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Monthly Archives: June 2009

Chief Justice: Don’t look to SCOTUS to set school rules

Just because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators cannot constitutionally strip down a student in search of Advil doesn’t mean the justices are making school policy, said the nation’s Chief Justice.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., speaking at a judicial conference over the weekend, said that the Court’s ruling in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court is in the business of setting school rules.

“You can’t expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad,” Roberts told the audience in West Virginia. “We wouldn’t do a good job at it.”

Roberts also said that although all of the current justices are former federal appellate judges, that doesn’t mean they don’t bring a diversity of experiences.

“I consider myself a practicing lawyer,” Roberts said according to the AP. “We’re also a pretty diverse bunch.”

GOP lawmaker: Ricci ruling should be issue for Sotomayor

Washington lawmakers are reacting to today’s Supreme Court racial discrimination decision ruling in favor of New Haven firefighters who passed a civil service test for awarding promotions. And one Republican is already saying Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s role in the lower court decision in Ricci v. DeStefano should be an issue in her confirmation process.

“The Senate Judiciary Committee should carefully examine Judge Sotomayor’s role in the Second Circuit’s opinion on this case,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Discrimination and racial preferences have no place in our courts, let alone on the highest court in the land.”

But Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, who will lead the confirmation hearings for Sotomayor beginning in two weeks, cautioned against drawing too much from her role in the unsigned per curiam lower court ruling.

“Judge Sotomayor and the lower court panel did what judges are supposed to do, they followed precedent,” Leahy stated. “It is notable that four justices would have upheld the Second Circuit’s ruling, including the retiring Justice Souter, who Judge Sotomayor is nominated to replace.”

The Court ruled that city officials could not dismiss the test results after only two minority firefighters passed. The city officials said they feared certifying the test results would subject them to Title VII disparate impact racial discrimination liability, but the Court ruled the dismissal of the results itself violated Title VII because it was race based.

In his statement, Leahy complained that the decision “interprets the critical protections of Title VII in a way never intended by Congress when it passed this landmark law to prevent workplace discrimination more than 40 years ago.”

“Today’s narrow decision is likely to result in cutbacks on important protections for American families,” Leahy said.  “It is less likely now that employers will conscientiously try to fulfill their obligations under this time-honored civil rights law.  This is a cramped decision that threatens to erode these protections and to harm the efforts of state and local governments that want to build the most qualified workforces.”

But Smith praised today’s Court ruling.

“No individual should be denied a promotion simply based on the color of their skin,” Smith’s statement said. “The Second Circuit wrongly upheld a decision that supports discrimination by the government. The Supreme Court today reminded all courts and governments that equal justice under the law means refusing to tip the scale in favor of one race over another.”

SCOTUS: Tossing firefighters’ promotion test violated Title VII

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the refusal by New Haven officials to certify firefighters’ promotion test results because too few minorities passed violated Title VII. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority in Ricci v. DeStefano, wrote that the city’s argument that certifying the test scores would have led to disparate impact litigation was not a satisfactory justification.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read comments from her dissent – which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer – from the bench, according to SCOTUSblog.com. That practice is rare, but not unheard of, by dissenters. Ginsburg has read dissents from the bench in cases including Ledbetter and Gonzales v. Carhart.

This ruling in Ricci will almost surely become fodder for GOP lawmakers during the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the 2nd Circuit’s per curiam opinion upholding city official’s decision not the certify the test results. That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court this morning.

The Court also released the opinions in Cuomo v. The Clearing House Ass’n. Ina  surprise move, the Court also announced that the terms final case - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which involved the film “Hillary: The Movie” – will be re-argued next term.

The Court also added six cases to next term’s docket.

Much more on the Ricci ruling to come on this blog and on Lawyers USA Online.

Monday status conference: Souter’s last stand

Today the U.S. Supreme Court meets for the last time this term, making it Justice David Souter’s last day at the office. Among the items on today’s agenda is the release of the decision stemming from a ruling joined by the judge nominated to replace him, 2nd Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

That opinion in Ricci v. DeStefano, which considers whether the decision by New Haven city officials to throw out results of a civil service test for firefighters to prevent minorities from being denied promotions was in itself discriminatory. Ricci is one of three remaining cases to be decided by the Court today.

Meanwhile,

Supreme confrontation:  The Supreme Court ruling requiring criminal lab report analysts to be available at trial for cross-examination was hailed by defense attorneys who say it will help protect against wrongful convictions. But prosecutors say that the decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts will tax their already strapped resources. (Lawyers USA)

GM liability compromise: After a host of campaigns my consumer advocates and trial attorney groups who said the bankruptcies of U.S. automakers would leave car owners without legal recourse for product failures, General Motors has agreed to take on responsibility for future product liability claims. Other claims would still be processed through bankruptcy proceedings.  (Lawyers USA)

Will Court take up Sotomayor’s Second Amendment case? Several petitions for certiorari have been filed challenging a 2nd Circuit ruling, joined by Sotomayor, that the right to keep nunchucks was not protected by the Second Amendment. (SCOTUSblog)

GOP leaders ask for more time on Sotomayor: After more than 300 boxes of documents related to Sotomayor’s nomination landed in his office in recent days, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers need more time to vet the candidate. Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings are set to begin in two weeks. (AP)

Metro crash litigation begins

Over at our sister blog On The Record, Barbara Grzincic spotted this tidbit in a Washington Post piece on the ongoing investigation into the horrific Metro subway crash here in DC:

The first lawsuit against Metro as a result of the crash was filed yesterday, and more are expected. The parents of Davonne Flanagan, 15, of the District sued in federal court, charging “negligent operation” and “negligent maintenance” on the part of Metro and the train’s operator.

The Maryland Daily Record got a hold of the complaint, which was brought by Davonne’s parents Imhotep Yakub and Dawn Flanagan just two days after the crash. They are seeking $950,000 for the teen’s fractured leg and for his pain and suffering. It appears to be the first lawsuit filed so far in courts in Maryland or the district.

Supreme Court: lab technicians must testify at trial; student strip search unconstitutional

In a ruling that will have a wide impact on prosecutors across the country, The Supreme Court has held that lab reports used as evidence by prosecutors in criminal cases are testimonial evidence, and therefore the lab technicians must be made available to testify at trial under the Confrontation Clause.

The 5-4 ruling came in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts.

In another major decision, the Court held that the strip search of a student by school officials searching for prescription pills violated the student’s constitutional rights. But because it is unclear whether that right was clearly established at the time, the school official who ordered the search is entitled to qualified immunity.

The complicated 6-justice majority opinion in Safford Unified School District v. Redding included partial dissents and concurrences by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Thomas.

In Horne v. Flores, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona school and state officials in a complex dispute over the adequacy of English language instruction in the state’s schools. In a fairly rare move, Justice Stephen Breyer announced his dissent in the 5-4 decision from the bench.

In another 5-4 opinion, the Court ruled in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend that punitive damages are available in maritime cases alleging willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure.

We will have much, much more on the Melendez-Diaz and Redding rulings on this blog and on Lawyers USA Online, so stay tuned.

Sotomayor’s birthday gift

Although she has been attending what must feel like an endless array of meetings on Capitol Hill as Senate lawmakers continue to vet her nomination, Judge Sonia Sotomayor had time to enjoy a little celebration yesterday.

Today Sotomayor turns 55, and yesterday she was feted by members of the White House Counsel’s Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She even got a gift: a framed picture of the nominee with President Obama and Vice President Biden taken on the day her nomination was announced.

If confirmed, Sotomayor would be one of two justices born under the Cancer zodiac sign. The other – Justice Clarence Thomas – turned 61 this past Tuesday. (Happy belated birthday to the justice.)

O’Connor cheers prospect of another female justice

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is continuing her media blitz in connection with the release of her new children’s book. This morning on MSNBC, she was asked about her thoughts on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

O’Connor said she was happy to see a woman get the nod.

“I am,” O’Connor told Norah O’Donnell. “I was, as you probably know, somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t replaced by another woman because I served for over 10 years as the only woman on the Court. And it made a difference to me when we got another woman on the court – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And now she is alone again, and I’m sure that it will mean a great deal to her to have another woman.”

O’Connor brushed aside criticisms of some who say Sotomayor is simply an affirmative action pick.

“After all, at least 50 percent of all law school graduates these days are women,” the retired justice said. “And we have plenty of qualified women available to serve on the nation’s courts. And I think the public generally appears to agree, and thinks that is good idea.”

When Justice White brought Justice O’Connor to tears

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – who refers to herself nowadays as an “unemployed cowgirl” - paid a visit to the Late Show with David Letterman last night to promote her latest children’s book. And she used the opportunity to share some of her memories about the behind-the-scenes rituals of the Supreme Court.

She spoke of the customary handshakes between each and every one of the justices before taking the bench for oral arguments.

“That’s a fabulous custom because it’s hard to shake hands and then be hostile,” O’Connor explained. “I mean, it’s much harder, anyway. It’s good.”

She said the first handshake with one of her colleagues was particularly memorable.

“My first day when I did that, one of the members of the Court was Byron White, Justice White, and he’s the only justice to have been an NFL football star.” O’Connor said. “And I put my hand out and he took it, and I thought I was going to die on the spot. Just die! It was like I had put my hand in a vice!”

As the audience laughed, the justice continued: “And I had a ring on this finger,” she said, motioning to the ring finger of her right hand, “and he just kept that pressure on. And tears squirted out of my eyes! I couldn’t help it!

“And it was very embarrassing – my first day on the court and there I am in tears!” she said.

Realizing that the handshake would be a daily ritual, O’Connor said she fashioned a solution.

“I grabbed his thumb,” she said as Letterman and audience laughed. “I could never give him my hand again.”

Click here to see the video on CBS.com.

Court rules in IDEA, Voting Rights Act and environmental cases

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents can seek private  tuition reimbursement for special needs children from school districts – even when the child never received special education services from the school district.

The ruling in Forest Grove School Dist. v. T. A. on reimbursement rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was one of three opinions released by the Court today.

The Court also allowed a Texas municipality to opt out of the federal pre-approval requirement of the Voting Rights Act, but declined to take on the overall constitutionality of the statutory requirement.

The much-anticipated ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder preserves the law, but will open to door for the local governments in 16 states that are covered by the rule to seek to free themselves of the requirement before making changes in the way elections are conducted.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter in the case, argued that the voting intimidation that occurred 45 years ago is no longer present, and the law is no longer necessary.

And in Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council the Court gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greater authority to issue drudge dumping permits.

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