Supreme Court Watch: Opening Day
This is the first Monday in October. In the shadow of the upcoming election, the Supreme Court of the United States opens its 2012–2013 term today. Think we had a busy and momentous term last year? It gets bigger.
This term, there are cases dealing with worker’s rights, voting rights, marriage rights, the Environmental Protection Agency, affirmative action, the rights of non-citizens, the right of habeus corpus, and more.
As one might expect, the bulk of the articles here at Logarchism over the next month will concentrate on the election. Even so, the rest of the world continues to turn. The Supreme Court of the United States continues to address issues that affect us all. In today’s article, I’ll give a preview of just a few of the upcoming cases. As we did last year, we’ll be looking at many of them in more depth in the coming months. Here is a taste to whet your appetite.
Vance v. Ball State University explores the limits of when employers can be held liable for harassment of an employee by a supervisor. Is the employer responsible when that supervisor has “authority to direct and oversee their victim’s daily work”? Or is the employer liable when “those harassers … have the power to ‘hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline’ their victim?” In other words, does it take the ability to threaten termination or other retribution against the employee in order to imply abuse of power? Or is it enough to simply be in a position of authority, directing everyday work? This case has implications for the limits of an employer’s responsibility, and for the ability of a harassment victim to obtain recompense.
Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum is to be argued today. The suit was brought on behalf of the late Dr. Barinem Kiobel — an outspoken Ogoni leader — and eleven other Nigerians from the Ogoni area of the Niger Delta. They sought damages and other relief for crimes against humanity, including torture and extrajudicial executions committed against the Ogoni people with the assistance and complicity of Royal Dutch Petroleum between 1992 and 1995. Members of the Ogoni people protested the effects of oil drilling in their ancient lands, and various of their leaders, including Dr Kiobel, were arrested, tortured, and died in custody. The case is being brought under the United States’ Alien Tort Statute, which states that “district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien” which is “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” This case will determine whether US courts can consider human rights abuses committed outside of the jurisdiction of the United States when neither the victim(s) nor the perpetrator(s) are U.S. citizens.
Two related cases — Georgia-Pacific West, Inc. v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center — will determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency can (or perhaps even must) regulate pollutants running off of logging roads as if they are industrial waste, or whether logging companies can allow such runoff without requiring a permit. The case will address who has standing to bring such a suit, and under what conditions, and in what venue. This has implications for the reach of the EPA, and may affect future areas of EPA power and regulation.
Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk will address whether a plaintiff in a potential class action suit can escape responsibility to the wronged class by offering to settle the suit with the specific people named in the suit. In this case, Genesis HealthCare automatically deducted pay for lunch breaks from employees whether they took a lunch break or not. Employee Laura Symczyk brought suit to be reimbursed for back pay. Clearly, other employees could also potentially sue. Genesis HealthCare made Symczyk a settlement offer, which she rejected. Genesis then claimed that since they’d made an offer to the only person who had so far sued them, they should be held no longer liable to any other potential members of the class they’d wronged. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether an offer made to the original person to bring suit makes any other lawsuits moot.
Fisher v. University of Texas will tell us how far the Supreme Court will go to weaken affirmative action programs in education. Under the Texas Top Ten Percent Plan, any students in the top ten percent of their high school class, by grade-point average, was given automatic admission to any state public university. Anyone who didn’t make the top ten percent would be considered using a variety of factors that included academic performance, personal achievement, and “special circumstances” — such things as socioeconomic status, family responsibilities, test scores relative to classmates, and race. Abigail Fisher was not accepted at the University of Texas in 2008, and she filed suit, arguing that considering race as part of the admission process was a violation of her constitutional rights. In other words, Court is being asked whether there is a need for affirmative action programs to protect minority rights. This case will be argued before the Court on October 10.
