Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) requires covered employers to provide women with “preventive care and screenings” without cost-sharing requirements and relies on Preventive Care Guidelines “supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration” (HRSA) to define “preventive care and screenings,” 42 U.S.C. 300gg–13(a)(4). Those Guidelines mandate that health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods. When the Federal Departments incorporated the Guidelines, they gave HRSA the discretion to exempt religious employers from providing contraceptive coverage. Later, the Departments promulgated a rule accommodating qualifying religious organizations, allowing them to opt out of coverage by self-certifying that they met certain criteria to their health insurance issuer, which would then exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without any cost-sharing requirements. In its 2014 “Hobby Lobby” decision, the Supreme Court held that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened the free exercise of closely-held corporations with sincerely held religious objections. In a later decision, the Court remanded challenges to the self-certification accommodation so that the parties could develop an approach that would accommodate employers’ concerns while providing women full and equal coverage. The Departments then promulgated interim final rules. One significantly expanded the church exemption to include an employer that objects, based on its sincerely held religious beliefs, to coverage or payments for contraceptive services. Another created an exemption for employers with sincerely held moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage. The Third Circuit affirmed a preliminary nationwide injunction against the implementation of the rules. The Supreme Court reversed. The Departments had the authority under the ACA to promulgate the exemptions. Section 300gg–13(a)(4) states that group health plans must provide preventive care and screenings “as provided for” in comprehensive guidelines, granting HRSA sweeping authority to define that preventive care and to create exemptions from its Guidelines. Concerns that the exemptions thwart Congress’ intent by making it significantly harder for women to obtain seamless access to contraception without cost-sharing cannot justify supplanting that plain meaning. “It is clear ... that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The rules promulgating the exemptions are free from procedural defects. View "Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Two teachers at Roman Catholic elementary schools were employed under agreements that set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. Each taught religion and worshipped with her students, prayed with her students. Each teacher sued after her employment was terminated. One claimed violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the other claimed she was discharged because she requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. The Ninth Circuit declined to apply the Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees. The Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose the adjudication of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. Several factors may be important in determining whether a particular position falls within the ministerial exception. What matters is what an employee does. Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith lie are the core of a private religious school’s mission. The plaintiff-teachers qualify for the exception; both performed vital religious duties, educating their students in the Catholic faith, and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” but their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion is important. The Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the Hosanna-Tabor decision as a checklist; that court invested undue significance in the facts that these teachers did not have clerical titles and that they had less formal religious schooling than the Hosanna-Tabor teacher. The Court rejected a suggestion that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a “practicing” member of the religion with which the employer is associated. View "Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru" on Justia Law

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits almost all robocalls to cell phones, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). A 2015 amendment created an exception that allows robocalls made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States, 129 Stat. 588. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government-debt exception was a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand strict scrutiny and was severable from the robocall restriction. The Supreme Court affirmed. Under the Free Speech Clause, the government generally has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. Content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny. The government-debt exception is content-based because it favors speech made for the purpose of collecting government debt over political and other speech. The exception does not draw distinctions based on speakers, and even if it did, that would not automatically render the distinction content-neutral. The exception focuses on whether the caller is speaking about a particular topic and not simply on whether the caller is engaged in a particular economic activity. While the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech, this law does not simply have an effect on speech, but is directed at certain content and is aimed at particular speakers. The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like. View "Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc." on Justia Law

