Major Cases of this Supreme Court Term
Supreme Court Sweeps is nearly over, and what a great season this was at the United States Supreme Court! Sweeps week, for those of you that cable television is a distant memory, is the time when big things happen on TV shows to attract viewership and ad money. If something crazy is going to happen on a tv show, it would be during sweeps week. In Friends, that’s when someone would get married or pregnant. On Discovery Channel, that’s when the sharks come out.
For the United States Supreme Court, June is its sweeps season. June marks the end of the Supreme Court’s term, and that is usually the period where the Court makes big news. We didn’t get any news of a justice being pregnant, which is not surprising considering the average age of a justice is 102. Nor did we have any shark sightings. Which is not a positive development. Throwing attorneys to the sharks and making them do argument from underwater cages that may or may not be shark proof, would be must-see tv.
June is when the Court releases the majority of their opinions and makes major announcements. And based on the Court’s decisions and how those decisions were rendered, the Court was very aware of June Sweeps season and they most definitely sought favorable ratings.
Rumor has it that Justice Breyer might retire. He is the oldest justice on the Supreme Court. But at 82, he is just hitting middle age when it comes to Supreme Court justices. In fact, he is so young that if he does retire, he would be in prime position to replace Tom Brady if and when that octogenarian ever retires.
Many liberals were mad at RBG when she didn’t step down and retire when Obama was president. If she had, her position would have been filled by a like-minded justice. These same people don’t want Breyer to make the same mistake.
I guess that’s one way to look at it. Another way is to do Supreme Court Weekend at Bernie’s Style. When a justice dies, just prop them up, and let them serve out their term until the next like-minded president is elected. Chances are, no one would notice the difference.
Enough of the rumor mill. Let’s dig into some of the more notable cases.
Van Buren v. United States
In Van Buren v. United States, the Court ruled that a police officer didn’t commit computer fraud when he accepted a bribe to use his work computer to determine if a particular lady was an undercover cop. Nathan Van Buren, a former police sergeant, accepted a $5,000 bribe to search his work computers to see if a particular license plate number belonged to an undercover cop. He then revealed what he found to the person who bribed him.
The issue in this case was whether Van Buren’s use of his work computer to rat out an undercover cop for a bribe was somehow an abuse of his computer privileges. Parents everywhere where watching this case as their ability to regulate computer use by their teenagers was in peril. Under Section 1030(e)(6) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he “access[es] a computer with authorization” and “use[s] such access to obtain . . . information in the computer that the accessor is not entitled so to obtain.” Despite the name of the act containing the words “computer” and “abuse”, the Court found that the police sergeant’s actions did not constitute an abuse of his computer privileges as he otherwise had access to his work computer.
Critical to the Court’s holding, the Court was concerned about the precedent that would be set regarding catfishing if it ruled otherwise. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the Court, offered up as examples of these unintended consequences, such as “embellishing on online-dating profile” and “using a pseudonym on Facebook.”
Apparently, describing yourself as 6’3 on Match.com and stalking one’s ex are rights this Court is willing to defend.
Barrett said that if the Court ruled that police can’t take bribes in this context, then this would make criminals of “millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens.” There you have it. Feel free to use those college pics on your dating profiles, middle aged people. Just cite Van Buren v. US and catfish away.
California v. Texas.
This was the Obamacare case. Just like in Nightmare on Elm Street parts 1 through 65, there have been several sequels to the first Obamacare saga. And depending on your political persuasion, just as scary. We’ve already reviewed each sequel and you can find a full analysis here.
In California v. Texas, or Standing Strike Again!, significant constitutional issues were at play. In Obamacare 1, the Court upheld the Act under the Tax and Spend Clause. But in 2017, Congress removed the tax. So, if there is no tax, is the law constitutional?
Concerning this fascinating complex legal issue … the Court decided to … punt. Like it often does when it doesn’t want to decide a thorny issue, it just scolded the meddling kids who brought the lawsuit. Here’s how that works. In order to bring a federal lawsuit, a plaintiff has to have standing. The plaintiff had to have suffered an injury that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s wrongful actions. And most importantly, there has to be a credible threat of enforcement of the law against the plaintiff.