Hollingsworth v. Perry and a collection of suits relating to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) may decide whether it is constitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Each of the related suits looks at the question is a slightly different way, and it would take a major article to consider all the questions involved. As of this writing, the Court has not announced which of the pending cases it will hear. But as one example of the issues involved — Hollingsworth v. Perry considers the situation in California. The California Supreme Court ruled that the state of California could not bar same-sex couples from marrying. Anti-marriage-rights groups sponsored a ballot question, Proposition 8, to amend the state Constitution to prevent same-sex marriages. The amendment passed. LGBT couples in California brought suit, alleging that the right, once granted, could not be revoked, particularly for couples who were married during the period in which such marriages were allowed. If the Court hears the case, they will not be asked whether same-sex marriages are a Constitutional right, but whether the California couples can retroactively have their right to be married revoked.
A pair of voting rights cases — Nix v. Holder and Shelby County v. Holder — may be fast-tracked to be decided in the next few weeks, before the November election. Both of these cases ask the Supreme Court to strike down or limit Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires the Justice Department to give approval to changes in voting procedures in a number of states with a confirmed history of racial discrimination in enforcing voting rights. The cases were brought when the Attorney General of the United States refused to allow changes in various voting laws to go into effect in North Carolina and Georgia. These cases could be a watershed moment in U.S. civil rights and voting rights, and could reveal how far the Roberts Court will go in limiting the Voting Rights Act.
Moncrieffe v. Holder is a case dealing with rights of non-citizens, and addresses the aggressiveness with which the Obama Administration’s Attorney General has pursued deportation for non-citizens who have violated state or federal laws. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, a non-citizen “who is convicted of an aggravated felony at any time after admission is deportable.” Violating a state law may be considered an “aggravated felony” if it is the equivalent of a “felony punishable under the Controlled Substances Act” (CSA). Under that Act, it is a felony to possess “less than 50 kilograms of marihuana” with the intent to distribute, except that a person whose offense involves “distributing a small amount of marihuana for no remuneration” commits only a misdemeanor. The Court will address whether the non-citizen’s conviction under a broader state law, which includes conduct that would not be a felony under the CSA, necessarily rises to the level of a felony under the CSA. Does a felony under a state law, which is not a felony under the CSA, require a non-citizen to be deported?
This month, the Supreme Court will consider no fewer than three cases involving the right of habeus corpus, that is, the right of someone who is detained to know the reason for being detained, and to challenge the detention. In essence, the right of habeus corpus prevents the government from holding a prisoner without a legitimate charge. Johnson v. Williams, Tibbals v. Carter, and Ryan v. Gonzales all address aspects of this right. The first of the three asks whether a defendant’s Sixth Amendment “right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” is violated by removing a biased juror from a deadlocked jury; and, if so, whether a later appeal to Federal court can reverse that removal. The other two cases, which will be heard on the same day, ask whether a defendant who is found incompetent to stand trial in a capital case should be deemed able to assist in his or her own defense at a habeus hearing. In other words, if someone is deemed unable to defend themselves in court by reason of insanity or other mental deficiency, is that person competent to deal with the court system and the reasons for incarceration at all? These three cases may redefine how America deals with one of the most basic rights in our judicial system.
The cases described above are only a sampling of some of the issues to be addressed in the 2012–2013 term of the Supreme Court. The ballot box is not the only place where decisions will be made affecting the direction of our national course. Watch this space, and join in the discussion.
- Update on Kiobel and Niger Delta Litigation
- It’s That Time of the Year Again: Supreme Court Preview 2012 — 2013
- Supreme Court holds U.S. rights legacy in the balance
- Supreme Court reconvenes Monday, is likely to tackle same-sex marriage, voting rights, UT affirmative-action case
- Big cases for Supreme Court term starting Monday
- Supreme Court Watch: Watershed Decision
- Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. Decision
- The Match Game
- Courting Obstruction and Delay
- Supreme Court Watch: Mistaken Identity Edition
- Supreme Court Watch: Is Innocence Enough?
- Supreme Court Watch: FOIA Edition
- Supreme Court Watch: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar
- Cruzin’ for a Bruzin’
- Supreme Court Watch: Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.
About dcpetterson (194 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson