The ten U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the past week – and why they matter to you.
In the coming days, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue decisions on highly debated cases, such as the Affordable Care Act, Fair Housing, and Marriage Equality. Yet in the past week, the Supreme Court has already decided ten different cases, with vastly different implications. Take a look at what the highest court in the land decided, and learn how these decisions will affect Americans nationwide.
The Confrontation Clause requirement is one of the most basic in a court of law. It mandates that each individual can confront his or her accuser through cross-examination. Yet there are notable exceptions to this rule. In Ohio v. Clark, Justice Alito wrote that the statements made by a three-year old child to his teacher about the physical abuse he was suffering can be used as evidence, regardless of whether the child actually testifies in court during the trial of his abuser. The boy was too young to testify, but his teachers told the jurors what the child had said. This ruling is incredibly significant to anyone who cares about protecting the young and vulnerable from domestic abuse. Had the Court decided differently, it would have been much harder to prosecute these perpetrators and hold them accountable for their actions in court.
In McFadden v. United States, Justice Thomas held that if a state wants to outlaw individuals from selling synthetic drugs, prosecutors must show that the specific person charged with the crime knew that the substance was banned. Synthetic drugs are referred to as “analogue drugs” in many laws, meaning drugs that are substantially similar to another type of drug. These laws are aimed specifically at new synthetic drugs that are often only a slight chemical change away from a different drug. This ruling will make it much harder both for states to ban these synthetic drugs, and for prosecutors to charge anyone with selling these drugs.
According to Justice Breyer, writing for the majority in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the state of Texas is free to refuse to issue license plates with a picture of the Confederate flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that this refusal stifled their free speech, but the Court said that the license plate is actually state property, and so the flag is speech by the state – not speech by private individuals. While Alito may be worried that such a decision could lead to the government squashing speech it simply doesn’t like, for most Americans, this decision means not having to see patently offensive speech on government property. Given the current climate after the Charleston Shooting promoting the removal of the Confederate flag from state buildings, this verdict came at a pivotal moment.
Over 20 years ago in California, Hector Ayala was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-Caucasian jury. The ethnic composition of the jury wasn’t a coincidence; the prosecutors purposefully and systematically excluded all potential Hispanic and African-American jurors. While the 9th Circuit Court had ruled that the prosecutor’s actions meant that Ayala was denied a fair trial, the Supreme Court disagreed in Davis v. Ayala. Justice Alito’s opinion labeled the prosecutor’s actions “harmless error”, a legal term that in general means that the mistake was not meaningful enough to warrant interference by the court, and here meant that Ayala would not be given a new trial.
Justice Sotomayer’s decision in Brumfield v. Cain means that the state of Louisiana cannot execute convicted killer Kevan Brumfield. He is protected by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from over a decade ago, which ruled that the mentally disabled cannot be executed. This case affirms that the U.S. Supreme Court will zealously protect its established rulings restricting the death penalty.
In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Justice Thomas led a majority of justices in deciding against a law by a town in Arizona that forced church signs to be smaller than signs for political candidates, real estate agents, and others. Some may have misinterpreted this as a religious rights case particularly because the church was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, which describes itself as a faith driven legal group and which takes on cases solely on issues of religious liberty, and attempted to frame this case as such. However, this case was in fact decided on the basis of the free speech clause. By not allowing local governments to give preference to certain categories of noncommercial speech or to police speech in a content-based way, this Supreme Court has reaffirmed its commitment to free speech.
A hallmark of agricultural programs is a government requirement requiring that producers give up part of their crops, keeping overall prices higher than they would be if all the available supply was in the market. Yet Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, struck down such a program for the raisin market. Eight of nine justices considered the government’s actions to be illegally taking private property without compensation. While there is a significant amount of similarly-minded regulation in agriculture, not many other crops are regulated in the exact same way as the raisin market, so it is unclear as to how widely this ruling will affect the constitutionality of other programs.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority decision in Los Angeles v. Patel, which struck down a city law allowing police to view hotel registration records on demand. This expansion of police powers was justified by cities across the country as a way to fight prostitution and drug-dealing, but the Supreme Court’s decision means that police will need to do more than just demand the information they want to see from hotel owners.
The decision in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises Inc. bars the inventor of the Spider-Man toy, Marvel Enterprises, from continuing to collect royalties even after the patent has run out. The half-century old rule that the Supreme Court upheld was unpopular, and many believe it does not fit into the current economic climate. Yet Justice Kagan noted that because of both entrenched existing laws and a widely accepted reliance on the same principle in virtually all existing contracts, the Court needed to uphold the law. The legal term used, “stare decisis”, means to stick to a past decision even if it is incorrect, which is just what the Court did in this case. This suggests that for future cases, the Supreme Court will expect a better justification for changing an existing rule rather than simply that the current one is bad.
In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, a pre-trial detainee sued two jail guards who he claimed violated his rights by using excessive force against him. His claims originally fell short at trial, but he won at the Supreme Court. Justice Breyer held that a claim of excessive force requires only that the force was deliberately used and objectively unreasonable. This ruling protects against the abuse of police powers at a time when this topic has become incredibly pertinent nation-wide, and we will undoubtedly hear more about the importance of this ruling and the protections it offers in the days and years to come.