Highlighting Some Profound 2015 Supreme Court Decisions

By Taneashia R. Morrell

 

Each year the United States Supreme Court hears around 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review. The 1925 Certiorari Act gives the Supreme Court the discretion to decide whether or not hear a case during a term.  The term commences on the first Monday every October and ends around early July the following year.  During the final months of this term, the Supreme Court decided on 13 important cases, one of which was a historic ruling: same-sex marriage.  A summary of 5 of those cases are described below:

 

 

Freedom of speech and Facebook threats: 

Truth-be-told, I am not a fan of the social media called Facebook.  I see far too many court records and complaints regarding social media posts.  Unfortunately, Anthony Elonis was sent to prison - 44 months - for one of his Facebook posts in which he boasted about how he was going to kill his ex-wife, hide her body, and slit her throat.

 

Under the Communication Threat law, it is illegal to transmit any threat of another via telephone or internet.  However, the Supreme Court sided with Mr. Elonis stating that the government had to prove that a reasonable person would have regarded Mr. Elonis's statement as a true threat regardless of whether he actually intended the threats to be true.  Justice Roberts stated that the reasonable person standard is "inconsistent with the conventional requirement for criminal conduct -- awareness of some wrongdoing."  

 

The government also had to prove that Mr. Elonis was negligent with his posts.  The majority also ruled in Mr. Elonis's favor in regards to this standard.  However, Justice Thomas in his dissent stated that the majority failed to articulate a clear standard in place of negligence and, as a result, there is a level of uncertainty when it comes to negligent posts on social media.

 

Mr. Elonis argued that he was merely ranting because he was angry after his ex-wife left him.  However, his posts displayed they were merely rants as he often stated he was "joking" and knew that it was "illegal to say I want to kill my wife" on social media.

 

Ultimately, the government failed to meet its burden of proof and a 7-2 majority sided with Mr. Elonis.    It is fair to note, however, that the Court did not announce a new First Amendment rule in regards social media posts.  Thus, it still stands that any sort of speech that uses violent rhetoric to carry out immediate violent action is still unprotected speech and could potentially be at risk.

 

Child victims and trial testimony:

Those who have completed Criminal Procedure or Evidence know that a defendant has a Sixth Amendment confrontation right. The Confrontation Clause applies during a criminal trial, where a declarant is unavailable, that the statement must be testimonial and the defendant must not have had an opportunity to cross-examine the declarant.

 

In this case, the defendant, Darius Clark, sent his girlfriend away to engage in prostitution and, during that time, he would watch her two children (a 3-year-old son (a/k/a L.P.) and an 18-month-old daughter).  Mr. Clark was physically abusing L.P. and, when a preschool teacher asked L.P. who had abused him, L.P. identified Mr. Clark.  At trial, L.P.'s teacher testified about the statements he made accusing Mr. Clark as his abuser.  Mr. Clark was convicted, but appealed by stating his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation had been violated. 

 

The Court held that Mr. Clark's Confrontation Clause rights were not violated because the child's statements to the teacher were not testimonial as they were not made with the "primary purpose of creating evidence for prosecution."

 

Head scarves/religious liberty:

This is a clash of free speech rights of employers (commercial speech) vs. the freedom of religion rights of future employees - two First Amendment rights clashing against each other (talk about a legal Game of Thrones). Samantha Elauf applied to work at Abercrombie & Fitch, but was denied employment because she wore a headscarf.  Abercrombies principal defense was that Elauf's headscarf would cause it an undue hardship and would compromise its brand and "Look Policy," which would ultimately be to the detriment of the store's sales.  And under Title VII, the government could not compel an employer to engage in commercial speech "antithetical to its branding policy."

 

The problem with this case arose on two fronts: (1) Abercrombie never informed Ms. Elauf of its "Look Policy," which at the time prohibited employees from headwear and (2) Ms. Elauf failed to inform Abercrombie that she wore the headscarf for religious reasons and, thus, needed accommodations.  Although an Abercrombie supervisor had a hunch that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf for Mulsim practice, he stated that it was merely a hunch not a known factor.  Title VII states that “an applicant need only show . . . need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employers decision.”  Thus, the Court asserted that Abercrombie violated Title VII when it had "no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”

 

The 8-1 majority opinion asserted that stores are allowed to have "no-headwear" policies, but must also make necessary accommodations when a "religious practice" requires headwear. Therefore, if a company feels the need to maintain an image-based policy, they should create an exception for religious groups or primary protected classes.

 

Police searches of motel registries:

When something gets stale, you throw it out.  That's apparently what the Court did when they struck down a 116-year-old Los Angeles municipal law which allowed police to view hotel guest registries without a warrant.  The Court ruled the law unconstitutional and a violation of privacy.  In essence, the Court allowed a facial challenge against a statute under the Fourth Amendment.

 

The statute allowed for law enforcement to penalize a motel owner for refusing to turn over registry records without a warrant, thus depriving the owner of his or her Fourth Amendment right.  An "owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot.”

 

The dissent argued that motels should be exempt from warrants because they are a hub of criminal activity where "drug dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking are beyond contention and . . . [motels] provide an obvious haven for those who trade in human misery.”  Further, “[t]he warrantless inspection requirement provides a necessary incentive for motels to maintain their registers thoroughly and accurately: They never know when law enforcement might drop by to inspect.”

 

It is fair to note, however, that we live in a technologically advanced age where, one day very soon, motel and hotel paper registration will become obsolete.  All registries may be required to be electronically entered into an electronic register into a city database.  When that happens, will there be a challenge against law enforcement viewing that information, already on the city database, as unlawful?

 

Same-Sex Marriage:

The Court's same-sex ruling was the most talked about ruling in quite a while (well, that and the affordable health care subsidy ruling).  In a divided Court, same-sex marriage was held constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Meaning, states must treat same-sex marriages equally; the same as traditional marriages. 

 

The Court held that the right to marry is a fundamental right that is closely protected by the U.S. Constitution.  However, if it were up to Chief Justice Roberts, this would not be the case.  He pouted during the ruling while others celebrated stating "do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."  Think again Justice Roberts. In reality, the Constitution had everything to do with it: no state shall . . . deny any person the equal protection of the laws; nor deprive any person of . . . liberty without due process of the law.

 

There has been quite a bit of backlash over the Court's ruling.  For some, it's too simple or even naive to think that the Court's decision will bring down the curtain on the same-sex marriage debate especially when there are still those out there who feel that same-sex couples should not have a constitutional right to marry.  While most state governments have followed the Court's ruling, others have stopped issuing marriage licenses all together, had court employees quit their jobs, or closed down county offices all in an apparent defiance of the Court's decision. States such as Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, and Kentucky have been affected by these woes. 

 

Despite the backlash, the fact still remains that same-sex marriages and traditional marriages are now on equal footing. And under federal law there are currently 1,138 benefits, rights, and protections provided to married couples such as social security, tax, immigration, and divorce.

 

FYI, the other 8 cases are as follows:

 

• Affordable Car Act subsidies (King vs. Burwell)

• Raisin growers and eminent domain (Horne vs. US Dept Agriculture)

   Confederate flag license plates (Walker vs. TX Division)

   Death penalty cocktail (Glossip vs. Gross)

   Passports and foreign policy (Zivotofsky vs. Kerry)

   Fair Housing Act bias (TX Dept of Housing vs. Inclusive Comm. Proj.)

   Redistricting (AZ State Leg. vs. AZ Indep. Redistricting Comm.)

   Power plants and toxic pollution (Michigan vs. EPA)

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