The 2008 term of the Supreme Court of the United States produced many notable opinions (I say 2008 because each term is labeled by the year in which it began, and the terms run from October through July.) This term, most of the major opinions of the Court were reasonable interpretations of the law that also displayed awareness for the practical consequences of those decisions. Despite a few glitches, the Justices of the Supreme Court should be commended for fixing many problematic interpretations of the lower courts without eroding the foundations of our Constitution.
First, I will discuss a case that you might have read about previously in your friendly neighborhood AMP: Safford Unified School District v. Savana Redding. The case involves a young girl who was strip-searched when officials at her school suspected that she was in possession of prescription-strength ibuprofen. Thankfully, the Supremes decided that the officials conducted an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they forced 13-year-old Savana Redding to shake out her bra and underwear in front of school officials. The Court also verified that searches in schools are constitutional as long as there is “a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing,” which is a far looser standard than that of probable cause required to conduct searches in public.
However, the happy ending may not be as complete as it seems. The Court did not prohibit all strip searches in schools. Rather, they required that school officials take the danger of the prohibited item into account along with the probability that it would actually be revealed by a strip search. Thus, strip searches may still take place or may be foregone altogether if a school fears legal repercussions. According to the dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas, the fear of lawsuits may even create a place for students to hide contraband in public schools. Altogether, this decision has brought some relief not only to Ms. Redding but also to the endangered rights of students throughout America.
Another influential decision of the 2008 term was Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., concerning whether judges who have received substantial campaign contributions must recuse themselves from hearing cases in which those contributors are parties. Recusal is a process that judges use frequently to excuse themselves from a case when they believe that they have an interest in one of the parties or the outcome.
In Caperton, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin refused to recuse himself from two cases in which he and two of his colleagues on the Supreme Court twice set aside $50 million jury verdicts against a company whose executive had contributed $3 million to Chief Justice Benjamin’s campaign. The whole affair prompted claims that the chief justice was fostering the appearance of impropriety and spurred debate about the ethical obligations of judges.
The Supreme Court opinion in Caperton, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, states that federal judges must recuse themselves from hearing cases in which there is a “probability of actual bias.” That probability, the Court said, exists when judges receive exceedingly large contributions from executives and then allow themselves to rule on cases involving those executives or their companies. Ruling on such cases violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by creating a probability for actual bias, thus jeopardizing the right to a fair trial.
The utilization of recusal by the Supremes (or the Nine, for newbies) has long been an informal tradition among the Justices. However, with the growing phenomenon of elected judges, many refuse to step away from cases involving their campaign contributors. The decision in Caperton forces judges in situations like that of Chief Justice Benjamin to do so, yet leaves much room for interpretation by the lower courts.
The Supreme dissenters of Caperton claim that the unclear standard of “the probability of bias” will cause confusion and chaos in the lower courts and is not established within the Constitution. The dissenters try to have their cake and eat it, too: They demand that the majority set a clear standard for the lower courts, but by their definition, any standard would go beyond the wording of the Constitution.
Since the realm of judicial recusal is largely outside the reach of the legislature, it is high time that one Justice told another that ruling on cases involving their biggest political supporters doesn’t fly. As for the vagueness of the ruling, perhaps it is best to let the lower courts work out the details for themselves.
The next case on the Wall of Fame for the Supremes’ 2008 Season is Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. Summum deals with a monument of the Ten Commandments that was donated to a public park. A religious group objected to the placement of monument when its request to display its Seven Aphorisms was denied, claiming that it violated the Free Speech Clause of the constitution. They probably advanced the argument on free speech grounds because challenging similar monuments (such as the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds) using the Establishment Clause has been unsuccessful in recent precedent.
Regardless, the Court settled the question of whether religious monuments violate free speech by saying that the monument counted as “government speech,” and, as such, was not restricted by the Free Speech Clause.
The rather large question of whether this Court thinks that governments can pick and choose which monuments to display in public parks or spaces seems to have been settled by the opinion in Summum. For now, the Ten Commandments shall abide in stony silence.
An important but disappointing decision of the 2008 term was that of Forest Grove School District v. T.A. In that case, a student was tested to determine whether he was eligible for special education at his high school but did not qualify. His parents subsequently enrolled him in a special education program at a private school and sued the public school district to compensate for the tuition of the private school (Under federal disabilities law and Supreme Court precedent, districts can be required to pay for private school tuition for students with disabilities).
Despite the fact that the student never qualified for or enrolled in special education in his district, the Court ruled that the district must pay his tuition. Forest Grove will have gargantuan repercussions for financially strapped school districts already scrambling to fund their own special education and disability programs.
Perhaps the Court should have mandated that the private and public schools agree upon a special education test. Taxpayers are now forced to fund special education for a student who only qualifies for that service under private standards and not public standards.
One of the most media-saturated cases of the 2008 term is Ricci v. DeStefano, et al, the infamous case involving a promotion test for New Haven firefighters, in which the Court overturned multiple blunders of the lower courts. Despite the hard-line stance of the media and many of the senators involved in Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation process, the claims in Ricci are based on a complicated tug-of-war between two provisions of Title VII, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Ricci arose because the city of New Haven, Connecticut developed and administered an exam designed to determine whom to promote among its firefighters. Very few minority firefighters passed the test, which strongly suggested that there had been discrimination in the examination process. Therefore, the city threw out the exam.
The Justices disagreed with New Haven’s actions. In his written opinion, Justice Kennedy stated that Ricci involved a conflict between two non-discrimination portions of Title VII, so New Haven would need a “strong basis in evidence” to reject the results of the promotion test. The Court found no strong basis for that rejection. The city could neither support its rejection of the exam results on the basis of the statistics alone nor argue that it could have administered “an equally valid, less discriminatory alternative” to the test.
With those complicated factors in play, it is easy to see how the two lower courts would have interpreted the case differently. However, I think the Court was correct to rule as it did to prevent cities from throwing out perfectly functional and fair exams without strong evidence that those exams actually foster discrimination.
Finally, the Supreme Season of 2008 included Arizona v. Johnson a case that went almost unnoticed by the media. Johnson set precedent that clarifies the rights of those involved in a traffic stop.
Mr. Johnson was sitting in the back seat of a car that was legally stopped for a traffic violation in a neighborhood known for gang activity. While one officer addressed the driver, another began to converse with Mr. Johnson.
During the conversation, the officer became suspicious of Mr. Johnson’s behavior and learned that Mr. Johnson was from a town with a well-known history of gang activity and had served prison time. Suspecting that he was a gang member, she asked him to step out of the car for more questioning,. She then frisked Mr. Johnson as he got out of the car to check for weapons and discovered that he was illegally carrying a gun. He later challenged the resulting illegal possession charge in court, maintaining that the gun had been obtained in an unreasonable search and seizure.
On the question of whether Mr. Johnson was immune from the frisk and seizure because he was a passenger of the car and not the driver, the Court ruled that, since the officer had reason to suspect that Mr. Johnson was armed and dangerous, he could be frisked to ensure the safety of the public and the officer.
The Justices’ decision in Johnson wisely allows police officers to protect themselves from those they perceive to be armed and dangerous. Otherwise dangerous criminals who violate traffic laws could use violence to escape from officers simply by arming the passenger(s) instead of the driver.
As you have seen, dear readers, the Supreme Court deals daily with your rights, inalienable and otherwise. In the 2008 term, after selecting what cases they wanted to hear, pulling apart the lengthy legal briefs, badgering the attorneys with questions from the bench, and arguing relentlessly with each other, the Justices extracted reasonable decisions from a morass of complex questions. Except for the blemish of impracticality in Forest Grove during their 2008 term the Nine successfully upheld our rights while safeguarding the foundations of the American legal system.