Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" on Justia Law

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Concepcion pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), and was sentenced, in 2009, to 228 months in prison. The career offender provision and other enhancements increased Concepcion’s Sentencing Guidelines range from 57-71 months to 262-327 months.The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act corrected a disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing; it did not apply retroactively. A 2011 Sentencing Guidelines amendment lowered the sentencing range for crack-cocaine offenses, retroactively for some defendants. The 2018 First Step Act authorized district courts to “impose a reduced sentence” on defendants serving sentences for certain crack-cocaine offenses “as if" the Fair Sentencing Act "were in effect" when the offense was committed.Because Concepcion was sentenced as a career offender, he was not eligible for relief under the 2011 amendment. Concepcion sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, arguing that he would no longer be considered a career offender because one of his prior convictions had been vacated and his remaining convictions would not constitute crimes of violence. Concepcion pointed to post-sentencing evidence of rehabilitation. The First Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion.The Supreme Court reversed. The First Step Act allows courts to consider intervening changes of law or fact in exercising their discretion to reduce a sentence. District courts’ discretion is bounded only when Congress or the Constitution expressly limits the type of information the court may consider. A court may not consider a First Step Act motion only if the movant’s sentence was already reduced under the Fair Sentencing Act or if the court considered and rejected a First Step Act motion. The “as if ” clause does not impose any limit on the information a court can consider in exercising its discretion. In resentencing proceedings, courts may consider nonretroactive Guidelines changes, rehabilitation, and unrelated Guidelines changes. View "Concepcion v. United States" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Two medical doctors, licensed to prescribe controlled substances, were convicted for violating 21 U.S.C. 841, which makes it a crime, “[e]xcept as authorized[,] . . . for any person knowingly or intentionally . . . to manufacture, distribute, or dispense . . . a controlled substance.” Registered doctors may dispense controlled substances via prescription only if the prescription is “issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” 21 CFR 1306.04(a).The Supreme Court vacated their convictions. Section 841’s “knowingly or intentionally” mental state applies to the statute’s “except as authorized” clause. Once a defendant meets the burden of producing evidence that his conduct was “authorized,” the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in an unauthorized manner. Section 885 does not provide a basis for inferring that Congress intended to do away with, or weaken ordinary and longstanding scienter requirements but supports applying normal scienter principles to the “except as authorized” clause. The Court of Appeals in both cases evaluated the jury instructions relating to "mens rea" under an incorrect understanding of section 841’s scienter requirements. View "Ruan v. United States" on Justia Law

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Once a person turns 65 or has received federal disability benefits for 24 months, he becomes “entitled” to Medicare Part A, 42 U.S.C. 426(a)–(b) benefits. Not all patients who qualify for Medicare Part A have their hospital treatment paid for by the program; a patient’s stay may exceed Medicare’s 90-day cap or a patient may be covered by private insurance.Medicare pays hospitals a fixed rate for in-patient treatment based on the patient’s diagnosis, regardless of the hospital’s actual cost, subject to the “disproportionate share hospital” (DSH) adjustment, which provides higher-than-usual rates to hospitals that serve a higher-than-usual percentage of low-income patients. The DSH adjustment is calculated by adding the Medicare fraction (proportion of a hospital’s Medicare patients who have low incomes) and the Medicaid fraction (proportion of a hospital’s total patients who are not entitled to Medicare and have low incomes). A 2004 HHS regulation provides: If the patient meets the basic statutory criteria for Medicare, that patient counts in the denominator and, if poor, in the numerator of the Medicare fraction. The Ninth Circuit declared the regulation invalid.The Supreme Court reversed. In calculating the Medicare fraction, individuals “entitled to" Medicare Part A benefits are all those qualifying for the program, regardless of whether they receive Medicare payments for a hospital stay. Counting everyone who qualifies for Medicare benefits in the Medicare fraction—and no one who qualifies for those benefits in the Medicaid fraction—accords with the statute’s attempt to capture, through separate measurements, two different segments of a hospital’s low-income patient population. Throughout the Medicare statute, “entitled to benefits” is essentially a term of art meaning “qualifying for benefits” and coexists with limitations on payment. View "Becerra v. Empire Health Foundation, For Valley Hospital Medical Center" on Justia Law

