The Associated Press
Some of the significant cases the Supreme Court decided in its 2008-09 term:
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race. It was a decision that could alter employment practices nationwide and make it harder to prove discrimination where there is no evidence it was intentional. The white firefighters claimed they were discriminated against when the city tossed out the results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. The city says it acted because it might have been vulnerable to claims that the exam had a “disparate impact” on minorities in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Decided on June 29, 2009.
STATE REGULATION OF BANKS
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that state attorneys general can investigate national banks for discrimination and other crimes in the states where they operate as long as they can convince a judge that investigations are needed. Federal courts had blocked an investigation begun by New York, which was backed by the other 49 states, of whether minorities were being charged higher interest rates on home mortgage loans by national banks with branches in New York. The high court ruled that state attorneys general cannot issue subpoenas or bring enforcement actions against banks on their own, but can go to court to get permission to investigate. Decided on June 29, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that school officials violated an Arizona teenager’s rights by strip-searching her for prescription-strength ibuprofen. The court said educators cannot force children to remove their clothing unless student safety is at risk and they reasonably suspect where something is being hidden. In an 8-1 ruling, the justices said that Safford Middle School officials violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches with their treatment of Savana Redding, who was 13 at the time. The court ruled that the officials could not be held financially liable but left it to lower courts to decide if the school district could. Decided June 25, 2009.
The Supreme Court narrowly ruled in a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act, siding with a small Texas governing authority but sidestepping the larger constitutional issue. The court in an 8-1 decision avoided the major questions raised over the federal government’s most powerful tool to prevent discriminatory voting changes since the mid-1960s. The law requires all or parts of 16 states, mainly in the South, with a history of discrimination in voting to get approval before making changes in the way elections are conducted. The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, can apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that found it could not. Decided on June 22, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that parents don’t have to send their special education students to public schools before seeking reimbursement for private school tuition. The justices ruled 6-3 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not require public school attendance before parents of special ed students can ask to be reimbursed for the child’s tuition at private schools. The family of a teenage Oregon boy has fought to get reimbursed for $65,000 in private tuition. Decided June 22, 2009.
The Supreme Court made it harder to prove discrimination on the basis of age, ruling against an employee in his mid-50s who says he was demoted because of his age. In a 5-4 decision, the court said a worker has to prove that age was the key factor in an employment decision, even if there is some evidence that age played a role. In some other discrimination lawsuits, the burden of proof shifts to the employer once a worker shows there is some reason to believe a decision was made for improper reasons. Decided June 18, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that convicts have no constitutional right to test genetic evidence to try to show their innocence. The court said it would not second-guess states or force them routinely to look again at criminal convictions. This decision could have a limited effect because 47 states and the federal government already have laws that allow DNA testing in some circumstances. William Osborne, convicted in a brutal assault on a prostitute in Alaska 16 years ago, sued for the right to test the contents of a blue condom the victim says was used by her attacker. Decided on June 18, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias. By a 5-4 vote in a case from West Virginia, the court said that a judge who remained involved in a lawsuit filed against the company of the most generous supporter of his election deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair hearing. Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000. Decided June 8, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that the current government in Iraq cannot be held responsible for the actions of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The high court unanimously turned away lawsuits from Americans who were held in Iraq during the Gulf War. The court said a federal law enacted in 2003 gave Iraq back the immunity that was stripped by the designation of Saddam’s government as a sponsor of terrorism. Decided on June 8, 2009.
The Supreme Court overturned a long-standing ruling that stopped police from initiating questions unless a defendant’s lawyer was present, a move that will make it easier for prosecutors to interrogate suspects. The high court, in a 5-4 ruling, overturned the 1986 Michigan v. Jackson ruling, which said police may not initiate questioning of a defendant who has a lawyer or has asked for one unless the attorney is present. The court’s opinion said the decision will have “minimal” effects on criminal defendants because of the protections the court has provided in other decisions. Decided on May 26, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be sued by a former Sept. 11 detainee who claimed he was abused because of his religion and ethnicity. This decision could make it harder to sue top officials for the actions of low-level operatives. The court overturned a lower court decision that let Javaid Iqbal’s lawsuit against the high-ranking officials proceed. Iqbal is a Pakistani Muslim who spent nearly six months in solitary confinement in New York in 2002. He had argued that Ashcroft and Mueller were responsible for a policy of confining detainees in highly restrictive conditions because of their religious beliefs or race. Decided May 18, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that women who took maternity leave before it became illegal to discriminate against pregnant women can’t sue to force employers to count their leave time for their pensions. Four AT&T Corp. employees who took maternity leave between 1968 and 1976 sued the company to get their leave time credited toward their pensions. Their pregnancies occurred before the 1979 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which barred companies from treating pregnancy leaves differently from other disability leaves. The high court, in a 7-2 ruling, overturned a lower-court decision that said that decades-old maternity leaves should count in determining pensions. Decided on May 18, 2009.
A unanimous Supreme Court said that undocumented workers who use phony IDs can’t be considered identity thieves without proof they knew they were stealing real people’s Social Security and other numbers. The court’s decision limits federal authorities’ use of a 2004 identity theft law against immigrants who are picked up in workplace raids and found to be using false Social Security and alien registration numbers. Advocates for immigrants had complained authorities used the threat of prosecution on the identity theft charge to win guilty pleas on lesser charges and acceptance of prompt deportation. Decided May 4, 2009.
