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Articles Posted in United States Supreme Court

 
In a 6-3 opinion written by notoriously conservative Justice Gorsuch, the United States Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. __ (2020). The opinion was released to the public on June 15, 2020.

What is Title VII?

Title VII is a portion of the larger Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first truly significant civil rights law borne out of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended segregation. The famous civil rights events found in our history books – from Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – followed Brownand led to the enactment of Title VII. After a dramatic congressional debate, it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

The tragic death of George Floyd will hopefully bring reforms that help ease racial tensions and move us toward greater equality in society.  One legal doctrine that allows police officers to avoid liability for acts of brutality and excessive force is the doctrine of qualified immunity that should be revisited in light of recent events.

What is the doctrine of Qualified Immunity?  

Qualified Immunity is a legal doctrine established in 1982 with the Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), to balance constitutional rights and reasonable officer actions by allowing officers to rely on the present state of law at the time of their actions.  This means the officer would not be found in violation of someone’s constitutional rights for following a law that was legal at the time and later ruled unconstitutional. Over time, this has developed in a way that protects an officer’s action above others’ constitutional rights so long as the specific type of violation in question is not “clearly established” as unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court has not defined exactly what “clearly established” means, although it has provided some limited guidance that it is more than a generic statement in the Bill of Rights but does not have to be a precedent with the exact same factual situation.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major abortion case.  This is the first time since Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the Bench, creating a strong conservative majority, that abortion will be addressed by the Court.  That case, June Medical Services v. Russo addresses whether the Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic is constitutional. The Louisiana law at issue in this case is virtually identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the Court in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016.

What could happen is anyone’s guess.  The Court could

  • follow the June Medical Services argument to follow stare decisisand rule, as it did with Whole Women’s Health, the law unconstitutional. Or, it could

On November 14, 2019, Thomas Bell, a motorist convicted of DUI, filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court seeking review of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision that warrantless blood test refusals may be used as evidence of guilt in DUI cases under the State’s implied consent law.  The case being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court is Bell v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In Massachusetts, the SJC has ruled that refusal evidence violates a defendant’s privilege against self incrimination under Article 12 of the Massachusetts State Constitutional.

Bell’s Petition  asks the Supreme Court to address the following question:

Whether a motorist’s assertion of his Fourth Amendment right to refuse consent to a warrantless blood test may be used as evidence of guilt for the offense of driving under the influence?

What is Involuntary Manslaughter in Massachusetts?  

Involuntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing base on wanton and reckless conduct.  In both, the Carter and Inyoung You cases, a major issue is whether the defendant had fair notice under the due process clause that there conduct was criminal.

The case of In Young You involved her sending an extraordinary under of text to her boyfriend, 47,000 and a hundred of them told him to kill himself and go die.  90 Minutes before his graduation the 22 year old biology major jumped from the garage killing himself.  

United States Supreme Court considering a First Amendment challenge to Michelle Carter’s conviction.  Michelle Carter, the 17-year-old who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, when she had sent text messages encouraging him to commit suicide, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari arguing that her conviction violates both the First and Fifth Amendment.

Carter argues that her case, which garnered extensive public attention and media coverage around the globe, is an appropriate vehicle to address these First and Fifth Amendment constitutional questions.

Carter wastes no time in the petition pointing out to the Court how unprecedented her conviction is stating that, “Massachusetts is the only state to have affirmed the conviction of a physically absent defendant who encouraged another person to commit suicide with words alone.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case of Zamudio v. United States which raises the issue of whether a search warrant can legally be issued for a suspected drug trafficker’s residence without evidence that the residence is being used for criminal activity. Attorneys for Juan Zamudio filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the current circuit split and establish a uniform legal standard for the basis of search warrants for suspected drug traffickers’ residences.

When can a judge approve a search warrant for a home in a Drug Trafficking case?  

Typically, a judge can only approve a search warrant application if there is a “nexus” between the crime and the location to be searched and “reasonable cause to believe specific things” with be found there. In the 7thcircuit, however, the mere fact that there is evidence a person is engaged in drug trafficking is sufficient evidence for a judge to issue a search warrant for the suspect’s residence, even if there is no evidence that anything specific will be found there which links the suspect to the alleged criminal activity.

