cases a court may adjudicate, is ordinarily forfeited if not timely asserted. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is discrete from the statutory provisions empowering federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions. View "Fort Bend County v. Davis" on Justia Law

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New Indiana law altered the manner in which abortion providers may dispose of fetal remains. It excluded fetal remains from the definition of infectious and pathological waste, thereby preventing incineration of fetal remains along with surgical byproducts. It also authorized simultaneous cremation of fetal remains, which Indiana does not generally allow for human remains. The law did not affect a woman’s right under existing law “to determine the final disposition of the aborted fetus.” The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit, upholding the provision. The law does not create an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion and does not implicate a fundamental right; it is subject only to ordinary rational basis review. The Supreme Court has previously acknowledged that a state has a “legitimate interest in proper disposal of fetal remains.” Indiana’s law is rationally related to that interest, even if it is not perfectly tailored to that end. The Court denied certiorari and declined to address the second issue, i.e., whether Indiana may prohibit the knowing provision of sex-, race-, and disability- selective abortions. Only the Seventh Circuit has addressed that kind of law and the Supreme Court ordinarily denies petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals. View "Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc." on Justia Law

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Bartlett was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a winter sports festival held in Alaska. Officer Nieves claimed he was speaking with a group when a seemingly-intoxicated Bartlett started shouting not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Nieves left. Bartlett claims that he was not drunk and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight claimed, Bartlett approached him in an aggressive manner while he was questioning a minor, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. When Bartlett stepped toward Weight, the officer pushed him back. Nieves initiated an arrest. When Bartlett was slow to comply, the officers forced him to the ground. Bartlett denies being aggressive and claims that he was slow because of a back injury. Bartlett claims that Nieves said, “bet you wish you would have talked to me.” Bartlett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the arrest was retaliation for his speech. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit: Because there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett, his retaliatory arrest claim failed as a matter of law. Plaintiffs in retaliatory prosecution cases must prove that the decision to press charges was objectively unreasonable because it was not supported by probable cause. First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims are subject to the same no-probable-cause requirement. The inquiry is complex because protected speech is often a “wholly legitimate consideration” for officers when deciding whether to make an arrest. A purely subjective approach would compromise the even-handed application of the law and would encourage officers to minimize communication during arrests. The common law torts of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, in existence at the time of 42 U.S.C. 1983’s enactment suggest that the presence of probable cause should generally defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. The no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been. View "Nieves v. Bartlett" on Justia Law

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Merck’s drug Fosamax treats and prevents osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. When the FDA approved Fosamax in 1995 (21 U.S.C. 355(d)), its label did not warn of the then-speculative risk of atypical femoral fractures associated with the drug. Stronger evidence connecting Fosamax to such fractures developed later. The FDA ordered Merck to add a warning to the Fosamax label in 2011. Individuals who took Fosamax and suffered atypical femoral fractures sued, claiming that state law imposed upon Merck a legal duty to warn. Merck asserted that the FDA would have rejected any attempt to change the label. The district court agreed with Merck’s pre-emption argument and granted Merck summary judgment. The Third Circuit vacated. The Supreme Court remanded. The Third Circuit incorrectly treated the pre-emption question as one of fact. A state-law failure-to-warn claim is pre-empted where there is “clear evidence” that the FDA would not have approved a change to the label. “Clear evidence” shows the court that the manufacturer fully informed the FDA of the justifications for the warning and that the FDA would not approve a label change to include that warning. FDA regulations permit drug manufacturers to change a label to “reflect newly acquired information” if the changes “add or strengthen a . . . warning” for which there is “evidence of a causal association.” The pre-emption question can only be determined by agency actions taken pursuant to the FDA’s congressionally delegated authority. The question of agency disapproval is primarily one of law for a judge to decide. Judges, rather than juries, are better equipped to evaluate an agency’s determination and to understand and interpret agency decisions in the statutory and regulatory context. While contested facts will sometimes prove relevant, they are subsumed within a tightly-circumscribed legal analysis and do not warrant submission to a jury. View "Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Albrecht" on Justia Law