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Louisiana’s Act 620 required any doctor who performs abortions to hold “active admitting privileges at a hospital . . . located not further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion is performed or induced.” The district court provisionally prohibited the Act's enforcement, directing the doctors to seek privileges. Months later, the court declared Act 620 unconstitutional. On remand following the Supreme Court’s 2016 “Whole Woman’s Health” decision, the court entered a permanent injunction, finding that the law offers no significant health benefit; that conditions on admitting privileges common to Louisiana hospitals make it impossible for abortion providers to obtain privileges for reasons unrelated to asserted interests in promoting women’s health and safety; and that this inability places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion. The Fifth Circuit reversed, disagreeing with those factual findings. The Supreme Court reversed. The district court’s factual findings, made after a six-day bench trial, and precedent, particularly Whole Woman’s Health, establish that Act 620 is unconstitutional as an unnecessary health regulation that has the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions. The findings show that enforcing the Act would drastically reduce the number and geographic distribution of abortion providers, making it impossible for many women to obtain a safe, legal abortion in Louisiana and imposing substantial obstacles on those who could. The evidence supporting those findings is stronger than in Whole Woman’s Health and showed that opposition to abortion played a role in some hospitals’ decisions to deny the plaintiff-physicians admitting privileges. Delays in obtaining an abortion might increase the risk that a woman will experience complications and may make it impossible for her to choose non-invasive medication abortion. The burdens of increased travel to distant clinics would fall disproportionately on poor women. View "June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo" on Justia Law

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The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) provides for the expedited removal of certain “applicants” seeking admission into the U.S., 8 U.S.C. 1225(a)(1). An applicant may avoid expedited removal by demonstrating a “credible fear of persecution,” meaning “a significant possibility . . . that the alien could establish eligibility for asylum.” An applicant who makes this showing is entitled to a standard removal hearing. An asylum officer’s rejection of a credible-fear claim is reviewed by a supervisor and may then be appealed to an immigration judge. IIRIRA limits habeas corpus review; courts may not review “the determination” that an applicant lacks a credible fear of persecution. Thuraissigiam, a Sri Lankan national, was stopped immediately after crossing the southern border without inspection or an entry document. He was detained for expedited removal. An asylum officer's rejection of his credible-fear claim was affirmed. Thuraissigiam filed a federal habeas petition, requesting a new opportunity to apply for asylum. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Thuraissigiam’s favor. As applied here, Section 1252(e)(2) does not violate the Suspension Clause, which provides that “[t]he Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Art. I, section 9, cl. 2. At a minimum, the Clause “protects the writ as it existed in 1789.” Habeas has traditionally provided a means to seek release from unlawful detention. Thuraissigiam does not seek release from custody, but an additional opportunity to obtain asylum. His claims fall outside the scope of the writ as it existed when the Constitution was adopted. As applied here, Section 1252(e)(2) does not violate the Due Process Clause. For aliens seeking initial entry, the decisions of executive or administrative officers, acting within powers expressly conferred by Congress, are due process of law. An alien who is detained shortly after unlawful entry cannot be said to have “effected an entry.” An alien in Thuraissigiam’s position has only those rights regarding admission that are provided by statute. View "Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam" on Justia Law