Last August, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Jamal Knox, a rap artist, for multiple charges stemming from what the trial court found were terroristic threats based on the contents of his rap song “F**ck the Police.”  Knox petitions for Supreme Court review and if granted, the Court could not only clarify the “true threats” standard – a muddledarea of First Amendment jurisprudence – but weigh in on the culturally-sensitive and complicated relationship between rap music and free speech.

It is well-established law that true threats of violence fall outside of First Amendment protection.  What constitutes a “true threat,” however, remains far from settled.  In Watts v. United States, 304 U.S. 705 (1969), the Supreme Court held the First Amendment does not protect statements a reasonable person would regard as threatening.  In Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), the Supreme Court added a discussion of speaker intent to “true threat” jurisprudence, but fell short of establishing a subjective intent requirement.

Since Black, courts have employed divergent standards when evaluating whether a statement rises to the level of a true threat.  Some follow more of an objective standard, asking whether a reasonable person would find the statement threatening.  Others, however, follow more of a subjective standard, focusing on whether the speaker intended to communicate a threat by their statement. In fact, the law is so muddled that in some states, like Massachusetts, the federal and state courts within the same state do not apply the same standard.

How long must one be deprived of his freedom before the deprivation is considered “absolute?”  For what time period must a person be away from her job, her family, or her home before the loss of liberty is no longer considered a “mere diminishment of a benefit?”  And what is the appropriate amount of time an indigent arrestee must wait to receive the same benefit as someone more affluent?  On April 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition for a writ of certiorari filed in the case of Maurice Walker v. City of Calhoun, Georgia, a case which would have allowed it to consider these very questions.  

In late 2015, Maurice Walker was arrested and charged with being a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol.  At the time of the arrest, Mr. Walker had a mental illness which prevented him from working, and he received $530 per month in disability.  Although the offense with which he was charged carried no jail time, the city of Calhoun, Georgia had a policy of requiring a cash bail for misdemeanor and traffic offenses.  Not uncoincidentally, the cash bail amount equaled the amount of the fine an arrestee would pay if found guilty of the offense plus certain fees.  The bail in Mr. Walker’s case totaled $160.  Mr. Walker had the bad luck of being arrested during a week leading up to a holiday Monday in a small town with only one Municipal Court judge. Because Mr. Walker could not afford the bail, he was set to remain in jail for thirteen days awaiting a hearing which only occurred on non-holiday Mondays.  Instead, Mr. Walker filed suit and was released after six days in jail on an appearance bond, and the City quickly modified their policy to allow for release of indigents after a maximum of forty-eight hours of incarceration.

The district court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Mr. Walker, which the 11thCircuit vacated finding that the lower court had erred in applying heightened scrutiny to Mr. Walker’s argument.  This formed the basis for the petition for certiorari.  In his petition, Mr. Walker argued that under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one could not be subjected to imprisonment solely because one was indigent.  One of the judges on the divided 11th Circuit panel had agreed with Mr. Walker; Judge Martin argued that heightened scrutiny should apply because Mr. Walker, and those like him, suffered an absolute deprivation of liberty.

In the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case from Wisconsin addressing the issue of whether States can have a statute allowing warrantless blood draw of an unconscious suspect.   Wisconsin and 29 other States allow warrantless blood draws of an unconscious individual as part of its implied consent laws. In the Mitchell case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a divided opinion rejecting the Fourth Amendment challenge with three judges finding that consent was implied and two finding that consent was not required under the circumstances.

Implied consent means that when someone gets their driver’s license, they agree before hand to take a breath or blood test.  In other words, the consent is given when the person obtains their driver’s license.  If a person does not take a breath or blood test, the State can impose sanctions for refusal.  You can read the filings of the Mitchell case on the Scotus Blog.

If the defendant prevails on his Constitutional argument, laws in 29 states will be deemed unconstitutional allowing blood draws for someone that is unconscious.  Seven States Courts have found that unconscious blood draw statutes under the name of implied consent are unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The United States Supreme Court will resolve this split in how the Fourth Amendment is interpreted.

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