Month in Review: January at the U.S. Supreme Court


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The U.S. Supreme Court continues to set up what looks to be a blockbuster term. By June, union fees, affirmative action, and President Obama’s new immigration policy could all become casualties of the Roberts Court. In January alone, the Court heard oral arguments in a key First Amendment case, struck down Florida’s death sentencing scheme, and agreed to join the debate regarding the President’s use of executive orders.

Oral Arguments Before the Court

Since I represented the New Jersey State League of Municipalities before the United States Supreme Court in Heffernan v. Paterson, I would like to say that this was the most important case the court heard last month.  For America’s cities, the Court’s decision whether political retaliation for non-speech violates the First Amendment can be costly if the Third Circuit is overturned.  However, this was not the biggest case the Court heard last month.

The month’s most anticipated oral argument took place on January 11 when the justices considered Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. While the Court’s decision will likely not be issued for several months, it appeared that union fees may be on the way out.

In 2014, a slim 5-4 majority held that the First Amendment prohibited the collection of an agency fee from home healthcare providers because they were not “full-fledged” public employees. The ruling stopped just short of overruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 decision in which the Court held that public employees can be compelled to pay an agency service fee to cover their fair share of the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment without running afoul of the Constitution. In oral arguments, the Court’s conservative block again made it clear that they believe Abood rests on shaky legal footing.

Opinions Issued by the Justices

The justices also issued a number of decisions in January. In the area of criminal law, the Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in Hurst v. Florida. By a vote of 8-1, the justices held that allowing the trial judge to have the final say on a death sentence, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment. The Court’s decision largely rested on a local case, Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the Court held that the Sixth Amendment requires that any fact that “expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s verdict” must be submitted to a jury.

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court made it easier for thousands of inmates to seek parole. The decision clarified that the Court’s prior decision in Miller v. Alabama, holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders must be applied retroactively by state courts. “Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

The Court also dealt a rare blow to the business community regarding class action lawsuits. In Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, the justices held that an unaccepted settlement offer or offer of judgment did not moot a plaintiff’s class action claim.

Key Cases on Deck

The Supreme Court continued to grant certiorari in January, with the Court’s docket now at 81 cases. Most notably, the justices agreed to consider United States v. Texas, which challenges the legality of President Barak Obama’s executive orders on immigration. The Court surprised many by requiring the parties to argue an underlying constitutional question not raised in the petition or by the lower courts — whether the new immigration guidance violates the Take Care Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court also granted cert in McDonnell v. United States, which involves bribery charges against Virginia’s former governor. The case addresses where to draw the between politics and public corruption. While the government maintains that Bob McDonnell engaged in criminal conduct when he and his wife accepted gifts, loans and other personal benefits from a local businessman. McDonnel maintains that his actions, such as setting up meetings, were political courtesies and did not amount to using his position to influence government matters.“This is the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision,” the appeal argued.

Also of note, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, the justices will address a growing circuit split regarding the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program, in this case, funding to resurface a playground. The question is whether excluding religious organizations violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.

The Supreme Court is now in recess, with the justices returning to the bench on February 22.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.

Month in Review: January at the U.S. Supreme Court