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Andrus was six years old, his mother sold drugs out of their apartment. She turned to prostitution and regularly left her five children to binge on drugs. She often was high and had drug-addicted, sometimes violent, boyfriends. When Andrus was 16, he served as a lookout while others committed a robbery. During 18 months in juvenile detention, he was exposed to gangs, drugs, and extended solitary confinement, resulting in suicidal urges. In 2008, Andrus, then 20, attempted a carjacking while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. Andrus fired multiple shots, killing two people. At his capital murder trial, Andrus’ defense counsel declined to present an opening statement or evidence. In his closing argument, counsel conceded Andrus’ guilt. The jury found Andrus guilty of capital murder. During the punishment phase, the prosecution presented evidence of Andrus' aggressive behavior in juvenile detention; that Andrus had gang tattoos; that Andrus had hit, kicked, and thrown excrement at prison officials while awaiting trial; and that Andrus was involved in an aggravated robbery. Counsel raised no material objections. In mitigation, counsel focused on Andrus’ basic biographical information, without revealing the circumstances of Andrus’ childhood; the only expert witness focused on the general effects of drug use on adolescent brains. A prison counselor testified that Andrus “started having remorse.” Andrus testified about his childhood. The jury sentenced Andrus to death. In Andrus’ state habeas proceeding, Andrus’ life history came to light. Andrus’ counsel offered no reason for failing to investigate Andrus’ history. The trial court recommended a new sentencing proceeding. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. Andrus demonstrated counsel’s deficient performance under Strickland, but the Court of Criminal Appeals may have failed properly to engage with the question of whether Andrus established that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. View "Andrus v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Three employers each fired a long-time employee for being homosexual or transgender. Each employee sued, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” 42 U.S.C. 2000e–2(a)(1). The Eleventh Circuit held that the suit could be dismissed. The Second and Sixth Circuits allowed the claims to proceed. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employees. An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex regardless of whether other factors besides the plaintiff's sex contributed to the decision or whether the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. Discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex. It is irrelevant what an employer or others might call the discriminatory practice; that another factor, such as the plaintiff’s attraction to the same sex or presentation as a different sex from that assigned at birth, might play an important role in the employer’s decision; or that an employer could refuse to hire a gay or transgender individual without learning that person’s sex. The Court rejected arguments that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex and that a stricter causation test should apply because the policies at issue have the same adverse consequences for men and women. Legislative history has no bearing where no ambiguity exists about how Title VII’s terms apply to the facts. View "Bostock v. Clayton County" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established the three-strikes rule, which generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP) if he has had three or more prior suits dismissed on the grounds that they were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Colorado inmate Lomax sued prison officials to challenge his expulsion from the facility’s sex-offender treatment program and moved for IFP status. He had already brought three unsuccessful legal actions during his time in prison. The district court and Tenth Circuit rejected Lomax’s argument that two of the dismissals should not count as strikes because they were without prejudice. The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 1915(g)’s three-strikes provision refers to any dismissal for failure to state a claim, whether with prejudice or without. A Section 1915(g) strike-call hinges exclusively on the basis for the dismissal, regardless of the decision’s prejudicial effect. Courts can and sometimes do dismiss frivolous actions without prejudice. View "Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez" on Justia Law

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Banister was convicted by a Texas court of aggravated assault and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. After exhausting his state remedies, he unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Banister timely filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), which allows a litigant to file a motion to alter or amend a district court’s judgment within 28 days from the entry of judgment, with no possibility of an extension. That motion was denied. Banister filed a notice of appeal in accordance with the timeline for appealing a judgment after a Rule 59(e) denial. A timely Rule 59 motion suspends the finality of the original judgment for purposes of appeal. The Fifth Circuit construed Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion as a successive habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. 2244(b), and dismissed his appeal as untimely. The Supreme Court reversed Because a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment is not a second or successive habeas petition, Banister’s appeal was timely. The phrase “second or successive application” does not simply refer to all habeas filings made successively in time, following an initial application. Rule 59(e) applies in habeas proceedings, deriving from courts’ common-law power to alter or amend their own judgments before any appeal. The purposes of AEDPA--reducing delay, conserving judicial resources, and promoting finality--are served by Rule 59(e), which offers a narrow window to seek relief; limits requests for reconsideration to matters properly raised in the challenged judgment; and consolidates proceedings into a single final judgment for appeal. View "Banister v. Davis" on Justia Law

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The petitioners challenged a New York City rule regarding the transport of firearms, citing the Second Amendment, and seeking declaratory relief against enforcement of the rule insofar as it prevented their transport of firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city. The Second Circuit rejected their claim. After the Supreme Court granted certiorari, the State of New York amended its firearm licensing statute and the City amended the rule so that the petitioners may now transport firearms to a second home or shooting range outside of the city. The Supreme Court vacated. The petitioners’ claim for declaratory relief with respect to the old rule is moot but they claimed that the new rule may still infringe their rights; they may not be allowed to stop for coffee, gas, food, or restroom breaks on the way to their second homes or shooting ranges outside of the city. The Court declined to address the argument, citing its practice of vacating and remanding where the mootness is attributable to a change in the legal framework governing the case, and where the plaintiff may have some residual claim under the new framework that was understandably not asserted previously. On remand, the Second Circuit and the district court may consider the new arguments and whether the petitioners still add a claim for damages with respect to the old rule. View "New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. City of New York" on Justia Law