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Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act provides that “[e]xcept in a medical emergency or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality, a person shall not intentionally or knowingly perform . . . or induce an abortion of an unborn human being if the probable gestational age of the unborn human being has been determined to be greater than fifteen (15) weeks.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed an injunction, prohibiting enforcement of the Act.The Supreme Court reversed, overruling its own precedent. The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; the authority to regulate abortion belongs to state representatives. Citing the “faulty historical analysis” in Roe v. Wade, the justices concluded that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition; regulations and prohibitions of abortion are governed by the same “rational basis” standard of review as other health and safety measures. The justices analyzed “great common-law authorities,” concerning the historical understanding of ordered liberty. “Attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy and to define one’s ‘concept of existence’ … could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.”Noting “the critical moral question posed by abortion,” the justices compared their decision to Brown v. Board of Education in overruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which “was also egregiously wrong.” Roe conflated the right to shield information from disclosure and the right to make and implement important personal decisions without governmental interference and produced a scheme that "looked like legislation," including a “glaring deficiency” in failing to justify the distinction it drew between pre- and post-viability abortions. The subsequently-described “undue burden” test is unworkable in defining a line between permissible and unconstitutional restrictions. Traditional reliance interests are not implicated because getting an abortion is generally an “unplanned activity,” and “reproductive planning could take virtually immediate account of any sudden restoration of state authority to ban abortions.” The Court emphasized that nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act is supported by the Mississippi Legislature’s specific findings, which include the State’s asserted interest in “protecting the life of the unborn.” View "Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization" on Justia Law

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Los Angeles County Deputy Vega questioned Tekoh at the medical center where Tekoh worked regarding the reported sexual assault of a patient. Vega did not inform Tekoh of his Miranda rights. Tekoh eventually provided a written statement and was prosecuted for unlawful sexual penetration. His written statement was admitted against him at trial. After the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, Tekoh sued Vega under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Ninth Circuit held that the use of an un-Mirandized statement against a defendant in a criminal proceeding violated the Fifth Amendment and could support a section 1983 claim.The Supreme Court reversed. A violation of the Miranda rules does not provide a basis for a section 1983 claim. In Miranda, the Court concluded that additional procedural protections were necessary to prevent the violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Miranda did not hold that a violation of the rules it established necessarily constitute a Fifth Amendment violation. The Miranda rules have been described as “constitutionally based” with “constitutional underpinnings,” but a Miranda violation is not the same as a violation of the Fifth Amendment right.Miranda warnings are “prophylactic,” and can require balancing competing interests. A judicially crafted prophylactic rule should apply only where its benefits outweigh its costs. While the benefits of permitting the assertion of Miranda claims under section 1983 would be slight, the costs would be substantial. View "Vega v. Tekoh" on Justia Law

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A prisoner who challenges a state’s proposed method of execution under the Eighth Amendment must identify a readily available alternative method that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain. Nance brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 to enjoin Georgia from executing him by lethal injection, the only method of execution that Georgia now authorizes. Nance proposes death by firing squad—a method currently approved by four other states. The Eleventh Circuit held that Nance could advance his method-of-execution claim only by a habeas petition. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1983 remains an appropriate vehicle for a prisoner’s method-of-execution claim where the prisoner proposes an alternative method not authorized by the state’s death-penalty statute. Both section 1983 and the federal habeas statute enable a prisoner to complain of “unconstitutional treatment at the hands of state officials.” When a prisoner seeks relief that would “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence,” he must proceed in habeas. Here, Georgia would have to change its statute to carry out Nance’s execution by firing squad, so an order granting relief would not “necessarily prevent” the state from implementing the execution. The state has a pathway forward even if the proposed alternative is unauthorized by present state law. Section 1983 can compel changes to state laws when necessary to vindicate federal constitutional rights. It would be strange to read state-by-state discrepancies into how section 1983 and the habeas statute apply to federal constitutional claims. View "Nance v. Ward" on Justia Law

