Okay, so maybe it’s not Bullwinkle himself, but all the moose in Alaska (and unlike goose/geese, the plural of moose is … moose) are in the crosshairs of hunters on hovercrafts. But more on that later.
As most of us recall, the new term for the Supreme Court begins on the first Monday in October – today!
The docket for this term will most likely not produce the fireworks of last term with rulings we liberals liked, including the 5-4 decision to recognize a constitutional right to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, the 6-3 ruling to uphold health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and the 5-4 decision to ratify a broad definition of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
This year’s docket, marking the start of Chief Justice Roberts’ second decade, is heavily tilted to favor the Roberts-Scalia-Thomas-Alito wing of the Court, with Kennedy casting his customary tie-breaking vote.
And there are no real breath-holding cases … so far. But there are currently only about 50 petitions, out of about 10,000 submitted, that have been granted cert. Usually the Court will hear about 80 cases in all, with the final docket not set until January.
So we’ll begin with the ones that are set. The case with the largest monetary impact – and one that is based on a ruling from the Civil War era – has been filed by Iran’s central bank (Bank Markazi v. Peterson).
More than 1,300 Americans have already been awarded almost $2 Billion by the courts, in frozen assets held by Iran’s central bank, Markazi, based on claims that the Iranian government sponsored the terrorists’ attacks involved in the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 service members and the 1996 Khobar tower bombing in Saudi Arabia.
The legal aspect deals with the Separation of Powers Doctrine. The Court in the 1872 case of United States v. Klein, ruled that under Article III of the Constitution, Congress cannot direct a federal court on how a pending case should be decided. Bank Markazi contends that Congress did just this with a law passed in 2012 that declared the victims were entitled to the bank’s assets.
A case from Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico v. Valle) deals with the limits of sovereignty with regard to the prohibition on double jeopardy provided for in the Fifth Amendment.
The Double Jeopardy Clause guarantees that a citizen will not be retried for the same crime. However, this does not protect a citizen from prosecution in both the State and Federal systems for the same action. And the claim is that Puerto Rico’s sovereignty granted in 1950 allows it to pass its own laws, and thereby precludes it from being subject to the Double Jeopardy Clause of someone already prosecuted under the US federal justice system.
The First Amendment is the focus of Heffernan v. Paterson, N.J. Hefferman was a police Detective who was seen by a superior picking up a yard sign for his bedridden mother supporting a candidate running against the incumbent mayor. He neither supported nor campaigned for that candidate, but the supervisor who saw him with the sign demoted him to patrol and assigned him to walk a beat. He maintains his First Amendment rights were violated by the demotion, but the courts ruled that since he was not supporting that candidate in any manner, he wasn’t exercising any First Amendment rights.
There are two cases that greatly excite conservatives because they deal with public unions and affirmative action in higher education.
Conservative hope to overturn the 1979 “Fair Share” decision allowing a public employee union (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association) to collect from non-union members the part of union dues used to represent them in collective bargaining. It would allow non-union members to become freeloaders to enjoy the gains of winning union benefits while not contributing anything to unions’ pocketbooks.
And in the affirmative action case (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin), conservatives hope to further limit utilizing race as a factor in admissions. The U. of Texas has created a hybrid program combining race-neutral and race-conscious factors to achieve diversity.
An appeals court has actually sustained the hybrid, but a small conservative advocacy group, the Project on Fair Representation, has brought this case forward.
The same right-wing group is mounting a challenge to the Voting Rights Act with Evenwel v. Abbott, which asks the court to address the meaning of “one person, one vote.”
It deals with whether state voting districts should have the same number of people, including undocumented immigrants, children and others not eligible to vote, or the same number of voters. Allowing states to count only voters would in many parts of the country shift political power from cities to rural areas, to the delight of Republicans.
The court will actually begin where it ended the last term – dealing with the Eighth Amendment and the death penalty.
In the ruling of the last case of the last term Justice Breyer was joined by Justice Bader Ginsburg in a surprising and comprehensive opinion in Glossip v. Gross, which announced that both Justices now “believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”
There are currently FIVE cases involving the Eighth Amendment as pertains to the death penalty on the docket, so we'll see if Justice Alito is correct when he said there’s a “guerilla war against the death penalty,” which prompted Justice Sonia Sotomayor to fire back that supporters of the death penalty would be content to allow condemned inmates to be burned alive.
To further heat things up, the court, which hasn’t heard an abortion case since upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Act in 2007, will likely hear a challenge to a Texas law (Whole Woman’s Health Center v. Cole) which would reduce the number of clinics providing abortion services from more than 40 to less than 10.
The state law requires all clinics to meet the criteria for “ambulatory surgical centers” and all its physicians having admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Standards few clinics currently have – or are deemed necessary by the medical community.
So this court, which “The New York Times” has called “the first in history split along partisan lines” and as a consequence “has generated more marquee decisions divided by party alignment than all other courts combined” will likely hand down that decision in June, 2016.
Such a divisive and volatile ruling will thus land in the middle of the presidential race. Emphasizing, yet again, the need to GOTV – “Get Out the VOTE!” – because the next president will likely have the responsibility to fill several anticipated vacancies, given the ages of several justices.
Oh, yeah … Bullwinkle. Let’s end on a lighter note. Well, the moose and his brethren are following Sturgeon v. Masica very closely.
Plaintiff John Sturgeon has been going on his annual moose hunting (and beer swilling) trips with his hovercraft on the Yukon River and its tributaries for years. But in 2007 he was stopped by National Park Service agents who told him the vehicle was banned in waters inside the national preserve. So he did what any proud gun-toting, moose-killing, hovercraft-hunter would do – he immediately pulled out his satellite phone to call his lawyer.
The question is whether the federal government is allowed to enforce federal rules pertaining to federal navigable waters in federally operated National Parks. Now you would think this is pretty clear cut, but apparently you would be wrong.
So far Sturgeon has lost at every stage. But he now gets to plead his case before SCOTUS, armed with amicus briefs from Sarah Palin’s state of Alaska as well as a hunting rights group, Safari Club International.
We can all recall how Cecil the Lion fared against the Minnesota dentist. So heads up, Bullwinkle – or maybe heads down – because you’re in the hovercraft hunters’ crosshairs!