But here, how does one enforce a zero-dollar penalty? That’s like me telling my dog, “you better not touch my roast beef sandwich or else … I’ll do nothing!” Yea, the sandwich is gone. I do think it is fair to say, if my sandwich is gone because there was no credible threat of enforcement against Fido, is Obamacare gone? At least we know it is unenforceable.
Full review here.
Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.
Catholic Social Services had been servicing the needs of Philadelphia children for over 200 years. Because it’s a Catholic organization with religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage, it refused to place foster care children in the homes of same-sex couples. This case dealt with the First Amendment and whether Philadelphia could refuse to work with the Catholic organization.
Now, I must admit. I did not see this result coming. I have been open in my podcast that I had no idea how this case was going to turn out. I could see the Court ruling for the City saying that the City could choose who it wants to partner with when it comes to the foster care system. I could also see the Court ruling for the Church finding that the City was discriminating against them based on their religious beliefs.
What I didn’t see coming was … a 9-0 decision. 9-0. As in not one single dissenter ruled against the church. Can we say “court-packing” is on the mind?
The Court’s decision turned on Section 3.21 of Philadelphia’s foster care contract. This provision requires an agency to provide services defined in the contract to prospective foster parents without regard to their sexual orientation. But it also provides exceptions to this requirement at the “sole discretion” of the Commissioner. This created a system of individualized exemptions, and thus rendered the law not neutral or generally applicable, and thus unconstitutional as applied against the Catholic Social Services.
Mahanoy v. B.L., aka, the Cussin’ Cheerleader Case
In news that can only be viewed as hostile to parents everywhere, the Court held that the F-bomb is not disruptive. In the cussin’ cheerleader case, a junior varsity cheerleader didn’t make the varsity team. And let’s just say, she didn’t receive this news well. She responded by posting on Snapchat “F*ck school F*ck softball F*ck cheer F*ck everything.”
The first issue the Court grappled with was– what’s Snapchat? But after their grandkids briefed them, they were ready to decide the important constitutional issues. Which is, apparently, the F-bomb is a cherished word in our language. Why is it this word keeps coming up at the Supreme Court? In 1971, in Cohen v. California, the Court held Paul Cohen could not be arrested for disturbing the peace by saying “F*ck the draft.” In 2019, the Court held that the Patent and Trademark Office could not deny a trademark to Erik Breunetti for the phrase “FUCT” that he put on this line of clothing.
And here, the Court ruled that a school’s one year suspension of a cheerleader for dropping the F-bomb on Snapchat was unconstitutional as her speech didn’t cause substantial disruption at school. Apparently, these kids have heard it before.
Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid
In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, the Court held that a California law that permitted unions to enter onto private property of agricultural businesses to talk to employees about supporting their union violates the Fifth Amendment. The Court said that forcing private property owners to allow unions onto their property without just compensation is an unconstitutional taking of that property. In a victory for that cranky old guy yelling at kids to get off his lawn, Chief Justice John Roberts* said that this law takes away the owner’s right to exclude others from their property. And as anyone who has ever invited friends over for a Friday night get together knows, the right to get people to leave is one property owners want to protect.
*To be clear, Chief Justice John Roberts is not the cranky old guy yelling at kids. This is an example of the dangers of a dangling modifier.
Lange v. California
The Supreme Court gave another victory to homeowners in Lange v California.
Here is what happened. A cop followed this car whose radio was playing too loud. I am going to assume he was listening to my podcast and wanted to make sure the other cars at the intersection could hear my hot takes. This cop then turned on his siren to pull the car over, but the person didn’t pull over. Instead, he drove into his garage and started to shut the door. The cop stopped the door from closing and then proceeded to gather evidence and arrested the person.
Did the cop violate the Fourth Amendment by going into a person’s garage without a warrant?
The Supreme Court held that being in hot pursuit of a car driving with loud music doesn’t automatically give the cops permission to enter the garage. Because normally when you think of cops in hot pursuit of someone, the person did something really bad. But when you watch a movie and there’s an exciting car chase, it doesn’t make sense if the cops are in hot pursuit of a turn signal violation. You need something more than that to make those circumstances exigent. The Court held that misdemeanor violators do not make for compelling movies scenes, nor for getting around the Fourth Amendment.
Collins v. Yellen
In Collins v. Yellen, the Court held that Congress exceeded its authority when, in creating the Federal Housing Finance Agency, it only allowed the President to fire the agency director for cause. Writing for the Court, Alito concluded, the removal restrictions on the head of the FHFA violate the Constitution’s separation of powers because they infringe on the president’s authority over executive-branch decision-making. Apparently, this was good for the current president, Biden, but bad news for the current director of the FHFA, Mark Calabria, as Biden said he was going to be fired within the hour.
NCAA v. Alston
While normally I am no fan of collegiate blowouts as they make for really boring entertainment, this collegiate blowout was fairly entertaining. The Supreme Court handed the NCAA a 9-0 whooping, and it couldn’t have been sweeter. In this case, the athletes claimed that NCAA compensation, particularly the limits to academic-related benefits, violates anti-trust law. The NCAA hinged its argument and defense on the idea of “amateurism” and that part of the allure of college sports is that money isn’t the key motivator for players. To the NCAA, their product is amateur sports. Yet, they also claimed that they are more of an educational institution rather than a business. Right… an educational institution that pays its teachers $10 million dollars and has billion-dollar contracts with ESPN.
The Court didn’t buy it. They ruled 9-0 in favor of the student athletes, saying that there cannot be restrictions on education-related compensation. Justice Kavanaugh said “the NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in every other industry in America.”
For a more detailed analysis of the case, see here.
Caniglia v. Strom
In Caniglia, the Court gave homeowners another win. The issue here was whether there is a general community care-taking exception to the Fourth Amendment such that cops can enter a person’s house without a warrant. Here, a husband threatened to commit suicide, and so the wife called the cops. When the cops arrived, the husband was outside of the house. The cops were able to convince the husband to go get help, only after the cops agreed they would not confiscate his guns that were in his house.
The cops then told the wife the husband had agreed to go get help and that the cops could go in and take the guns. I am pretty sure the issue of cops lying to a homeowner was not a matter of first impression for this Court.
The Court held that under these facts, there is no automatic right for the cops to enter one’s house without a warrant.
The concurrence made sure to point out that this might not have been the result if there was an actual emergency situation where someone’s life was in jeopardy.
TransUnion v. Ramirez
In another victory for standing (see California v. Texas above), the Court ruled that in order to challenge an illegal practice of a credit reporting company, the plaintiff has to actually have been injured in some way. Here, TransUnion incorrectly recorded data of thousands of people that adversely reflected their credit history.
The problem from a legal perspective is that TransUnion didn’t report this error to anyone. So, if this error had not been communicated to anyone, did the plaintiffs actually suffer any injury? The Court said no. Apparently, this decision was rooted in the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones [and land you in federal court], but names [especially name calling not communicated to anyone else] will never hurt me.”
Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee
In this lawsuit surrounding the 2020 election, the Court decided on voting rights and whether certain procedures were discriminatory. In dispute were two different voting practices. The first practice under attack was when the voting official threw out ballots in their entirety that were cast in the wrong precinct. The argument was that the entire ballot (i.e., statewide contests) should not be discarded as those votes were legitimate. Only the votes for local precinct elections should be discarded.
The second practice under attack was ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is when a person, usually affiliated with one of the parties, would go around and collect people’s absentee ballots and deliver them to the election office.
The Democratic National Committee challenged both of these practices as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it adversely and disparately affects Arizona’s Native American, Hispanic, and African American citizens.
The Court, in a 6-3 party-line vote, upheld both practices finding that neither practice was racially motivated.
Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta
This case presented a true kick-back to the cancel culture. The California Attorney General’s office had a policy requiring charities to provide them with information about the charity’s major donors. While these disclosures were allegedly confidential, several charities objected, fearing their donors would be subject to the cancel culture. And to be fair, several donors have been subject to the cancel culture for previous donations. Mozilla founder and CEO, Brendan Eich, being one such person who was forced to resign after it was revealed that he donated to a conservative organization.
California responded by saying the information was needed to help the state protect consumers from fraud and the misuse of their charitable contributions.
The Supreme Court didn’t buy this. The Court held that requiring charities to reveal their major donors is a suppression of free speech and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a valid state interest.