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The Supreme Court issued an important opinion this week in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. Bethune- Hill involves a challenge to Virginia’s state legislative districts. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the Virginia General Assembly’s redistricting map was unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7-1 decision delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court found that the lower court used the wrong standard when it upheld eleven of the twelve voting districts in question. The district court had improperly limited its determination of whether race was a predominant consideration in those districts by finding them constitutional to the extent they were consistent with traditional districting principles. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the lower court to reevaluate the role of race without such a restriction and to take into account the intent of the legislature. The Court ruled that the twelfth district was permissible, even though it was drawn with race as the predominant consideration, because it served a compelling government interest in ensuring that minority voters had a better ability to elect their preferred candidate. Adam Liptak from the New York Times recaps the argument here. Lydia Wheeler of the Hill writes about Justice Thomas’ partial dissent. While Thomas agreed with the majority in terms of the outcome, in which the “[Court]. . . [reversed] the District Court’s decision to uphold eleven of the twelve districts at issue,” he dissented from the Majority’s decision to “leave open the question whether race predominated in those districts and, thus, whether they are subject to strict scrutiny.” Thomas states, ”When a legislature intentionally creates a majority-minority district, race is necessarily its predominant motivation and strict scrutiny is therefore triggered.”
On Monday, the Court heard oral arguments for Packingham v. North Carolina and Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions. Because both cases involved men who had had consensual sex with minors, Nina Totenberg of NPR dubbed Monday “sex day at the Supreme Court.” Packingham involves a First Amendment challenge to a North Carolina statute that prohibits registered sex-offenders from accessing websites where minors have accounts. In an op-ed piece for Slate, Perry Grossman explains that while parties acknowledged that the statute was created for the legitimate objective of protecting minors from sex offenders using the same internet websites, the question before the Court focuses on whether the statute is overly broad, “vaguely worded”, and contains “confusing exceptions.” Justice Sotomayor, for example, pointed out that the statute restricts the speech of many registered sex offenders who are in no danger of using the internet to re-offend. Grossman argues that the decision in this case has major implications for First Amendment rights under the Trump administration, stating “[t]he president thinks the First Amendment protects speech and beliefs he likes, but not those he doesn’t. This case thus provides an opportunity for the Supreme Court to brace the judiciary for its upcoming battles with the Trump administration and to provide a nervous country with some assurance that the protections of the First Amendment remain as robust as ever and available to all.”
Esquivel-Quintana concerns whether a conviction for “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” under a California statute that criminalizes consensual sex between a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old constitutes an aggravated felony of “sexual abuse of a minor” under a federal immigration law and therefore requires mandatory deportation of any immigrant convicted under that statute. The Economist discussed the federal government’s appeal to the Chevron doctrine. The doctrine provides that “when a statute is ambiguous, the courts should defer to the relevant administrative agency’s interpretation thereof rather than issue a definitive judgment themselves.” Here, the government argued, the immigration authorities’ interpretation of the term “sexual abuse of a minor” should receive deference, and at oral argument there was much discussion of the appropriateness and utility of Chevron in the context of a statute involving criminal law. (As article discusses, Chevron is likely to come up during Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, as he has expressed discomfort with the doctrine.)
On Tuesday, the Court heard Dean v. United States. Dean focused on the scope of judicial sentencing discretion under a particular statute. Douglas Berman from SCOTUSBlog provides an analysis of the argument, concluding that “the tenor of the argument suggested that the court will resolve this case by being, as Kagan put it, “‘strictly textualist here,’” which in this case could mean ruling for the defendant. If Congress wanted to restrict judges’ sentencing discretion, the argument goes, it could have said so much more clearly as it has in other statutes. And on Wednesday, the Court heard arguments for Coventry Health Care of Missouri, Inc. v. Nevils and issued an Coventry Health Care of Missouri, Inc. concerns the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act and whether the act preempts state laws that prohibit insurance companies from claiming the proceeds of personal injury settlements. The transcript for the argument for Coventry Health Care of Missouri, Inc. can be found here.
Also this week, the Court granted certiorari for three cases: Artis v. District of Columbia, involving a statute of limitations issue, Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing, about appellate jurisdiction, and Wilson v. Sellers, evaluating the scope of federal review of state convictions. The complete Order List can be found here.
Although many have speculated about Justice Ginsburg’s health and retirement, this week she reiterated that “I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam.” Ben Schreckinger of Politico discovered what Justice Ginsburg meant when she said “full steam” by attempting to do her physical workout regimen with her personal trainer, whom Ginsburg recently described as “the most important person in her life.” Schreckinger reported back that he felt, “sore, disoriented cranky, [but] I didn’t feel a day over 65.”
Return to ISCOTUS weekly for the latest news on Judge Gorsuch in our weekly installment of The Gorsuch Report.