Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief. View "McWilliams v. Dunn" on Justia Law

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Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government ordered the detention of hundreds of illegal aliens. Plaintiffs, subsequently removed from the U.S., filed a putative class action against Executive Officials and Wardens, seeking damages, alleging that harsh pretrial conditions were punitive and were based race, religion, or national origin and that the Wardens allowed guards to abuse them. They also cited 42 U.S.C. 1985(3), which forbids certain conspiracies to violate equal protection rights. The Supreme Court rejected all claims, reversing the Second Circuit. In 42 U.S.C. 1983, Congress provided a damages remedy for plaintiffs whose constitutional rights were violated by state officials. There was no corresponding remedy for constitutional violations by federal agents. In 1971, the Supreme Court recognized (in Bivens) an implied damages action for violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures by federal agents. The Court later allowed Bivens-type remedies in Fifth Amendment gender-discrimination and Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments cases. Bivens will not be extended to a new context if there are “special factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress.” To avoid interference with sensitive Executive Branch functions or any inquiry into national-security issues, a Bivens remedy should not be extended to the claims concerning confinement conditions. With respect to the Wardens, Congress did not provide a damages remedy against federal jailers in the Prison Litigation Reform Act 15 years after the Court’s expressed caution about extending Bivens. Qualified immunity bars the claims under 42 U.S.C. 1985(3). Reasonable officials in defendants’ positions would not have known with sufficient certainty that section 1985(3) prohibited their joint consultations and the resulting policies. There is no clearly established law on the issue whether agents of the same executive department are distinct enough to “conspire” within the meaning of the statute. View "Ziglar v. Abbasi" on Justia Law

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The rock group “The Slants,” chose that name to dilute the term’s denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asians. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied an application for registration of the name under 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which prohibits the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in finding the clause unconstitutional. The Court first rejected an argument that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons. The Court then held that the clause is subject to the Free Speech Clause, which does not regulate government speech. Trademarks are private, not government speech. "If trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.” The disparagement clause denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. That is viewpoint discrimination. The “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The disparagement clause cannot withstand even “relaxed” review. It does not serve a “substantial interest,” nor is it “narrowly drawn.” View "Matal v. Tam" on Justia Law

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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In 1999, LeBlanc, then age 16, raped a 62- year-old woman. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Virginia had abolished traditional “parole” for felony offenders and enacted its “geriatric release” program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Graham v. Florida, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole and that states must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” LeBlanc sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The state court denied the motion, citing the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfies Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders: “The regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute.” LeBlanc filed a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s grant of relief. The Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of existing Supreme Court authority. View "Virginia v. LeBlanc" on Justia Law

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The Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. 1401(a)(7), provides a path to citizenship for a child born abroad if the child’s U.S.-citizen parent has 10 years’ physical presence in the U.S. before the child’s birth, “at least five of which were after attaining” age 14. Section 1409(c) provides that an unwed U.S.-citizen mother's citizenship can be transmitted to a child born abroad if she has lived continuously in the U.S. for one year before the child’s birth. Morales-Santana’s father, José, moved to the Dominican Republic 20 days before his 19th birthday, so he did not satisfy 1401(a)(7)’s requirement for physical presence after age 14. A Dominican woman gave birth to Morales-Santana in 1962. José accepted parental responsibility. Morales-Santana has lived in the U.S. since he was 13. In 2000, the government sought to remove Morales-Santana based on criminal convictions, ranking him as alien. The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit, ruling in Morales-Santana’s favor. The statute’s gender line is incompatible with the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection requirement. Morales-Santana has third-party standing to vindicate his deceased father’s rights. The Court applied “heightened scrutiny” and found no important governmental interest for the law’s “overbroad generalizations.” Given the choice between extending favorable treatment to the excluded class or withdrawing favorable treatment from the favored class, the Court noted that extension of favorable treatment to fathers would displace Congress’ general rule, the longer physical-presence requirements. Pending Congressional action, the five-year requirement should apply, prospectively, to children born to unwed U.S-citizen mothers. View "Sessions v. Morales-Santana" on Justia Law

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The North Carolina General Assembly redrew state legislative districts in 2011 to account for population changes revealed by the 2010 census. Plaintiffs alleged that 28 majority-black districts in the new plan were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The district court ruled for the plaintiffs in August 2016, declined to require changes before the November 2016 election, but ordered the General Assembly to redraw the map. Three weeks after the November 2016 election, the court set a March 2017 deadline for drawing new districts, ordering that “[t]he term of any legislator elected in 2016” from a district later redrawn would be replaced by new ones, to be chosen in court-ordered special elections in fall, 2017, to serve a one-year term. The court suspended provisions of the North Carolina Constitution requiring prospective legislators to reside within a district for one year before they may be elected to represent it. The Supreme Court granted a stay pending appeal and subsequently vacated the remedial order. Relief in redistricting cases is “‘fashioned in the light of well-known principles of equity.’” The district court “addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion.” In determining whether or when a special election may be a proper remedy for a racial gerrymander, obvious considerations include the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty. View "North Carolina v. Covington" on Justia Law

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Based on alleged work-related injuries, Nelson, a North Dakota resident, and Tyrrell, the administrator of a South Dakota estate, brought Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, suits against BNSF Railroad. Neither injury occurred in Montana. Neither incorporated nor headquartered there, BNSF maintains less than five percent of its workforce and about six percent of its total track mileage in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court held that Montana courts could exercise general personal jurisdiction over BNSF because the railroad “d[id] business” in the state within the meaning of 45 U.S.C. 56. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Section 56 does not address personal jurisdiction over railroads but is only a venue prescription. The Montana courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction did not comport with the Due Process Clause. Only the propriety of general personal jurisdiction was at issue because neither plaintiff alleged injury from work in or related to Montana. A state court may exercise general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations when their “affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.” The “paradigm” forums in which a corporate defendant is “at home” are its place of incorporation and its principal place of business. In an “exceptional case,” a corporate defendant’s operations in another forum “may be so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State,” but that constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued. View "BNSF Railroad Co. v. Tyrrell" on Justia Law

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had information that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While others searched the main house, deputies searched the property. Unbeknownst to the deputies, Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived. Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the shack's door. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. The deputies shot the men multiple times. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the court awarded nominal damages on warrantless entry and knock-and-announce claims. The court found the use of force reasonable, but cited a Ninth Circuit rule, which makes an otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation. The Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim; that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law; and that the provocation rule applied. The Supreme Court vacated. There is a settled, exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment: “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” The provocation rule instructs courts to look back to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force, mistakenly and unnecessarily conflating distinct Fourth Amendment claims that should be analyzed separately. If plaintiffs cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry. View "County of Los Angeles v. Mendez" on Justia Law

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North Carolina redrew Congressional Districts 1 and 12 after the 2010 census. Previously, neither district had a majority black voting-age population (BVAP), but both consistently elected candidates preferred by most African-American voters. The state needed to add 100,000 people to District 1 to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle; it took most of them from heavily black areas of Durham—increasing the district’s BVAP from 48.6% to 52.7%. District 12’s BVAP increased from 43.8% to 50.7%. State courts upheld the redistricting. The district court found it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court affirmed. Although the state court’s decision is relevant, the district court properly concluded that race furnished the predominant rationale for District 1’s redesign and that compliance with the Voting Rights Act could not justify that consideration of race, which subordinated other criteria. The redistricting cannot withstand strict scrutiny under the “Gingles” factors. For nearly 20 years, African-Americans made up less than a majority of District 1’s voters, but their preferred candidates scored victories. District 1 was a “crossover” district, in which members of the majority help a “large enough” minority to elect its candidate. History gave the state no reason to think that the Act required it to ramp up District 1’s BVAP. The evidence, even without an alternative map, adequately supported the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for District 12’s reconfiguration. “By slimming the district and adding a couple of knobs to its snakelike body, North Carolina added 35,000 African-Americans and subtracted 50,000 whites, turning District 12 into a majority-minority district,” indicating a determination to concentrate black voters. View "Cooper v. Harris" on Justia Law