The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights in the Supreme Court: Wrapping up the 2009-2010 Term

July 20, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

During its 2009-2010 term, which ended last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard several cases with civil rights implications.

Here are summaries of some of these cases:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission:  In a controversial 5-4 decision, which a dissenting Justice Stevens warned could "undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation," the Court held that federal election law's ban on corporate independent expenditures violated the First Amendment. Equating spending money on politics with speaking, the Court concluded that the identity of the political speaker cannot be the basis for restrictions on its independent political spending, overruling its 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.  The decision prompted a scathing dissent by Justice Stevens, who stated, "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case."

Florida v. Powell:  In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that an individual must be "clearly informed," prior to custodial questioning, that he has, among other rights, "the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation."  This case involved a challenge to the Tampa Police Department's Miranda form, which stated: "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" and "[y]ou have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview." The Court held, 7-2, that the Tampa Police Department's warnings satisfied the Miranda standard because, taken together, the two warnings the officer gave "reasonably conveyed the right to have an attorney present" at all times.

Padilla v. Kentucky:  In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of effective assistance of counsel requires a lawyer for an undocumented immigrant charged with a crime to tell the defendant that a guilty plea carries a risk of deportation. The Court, however, did not decide whether the individual in this specific case has been prejudiced by the lawyer's failure to give that advice.

Graham v. Florida:  In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that minors must be given "some realistic opportunity to obtain release" before his or her life ends. A determination of whether the individual is fit for release will involve prison officials assessing whether he or she has "demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."

Lewis v. City of Chicago:  The Court considered whether a plaintiff, who failed to file a timely charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act challenging the adoption of a practice—in this case, an employer's decision to exclude firefighter applicants who did not achieve a certain score on a hiring test—may assert a disparate impact claim in a timely charge challenging the employer's later application of that practice.  A unanimous Court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Scalia, held that the conduct at issue could be the basis for a valid disparate impact claim under Title VII, stating that the employer used an "employment practice" actionable under Title VII each time it hired a new firefighter class.  Despite the employer's claims to the contrary, Justice Scalia wrote, "It does not follow that no new violation occurred—and no new claims could arise—when the city implemented that [hiring] decision down the road."

Dillon v. United States:  The Court considered whether the lower court had erred in refusing to reduce a defendant's sentence below revised Sentencing Commission Guidelines, in light of U.S. v. Booker, which held that the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, in sentencing proceedings.  The defendant had argued that a further sentence reduction was warranted, in addition to the sentence reduction under the new Guidelines, because of good behavior. In a 7-1 decision written by Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision, holding that Booker did not apply to proceedings intended to modify an existing sentence.

New Process Steel, L. P. v. NLRB:  This case addressed the National Labor Relations Act's quorum requirement as it relates to the size of the National Labor Relations Board created by the Taft-Hartley Act.  Finding itself with only four members and expecting two more vacancies, the Board delegated its powers to a group of three members.  For the next 27 months  Board decisions were issued with a two member quorum of a three-member group. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that, under Section 3(b) of the National Labor Relations Act, there must be three members of the National Labor Relations Board present to constitute a quorum, or have the full authority of the board.

Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson:  A divided Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision established a new rule under the Federal Arbitration Act for determining how an arbitration agreement will be enforced. Under this decision, if a party challenges the enforceability of the arbitration agreement as a whole, the challenge is for the arbitrator.  But if a party challenges a specific provision of the agreement, a federal court considers the challenge.

Doe v. Reed:  The sponsors of a referendum petition opposing a state law expanding the rights of domestic partners sued to prohibit public release of the petition.  In an 8-1 opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court held that disclosure of referendum petitions does not as a general matter violate the First Amendment.  The Court left open the question of whether the petition signers could win on the merits in the lower courts.

Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters:  This case arose out of a labor dispute between a union and an employer that had entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) but disagreed about the CBA's ratification date as well as who should decide when the CBA was formed.  In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that the parties' dispute over the CBA ratification date is a matter for a court, not an arbitrator, to resolve. 

Christian Legal Soc. Chapter of Univ. of Cal., Hastings College of Law v. Martinez: The Christian Legal Society chapter interpreted its bylaws to exclude from the organization anyone who engages in "unrepentant homosexual conduct" or holds religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Hastings' policy requiring CLS to choose between accepting all students and foregoing the benefits of official recognition by the school did not violate the First Amendment.  

McDonald v. City of Chicago:  Two years ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court held that the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to possess a firearm for self-defense, and struck down a D.C. handgun law.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment right recognized in Heller applies to the states. 

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