Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Hyatt sued the Franchise Tax Board of California in Nevada state court for alleged torts committed during a tax audit. The Supreme Court affirmed the Nevada Supreme Court, holding that the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not prohibit Nevada from applying its own immunity law. On remand, the Nevada Supreme Court declined to apply a cap on tort liability applicable to Nevada state agencies. The Supreme Court reversed but was divided on whether to overrule Nevada v. Hall, which held that the Constitution does not bar suits brought by an individual against a state in the courts of another state. On remand, the Nevada Supreme Court instructed the trial court to enter damages in accordance with Nevada’s statutory cap. The Supreme Court then overruled Nevada v. Hall. States retain sovereign immunity from private suits brought in courts of other states. The Constitution assumes that the states retain sovereign immunity except as otherwise provided and fundamentally adjusts the states’ relationship with each other. Article III abrogated certain aspects of the states’ traditional immunity by providing a neutral federal forum in which the states agreed to be amenable to suits brought by other states; in ratifying the Constitution, the states similarly surrendered some of their immunity, consenting to suits brought against them by the United States in federal courts. The Eleventh Amendment confirms that the Constitution was not meant to “rais[e] up” any suits against the states that were “anomalous and unheard of when the Constitution was adopted,” and implies that the Constitution was understood, in light of its history and structure, to preserve the states’ traditional immunity from private suits. State sovereign immunity in another state’s courts is integral to the structure of the Constitution. The states “are no longer fully independent nations free to disregard each other’s sovereignty.” View "Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt" on Justia Law

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Under the Supreme Court’s “Baze-Glossip” test, a state’s refusal to alter its execution protocol can violate the Eighth Amendment only if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.” Missouri plans to execute Bucklew by lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital. Bucklew presented an as-applied Eighth Amendment challenge, alleging that, regardless whether the protocol would cause excruciating pain for all prisoners, it would cause him severe pain because of his particular medical condition. The Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the rejection of Bucklew’s challenge. The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. To establish that a state’s chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the state has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason. Traditionally accepted methods of execution are not necessarily unconstitutional because an arguably more humane method becomes available. Precedent forecloses Bucklew’s argument that methods posing a “substantial and particular risk of grave suffering” when applied to a particular inmate due to his “unique medical condition” should be considered “categorically” cruel. Identifying an available alternative is a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims alleging cruel pain. Bucklew failed to present a triable question on the viability of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to Missouri’s protocol; he merely pointed to reports from other states indicating the need for additional study. Missouri had a “legitimate” interest in choosing not to be the first to experiment with a new, “untried and untested” method of execution. View "Bucklew v. Precythe" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought class action claims against Google, claiming violations of the Stored Communications Act; they alleged that when an Internet user conducted a Google search and clicked on a hyperlink listed on the search results, Google transmitted information (referrer header) including the terms of the search to the server that hosted the selected webpage. The Act prohibits “a person or entity providing an electronic communication service to the public” from “knowingly divulg[ing] to any person or entity the contents of a communication while in electronic storage by that service” and creates a private right of action. The district court denied a motion to dismiss, citing a Ninth Circuit holding (Edwards) that an Article III injury exists whenever a statute gives an individual a statutory cause of action and the plaintiff claims that the defendant violated the statute. The parties negotiated a classwide settlement that allowed the continued transmission of referrer headers but required Google to include disclosures on three of its webpages and to pay $8.5 million. None of those funds would be distributed to absent class members; most of the money would be distributed to cy pres recipients. In a class action, cy pres refers to distributing settlement funds not amenable to individual claims or meaningful pro rata distribution to nonprofit organizations whose work indirectly benefits class members. The balance would be used for administrative costs, given to the named plaintiffs, and awarded as attorney’s fees. In the meantime, the Supreme Court (Spokeo) held that “Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation,” rejecting the "Edwards" premise. The Ninth Circuit affirmed approval of the settlement without addressing Spokeo. The Supreme Court vacated. Although the Court granted certiorari to decide whether a class action settlement that provides a cy pres award but no direct relief to class members is “fair, reasonable, and adequate,” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 23(e)(2), the Court concluded that there is a substantial open question about whether any named plaintiff had standing. A court cannot approve a proposed class settlement if it lacks jurisdiction over the dispute, and federal courts lack jurisdiction if no named plaintiff has standing. When the district court ruled on the motion to dismiss, it relied on precedent that was subsequently abrogated in Spokeo. View "Frank v. Gaos" on Justia Law

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In “Ford” the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing; in “Panetti,” the Court prohibited execution of a prisoner whose “mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.” Madison was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He subsequently suffered several strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Madison sought a stay of execution, stressing that he could not recollect committing the crime. Alabama rejected his claim. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of habeas relief, holding that neither Panetti nor Ford clearly established that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed simply because of failure to remember his crime but otherwise expressed no view on Madison’s competency. Alabama set an execution date; a state court again found Madison competent. The Supreme Court vacated. Under Ford and Panetti, execution may be permissible if the prisoner cannot remember committing his crime. Memory loss may, however, factor into the Panetti analysis to determine whether that loss interacts with other mental shortfalls to deprive a person of the capacity to comprehend why the state is exacting death as a punishment. The Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. The Panetti standard focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect; not on establishing any precise cause. In evaluating competency, a judge must look beyond any given diagnosis to a downstream consequence. The Court remanded for renewed consideration of Madison’s competency by evaluation of whether he can reach a rational understanding of why the state wants to execute him. View "Madison v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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Garza signed plea agreements arising from state criminal charges, each containing a waiver of the right to appeal. Shortly after sentencing, Garza told his attorney that he wished to appeal. Counsel declined. After the time to preserve an appeal lapsed, Garza sought state postconviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Idaho courts rejected his claim, reasoning that the “Flores-Ortega” presumption of prejudice when trial counsel fails to file an appeal as instructed does not apply when the defendant has agreed to an appeal waiver. The Supreme Court reversed. Flores-Ortega’s presumption applies regardless of an appeal waiver. Under "Strickland," a defendant who claims ineffective assistance must prove that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that such deficiency was prejudicial. Prejudice is presumed in certain contexts, including when counsel’s deficient performance deprives a defendant of an appeal that he otherwise would have taken. No appeal waiver serves as an absolute bar to all appellate claims; a plea agreement is essentially a contract and does not bar claims outside its scope. A waived claim may proceed if the prosecution forfeits or waives the waiver or if the government breaches the agreement. Defendants retain the right to challenge whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary. Given the possibility that a defendant will raise claims beyond the waiver’s scope, simply filing a notice of appeal does not breach a plea agreement. Garza retained a right to appeal at least some issues and the presumption of prejudice does not bend because a particular defendant may have had poor prospects. Filing a notice of appeal is “a purely ministerial task that imposes no great burden on counsel” and the accused has ultimate authority to decide whether to appeal. View "Garza v. Idaho" on Justia Law

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Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The police seized a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The state sought civil forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, charging that it had been used to transport heroin. Observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction, the trial court denied that request. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which incorporates and renders applicable to the states Bill of Rights protections “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Excessive fines undermine other liberties. They can be used to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a Bill of Rights protection, the question is whether the right guaranteed—not every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted. The Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted. View "Timbs v. Indiana" on Justia Law

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In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that Moore did not have an intellectual disability and was eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court vacated the decision. The appeals court reconsidered but reached the same conclusion in 2018. The Supreme Court again reversed, noting evidence that “Moore had significant mental and social difficulties beginning at an early age. At 13, Moore lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure or the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition ... because of his limited ability to read and write, Moore could not keep up with lessons. … Moore’s father, teachers, and peers called him ‘stupid’ for his slow reading and speech. After failing every subject in the ninth grade, Moore dropped out of high school ... survived on the streets, eating from trash cans.” The court of appeal employed the correct legal criteria, examining: deficits in intellectual functioning—primarily a test-related criterion; adaptive deficits, “assessed using both clinical evaluation and individualized . . . measures”.; and the onset of these deficits while the defendant was still a minor. The court focused on adaptive deficits and found the state’s expert witness more credible and reliable than the other experts The Supreme Court held that the opinion repeated the analysis previously found improper; it relied, in part, on prison-based development, considered “emotional problems, ” and employed some “lay stereotypes of the intellectually disabled.” Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability. View "Moore v. Texas" on Justia Law

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In April 2013, Escondido police responded to a 911 call from Emmons about domestic violence at the apartment where she lived with her husband, her children, and a roommate, Douglas. The officers arrested her husband. He was later released. In May 2013, Escondido police received a 911 call, from Douglas’s mother (Trina) about another disturbance at Emmons’ apartment. Trina had been on the phone with her daughter, who was at the apartment. Trina heard her daughter and Emmons yelling and heard Douglas screaming for help before the call disconnected. Officers Houchin and Craig responded, having been notified that children could be present and that calls to the apartment had gone unanswered. There is a body-camera video of the response. No one answered the door. Officers spoke with Emmons through an open window. A man in the apartment told Emmons to back away from the window. Sergeant Toth and two officers arrived as backup. Minutes later, a man opened the door and came outside. Officer Craig said not to close the door. The man closed the door and tried to brush past Craig, who took the man quickly to the ground and handcuffed him without hitting the man or displaying any weapon. The man was not in observable pain. Within minutes, officers helped him up and arrested him for misdemeanor resisting and delaying a police officer. The man, Emmons’ father, Marty, sued under 42 U. S. C. 1983, claiming excessive force. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the officers had probable cause to arrest Marty but remanded the excessive force claims. The Supreme Court reversed as to Toth and vacated as to Craig. The decision concerning Toth was “quite puzzling” in light of the district court’s conclusion that only Craig was involved in the excessive force claim. As to Craig, it does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remand for a trial on the question of reasonableness. An officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it. The Ninth Circuit’s formulation of the clearly established right was far too general; the court made no effort to explain how case law prohibited Craig’s actions in this case. View "Escondido v. Emmons" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit held that Hill, who was sentenced to death in 1986, was entitled to habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(1) because the decisions of the Ohio courts concluding that he is not intellectually disabled were contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent. The court relied on the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Moore v. Texas. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded so that Hill’s intellectual disability claim can be evaluated based solely on holdings that were clearly established at the relevant time. The Court rejected the Sixth Circuit reasoning “that Moore’s holding regarding adaptive strengths [was] merely an application of what was clearly established by” the Court’s 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia. In 2008, when the Ohio Court of Appeals rejected Hill’s claim, Atkins had not provided any comprehensive definition of “mental retardation” for Eighth Amendment purposes. While Atkins noted that standard definitions of mental retardation included as a necessary element “significant limitations in adaptive skills . . . that became manifest before age 18,” Atkins did not definitively resolve how that element was to be evaluated but instead left its application in the first instance to the states. The Moore majority primarily relied on medical literature that postdated the Ohio courts’ decisions. View "Shoop v. Hill" on Justia Law

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Sause, pro se, filed suit (42 U.S.C. 1983) against Louisburg, Kansas, police officers, the current mayor, and a former mayor, alleging that officers visited her apartment in response to a noise complaint, gained admittance, and engaged in abusive conduct before citing her for disorderly conduct and interfering with law enforcement. She alleged that at one point she knelt and began to pray but an officer ordered her to stop; another officer refused to investigate her complaint that she had been assaulted by residents of her apartment complex and threatened to issue a citation if she reported this to another police department; that the police chief failed to investigate the officers’ conduct; and that the mayors were aware of unlawful conduct by police officers. She asserted a violation of her First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and her Fourth Amendment right to be free of any unreasonable search or seizure. The Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal, citing qualified immunity. The Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment protects the right to pray but there are circumstances in which an officer may lawfully prevent a person from praying. Here, the officer’s order to stop praying allegedly occurred during the course of investigative conduct that implicates Fourth Amendment rights; the First and Fourth Amendment issues are inextricable. It is unclear whether the officers were in Sause’s apartment based on her consent or had some other ground consistent with the Fourth Amendment, or whether their entry or continued presence was unlawful. Nor does her complaint state what the officers wanted her to do when she was allegedly told to stop praying. Without these answers, it is impossible to analyze Sause’s free exercise claim. Although Sause raised only a First Amendment argument on appeal, that claim and the issue of qualified immunity demanded consideration of the ground on which the officers were present and any legitimate law enforcement interests that might have justified an order to stop praying. View "Sause v. Bauer" on Justia Law