This Week at the Court – Week of May 29, 2017

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued three opinions and announced that will hear a case involving voter registration next Term. In one of the three opinions the Court issued on Tuesday, County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the Court held, in a unanimous (8-0) opinion by Justice Alito that an officer’s reasonable use of force could not be understood to be unconstitutional by reference to things the officer had done earlier. In Mendez, the officers reasonably fired at a man pointing a BB gun at them. The question was whether their unconstitutional entry — without a warrant and without a knock-and-announce — into a shed where the man and his girlfriend, who were homeless, rendered the shooting unreasonable. As Rory Little explains in a particularly insightful SOCTUSblog post, it appears that the Court worked hard to achieve unanimity in this case and that it cabined its holding in significant ways, reminding courts that reasonableness is assessed on the totality of the circumstances and that law enforcement officers can be held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions and even leaving open the possibility that the plaintiffs could prevail on remand.

In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc., the Court held that a patent holder cannot restrict a purchaser’s use or subsequent sale of a patented product, and it made clear that this legal rule applies to products sold both within in the United States and abroad. (The decision was 7-1, with Justice Ginsburg dissenting with respect to products sold abroad.) More analysis is available at Ars Technica. And in a unanimous (8-0) opinion by Justice Thomas, the Court held in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions that an immigrant’s conviction for sexual abuse of a minor arising out of a consensual relationship between the immigrant when he was 21 and his 17-year-old girlfriend did not qualify as an aggravated felony leading to automatic deportation.

And the Court agreed to hear Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, in order to review a Sixth Circuit decision holding that Ohio’s method of removing voters from the rolls violated two federal laws. The Atlantic provides some background about the case and related issues. At the same time, the Court failed to act in a number of closely watched cert petitions. It did not act in Pavan v. Smith, for example, which addresses whether it is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to deny married same-sex couples to have both their names on their child’s birth certificate. And yet again, it did not act in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which tests religious objections to laws that protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nor did it act on several Second Amendment cases, including Peruta v. California, which addresses restrictions on the concealed carry of firearms, and Sessions v. Binderup, addressing the Second Amendment rights of felons. SCOTUSblog, which keeps a running list of “Petitions We’re Watching,” summarized Tuesday’s orders here.

In other news, President Trump’s administration may find itself before the Supreme Court for a last chance to argue that its travel ban is constitutional. As Reuters reports, multiple federal courts have again declined to lift injunctions placed on the ban. It is unclear if the administration would file for appeal soon, or if they will wait for the 9th Circuit to rule on the issue. If they take on the case, the Court will be “called upon to decide whether courts should always defer to the president over allowing certain people to enter the country, especially when national security is the stated reason for an action as in this case.” They will also decide if the ban does indeed “favor one religion over another,” an action prohibited by the Constitution. Experts believe this case will most likely make its way to the Court for a final decision. However, as Lyle Denniston of Constitution Daily reports, the administration must act quickly if they want the issue settled before fall. As this is a very important and hotly debated case, the Court might even hold a special sitting in the summer if they believe it is urgent enough.

Finally, Gill v. Whitford has been in the recent news. In this case, a three-judge district court struck down Wisconsin’s State Assembly map “because it was drawn to neutralize the votes of Democrats, depriving them of representation.” USA Today reports that this case and other similar cases “will present the court with a fundamental question about political power: How far can lawmakers go in choosing their voters, rather than the other way around?” The Court declined for decades to set a standard regarding partisan gerrymandering, and this case may lead it to do so for the first time. Alternatively, the Court could hold, as four justices urged the last time the Court considered the issue in Vieth v. Jubelirer, that legislative districting is a nonjusticiable political question. (Because of the type of case, which was heard by a three-judge district court, the parties have an appeal as of right to the Supreme Court. The Court can summarily affirm, but it is likely to order full briefing and argument because of the significance of the case.The state of Wisconsin has requested a stay so that it does not have to redraw the districts in the meantime. Justice Kagan has ordered a response by June 7.) Ariane de Vogue of CNN explains the background of this very important legal issue.


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