The Supreme Court said Shell Oil Co. cannot be held responsible for cleanup of a contaminated Superfund site owned by a defunct company simply because it delivered chemicals to the site. The court, in an 8-1 decision, also decided that railroad companies that leased the defunct company part of the land would only have to pay for a small part of the cleanup. Decided on May 4, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled narrowly in favor of a government policy that threatens broadcasters with fines over the use of even a single curse word on live television. The court, however, stopped short of deciding whether the policy violates the Constitution. By a 5-4 vote, the court threw out a lower court ruling that said the agency could not now start levying large fines for the type of fleeting expletives that it had let slide for years. This was the Supreme Court’s first major broadcast indecency case in 30 years. Decided April 28, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers. The court’s 5-4 decision puts new limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after the arrest of a suspect, particularly when the alleged offense is nothing more serious than a traffic violation. The court said warrantless searches still may be conducted if a car’s passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect who has been removed from the vehicle or there is reason to believe evidence will be found of the crime that led to the arrest. Decided on April 21, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that the government can weigh costs against benefits in deciding whether to order power plants to undertake environmental upgrades that would protect fish. The court’s 6-3 decision is a defeat for environmentalists who had urged the justices to uphold a favorable federal appeals court ruling that could have required an estimated 554 power plants to install technology that relies on recycled water to cool machinery. Decided on April 1, 2009.
TOBACCO PUNITIVE DAMAGES
The Supreme Court left in place a $79.5 million award to a smoker’s widow, ending a 10-year legal fight over the large payout. The court let stand a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of Mayola Williams and against Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA. Williams persuaded a jury in 1999 that the company should be held accountable for misleading people into thinking cigarettes were not dangerous or addictive. The justices initially agreed to review the Oregon court judgment, then changed their minds without explanation. Announced March 31, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that electoral districts must have a majority of African-Americans or other minorities to be protected by a provision of the Voting Rights Act. The court declined to expand protections of the landmark civil rights law to take in electoral districts where the minority population is less than 50 percent, but strong enough to effectively determine the outcome of elections. The decision could make it more difficult for Democrats, particularly in the South and Southwest, to draw electoral boundaries friendly to black or Hispanic candidates following the 2010 Census. Decided on March 9, 2009.
DRUG MAKER LIABILITY
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court forcefully rejected calls for limiting consumer lawsuits against drug makers, upholding a $6.7 million jury award to a musician who lost her arm to gangrene following an injection. The right arm of Diana Levine of Vermont was amputated after she was injected with Phenergan, an anti-nausea medicine made by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. Levine’s lawsuit said she wasn’t sufficiently warned of the risks of using Phenergan. The justices turned away Wyeth’s claim that federal regulation provides a shield against lawsuits like Levine’s. Decided March 4, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Summum, a small religious group, cannot force a city in Utah to place a granite marker in a local park that already is home to a Ten Commandments display. The court said that governments can decide what to display in a public park without running afoul of the First Amendment. The Summum believe that when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai he received a second set of tablets called the Seven Aphorisms. Decided Feb. 25, 2009.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE FIREARMS
The Supreme Court affirmed the use of a federal law barring people convicted of domestic violence crimes from owning guns. The court, in a 7-2 decision, said state laws against battery need not specifically mention domestic violence to fall under the domestic violence gun ban that was enacted in 1996. The case involved Randy Edwards Hayes, a West Virginia man whose earlier misdemeanor conviction for beating his wife gave rise to a federal felony indictment for gun possession. Decided on Feb. 24, 2009.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that workers who cooperate with their employers’ internal investigations of discrimination may not be fired in retaliation for implicating colleagues or superiors.The justices held that a longtime school system employee in Tennessee can pursue a civil rights lawsuit over her firing. The court voted to reverse a federal appeals court ruling that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not apply to employees who merely cooperate with an internal probe rather than complain on their own or take part in a formal investigation. Decided Jan. 26, 2009.
The Supreme Court ruled that evidence obtained after illegal searches or arrests based on simple police mistakes may be used to prosecute criminal defendants. The justices voted 5-4 to apply new limits to a rule requiring evidence to be suppressed if it results from a violation of a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches or seizure. Justices acknowledged that the arrest of Bennie Dean Herring — based on the mistaken belief that there was a warrant for his arrest — violated his constitutional rights, yet upheld his conviction on federal drug and gun charges. Decided on Jan. 14, 2009.
The Supreme Court handed a defeat to tobacco companies counting on it to put an end to lawsuits alleging deceptive marketing of “light” cigarettes. In a 5-4 split won by the court’s liberals, it ruled that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote light and “low tar” brands. The decision was at odds with recent anti-consumer rulings that limited state regulation of business in favor of federal power. Decided on Dec. 15, 2008.
NAVY SONAR USAGE
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that military training trumps protecting whales in a dispute over the Navy’s use of sonar in submarine-hunting exercises off the coast of southern California. The court said forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained anti-submarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet. The most serious possible injury to environmental groups would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals the groups study, justices said. Decided Nov. 12, 2008.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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