Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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More than 30 years ago, Madison shot a police officer in the head at close range. An Alabama jury found Madison guilty of capital murder. In 2016, he sought suspension of his death sentence, arguing that, due to recent strokes, he has become incompetent. The court heard testimony from psychologists who had examined Madison. The court’s appointed psychologist reported that, although Madison may have “suffered a significant decline post-stroke, . . . [he] understands the exact posture of his case,” and appears to have a “rational understanding ” of his death sentence. A psychologist hired by Madison’s counsel reported that Madison “able to understand the nature of the pending proceeding and … what he was tried for” and that . . . [Alabama is] seeking retribution” for that crime, but Madison cannot recall “the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest to the trial” and believes that he “never went around killing.” The trial court denied Madison’s petition. Madison sought federal habeas relief. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the denial of that petition. The Supreme Court reversed, reinstating the denial, citing its “Panetti” and “Ford” holdings. Neither decision “clearly established” that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied to him. The state court did not unreasonably apply those decisions in holding that Madison is competent to be executed because he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed. Nor was the state court’s decision founded on an unreasonable assessment of the evidence. View "Dunn v. Madison" on Justia Law

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Cuero, on parole, driving under the influence of methamphetamine and without a license, while carrying a gun, drove his car into and seriously injured a pedestrian. A California court permitted the state to amend a criminal complaint to which the Cuero had pleaded guilty, acknowledging that permitting the amendment would lead to a higher sentence. The amendment added another “strike” to Cuero’s criminal history. The court reasoned that the case was distinguishable from “a situation where the [State] might, after a guilty plea, seek to amend” by adding “new charges” or facts that fundamentally alter the substance of the complaint.Cuero was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, then pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a term with a minimum of 25 years. The Ninth Circuit held that the California court had made a mistake of federal law, reasoning that Cuero was entitled to specific performance of the 14-year, 4-month sentence that he would have received had the complaint not been amended. The Supreme Court reversed, citing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(1), stating that none of its prior decisions clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected. Even if the state violated the Constitution when it moved to amend the complaint there is no Supreme Court precedent that “clearly established” specific performance as a remedy. Circuit precedent does not constitute “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” View "Kernan v. Cuero" on Justia Law

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Married same-sex couples conceived children through anonymous sperm donation. Their babies were born in Arkansas in 2015. Each couple completed paperwork listing both female spouses as parents. The Department of Health issued birth certificates bearing only the birth mother’s name, based on Ark. Code 20–18–401, which states “the mother is deemed to be the woman who gives birth to the child … if the mother was married at the time of either conception or birth … the name of [her] husband shall be entered on the certificate as the father of the child.” Another man may appear on the birth certificate if the “mother,” “husband,” and “putative father” all file affidavits vouching for the putative father’s paternity. The requirement that a married woman’s husband appear on her child’s birth certificate applies if the couple conceived by means of artificial insemination by an anonymous sperm donor. The couples challenged the law. The trial court held that the challenged sections were inconsistent with the 2015 Supreme Court holding, Obergefell v. Hodges, that the Constitution entitles same-sex couples to civil marriage “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding the statute invalid because it denied married same-sex couples access to the “constellation of benefits” that Arkansas links to marriage. The law required the placement of the birth mother’s husband on the birth certificate even when the husband was “definitively not the biological father,” but did not impose the same requirement with respect to the birth mother’s wife. Same-sex parents lacked the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a document used for important transactions like medical decisions or enrolling a child in school. View "Pavan v. Smith" on Justia Law

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In petitioner’s state capital murder trial, the court overruled counsel’s objection to a proposed jury and submitted the instruction to the jury, which convicted petitioner. Appellate counsel did instruction not challenge the jury instruction; petitioner’s conviction was affirmed. Petitioner’s state habeas counsel did not raise the instructional issue or challenge appellate counsel’s failure to raise it. The state habeas court denied relief. Petitioner then sought federal habeas relief. The Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed denial of relief. The ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claims. Attorney error during state postconviction proceedings, for which the Constitution does not guarantee the right to counsel, cannot supply cause to excuse a procedural default that occurs in those proceedings except where state law requires a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be raised in an “initial-review collateral proceeding,” rather than on direct appeal or where the state’s “procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise” the claim on direct appeal. Extending the exception is not required to ensure that meritorious claims of trial error receive review by at least one state or federal court. A claim of trial error, preserved by trial counsel but not raised by counsel on appeal, will have been addressed by the trial court. View "Davila v. Davis" on Justia Law

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In January 2017, President Trump signed executive order EO-1, "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry," suspending, for 90 days, entry of foreign nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and suspending the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. The Ninth Circuit upheld a nationwide temporary restraining order. The government revoked EO-1. EO-2 issued on March 6, describing conditions in six countries that “demonstrate ... heightened risks to [U.S.] security.” EO–2 section 2(a) directs Homeland Security to determine whether foreign governments provide adequate information about nationals applying for U.S visas and to report those findings to the President within 20 days; nations identified as deficient will have 50 days to alter their practices (2(b)). EO–2 2(c) directs that entry of nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, be suspended for 90 days; section 3(c) provides for case-by-case waivers. Section 6(a) suspends decisions on applications for refugee status and travel of refugees under the USRAP for 120 days; 6(b) suspends refugee entries in excess of 50,000 for this year. The order’s stated effective date is March 16, 2017. The Ninth Circuit again declined to stay a temporary injunction. The Supreme Court stayed the order in part, with respect to sections 2(c), 6(a), and 6(b). An American individual or entity that has a bona fide relationship with a particular person seeking to enter the country can legitimately claim concrete hardship if that person is excluded, even if the 50,000-person cap has been reached. As to these individuals and entities, the Court did not disturb the injunction; as to those lacking any such connection, the balance tips in favor of the government’s compelling interest in security. The Court noted a June 12 Ninth Circuit decision vacating the injunction as to 2(a) and stated that the Executive should conclude its work and provide adequate notice to foreign governments within the 90-day life of 2(c). View "Trump. v. International Refugee Assistance Project" on Justia Law

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Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center, operating on church property, sought to replace its playground’s gravel surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program, which offers grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The Department of Natural Resources had a strict, express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity and denied the Center’s application, citing Missouri Constitution Article I, Section 7. The Church sued under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed dismissal. The Supreme Court reversed. The policy violated Trinity's rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the Church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. Laws imposing special disabilities on the basis of religious status trigger the strictest scrutiny. The Court rejected an argument that simply declining to allocate to Trinity a subsidy the state had no obligation to provide did not meaningfully burden the Church’s free exercise rights; the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. Trinity was put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The Department “offers nothing more than Missouri’s preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.” View "Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer" on Justia Law

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In 2010, a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing on U.S. soil shot and killed Hernandez, an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican national, standing on Mexican soil. Hernandez had been playing a game that involved running up the embankment on the U.S. side of the border. After the Justice Department closed an investigation, declining to file charges, Hernandez’s parents filed suit, including a “Bivens” claims for damages against the agent. The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. A “Bivens” implied right of action for damages against federal officers alleged to have violated a citizen’s constitutional rights is not available where there are special factors counselling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress. In light of recent Supreme Court precedent (Abbasi), the Fifth Circuit must consider “whether the Judiciary is well suited, absent congressional action or instruction, to consider and weigh the costs and benefits of allowing a damages action to proceed.” The Court noted that the Fourth Amendment question is sensitive and may have far-reaching consequences. Qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability if their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The lower court concluded that the prohibition on excessive force did not apply to Hernandez, as a foreign national on foreign soil, but the Court noted that Hernández’s nationality and the extent of his ties to the U.S. were unknown to the agent at the time of the shooting. View "Hernandez v. Mesa" on Justia Law

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The St. Croix River, part of the boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, is protected under federal, state, and local law. State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent riverside lots under common ownership as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Petitioners’ parents purchased adjacent Troy, Wisconsin lots separately in the 1960s, and transferred one lot to petitioners in 1994 and the other to petitioners in 1995. Each lot is over one acre, but because of the topography, each has less than one acre suitable for development; common ownership barred their separate sale or development. Petitioners unsuccessfully sought variances, then filed suit, alleging a regulatory taking. The state courts and U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claims, regarding the property as a single unit in assessing the effect of the challenged governmental action. The Court noted the flexibility inherent in regulatory takings jurisprudence. Courts must consider several factors. Wisconsin’s merger provision is a legitimate exercise of state power and the valid merger of the lots under state law informs the reasonable expectation that the lots will be treated as a single property. The lots are contiguous. Their terrain and shape make it reasonable to expect their range of potential uses might be limited. Petitioners could have anticipated regulation of the property, given its location along the river, which was regulated by federal, state, and local law long before they acquired the land. The restriction is mitigated by the benefits of using the property as an integrated whole, allowing increased privacy and recreational space, plus an optimal location for any improvements. This relationship is evident in the lots’ combined valuation. View "Murr v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law

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When petitioner was tried, the Massachusetts courtroom could not accommodate all potential jurors. During jury selection, a court officer excluded any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder. Five years later, he sought a new trial, arguing that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the closure. The Supreme Court affirmed the state courts in rejecting the argument. In the context of a public trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. A public trial violation is a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” but does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. If an objection is made and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to automatic reversal. If the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show “a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error or that the violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair. Petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome or that the trial was fundamentally unfair and is not entitled to a new trial. His trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to voir dire; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record indicates no basis for concern. View "Weaver v. Massachusetts" on Justia Law

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Defendants were indicted for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. The prosecution argued that Fuller was attacked by a large group, producing the testimony of two men who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated in return for leniency. Other witnesses corroborated aspects of their testimony. The prosecution played a videotape of defendant Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. Long after their convictions became final, seven defendants discovered that the government had withheld evidence: the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; statements of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach three witnesses. The Supreme Court affirmed the D.C. courts in rejecting their Brady claims, finding the withheld evidence not material. Evidence is material when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different, given the context of the entire record. An argument that, had defendants known about the withheld evidence, they could have raised an alternative theory, that a single perpetrator (or two) had attacked Fuller “is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” The undisclosed impeachment evidence was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence already in use at trial. View "Turner v. United States" on Justia Law