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North Carolina amended its Constitution to require photographic identification for in-person voting. S.B. 824 was enacted to implement the amendment. In a federal constitutional challenge, the Board of Elections was defended by the state’s attorney general, a former state senator who had opposed an earlier voter identification law. Legislative leaders moved to intervene, arguing that important state interests would not be adequately represented, given the Governor’s opposition to S.B. 824, the Board’s allegiance to the Governor, the Board’s tepid defense of S.B. 824 in state-court proceedings, and the attorney general’s opposition to earlier voter-ID efforts. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the legislative leaders were not entitled to intervene.The Supreme Court reversed. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24(a)(2) provides that a court must permit anyone to intervene who timely claims an interest in the subject of the action unless existing parties adequately represent that interest. States possess a legitimate interest in the enforcement of their statutes. When a state allocates authority among different officials who do not answer to one another, different interests and perspectives, all important to the administration of state government, may emerge. Federal courts should rarely question that a state’s interests will be practically impaired if its authorized representatives are excluded from participating in federal litigation challenging state law. Permitting participation by lawfully authorized state agents promotes informed federal-court decision-making. North Carolina law explicitly provides that the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate “shall jointly have standing to intervene on behalf of the General Assembly as a party in any judicial proceeding challenging a North Carolina statute” or constitutional provision. View "Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP" on Justia Law

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The State of .New York makes it a crime to possess a firearm without a license. An individual who wants to carry a firearm outside his home may obtain an unrestricted license to “have and carry” a concealed “pistol or revolver” if he can prove that “proper cause exists.” An applicant satisfies the “proper cause” requirement if he can “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” New York residents who unsuccessfully applied for unrestricted licenses to carry a handgun in public based on their generalized interest in self-defense challenged the “proper cause” requirement.The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of the suit. New York’s "proper cause" requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense. The “historical evidence from antebellum America does demonstrate that the manner of public carry was subject to reasonable regulation, but none of these limitations on the right to bear arms operated to prevent law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from carrying arms in public for that purpose.” The Court stated that the "constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.” The exercise of other constitutional rights does not require individuals to demonstrate to government officers some special need. View "New York State Rifle & Pistol Association., Inc. v. Bruen" on Justia Law

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Twyford was convicted of aggravated murder and was sentenced to death. Ohio courts affirmed his conviction and sentence, then denied post-conviction relief, rejecting Twyford’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present evidence of a head injury Twyford had sustained. The district court dismissed most of Twyford’s federal habeas claims but allowed others to proceed and ordered the state to transport him to a medical facility for neurological testing that might lead to evidence to support his claim. The court cited the All Writs Act, which authorizes federal courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions.” 28 U.S.C. 1651(a). The Sixth Circuit affirmed.The Supreme Court reversed. A transportation order that allows a prisoner to search for new evidence is not “necessary or appropriate in aid of” a federal court’s adjudication of a habeas corpus action when the prisoner has not shown that the desired evidence would be admissible in connection with a claim for relief. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) restricts the ability of a federal habeas court to develop and consider new evidence: Before a federal court may decide whether to grant an evidentiary hearing or “otherwise consider new evidence” under 28 U.S.C. 2254(e)(2), it must first determine that such evidence could be legally considered in the prisoner’s case. The All Writs Act cannot be used to circumvent statutory requirements or binding procedural rules. Twyford never explained how the results of neurological testing could be admissible in his habeas proceedings, given that AEDPA review is limited to “the record that was before the state court.” View "Shoop v. Twyford" on Justia Law