Supreme Court Roundup For June 20th
Although we did not get any big rulings this morning (or at least none of the juicy ones), the Supreme Court did issue several interesting rulings today and I thought I would give you a brief overview. None of these rulings are that earthshaking but then it is not unusual for the relatively common to have a much greater impact than the big-name ruling.
One of the cases they decided today was Descamps v. United States, a case which challenged a federal law known as the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) more commonly referred to as a three strikes law.
In this case the law holds that if a defendant has previously committed three violent felonies than the punishment for possessing a firearm is sharply increased.
The issue here dealt with a circumstance where the state crime does not require an element of the federal crime of burglary. The question posed was whether the federal court could find the existence of that element by examining the record of the state proceedings.
The issue of burglary as one of the crimes under the ACCA posed a problem because of so many diverse state laws on the subject, requiring a variety of different elements depending on the state.
To resolve this dilemma Congress created a generic federal standard but they did not make clear what to do when the state law failed to meet this standard yet there was evidence the standard was met.
The defendant in this case was convicted under a California burglary statute that did not require entry be unlawful or unprivileged while the federal burglary law does require that element.
In the burglary the defendant clearly did make an unlawful entry because it was for breaking and entering into a grocery store. The court thus determined that the elements of the federal statute remapped and enhanced his sentence under the ACCA. The defendant appealed but his conviction was upheld by the various appeals courts.
The Supreme Court disagreed by a vote of 7-1 with Justice Kagan recusing herself. The majority held that since the state law had a specific set of elements those were the only elements the defendant could be held responsible for and the court could not extrapolate whether he had met the standard of the federal law. Justice Alito dissented arguing for “a more practical reading of the statute”
The bottom line here it will be more difficult to obtain enhanced sentencing under the statute.
The Court also ruled in the case of American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant.
This case focused on a dispute between American Express and a group of merchants who accepted American Express cards as payment for services. The merchants claimed that Amex violated federal antitrust laws by using its monopoly power to charge inflated fees.
Part of the merchant agreement held that all disputes were to be resolved by arbitration and specifically stated that there was no right to arbitrate on a class-action basis. In other words each individual merchant would have to have his own arbitration with the company even if the facts and dispute was identical to those of thousands of other merchants.
The merchants sued and demanded the right to form a class action arguing that it was economically impossible for one merchant to sue because the costs of the suit would exceed the benefits he would obtain and that the only realistic way to do it was through a class-action with his fellow merchants. Not surprisingly American Express disagreed arguing that the merchant agreement was entered into voluntarily and thus the individual merchants were bound by it.
After several years in the courts the Second Circuit Court Of Appeals held that individual arbitration could not be compelled. In a 5 to 3 decision with Justice Sotomayor not participating the Supreme Court reversed this ruling holding that nothing in federal law guarantees plaintiffs “unaffordable path to the vindication of every claim”.
Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan dissented holding that arbitration clauses should not be allowed to thwart “effective vindication of statutory rights by requiring overly high fees for entry into arbitration”.
This is certainly a win for the credit card companies and I lean towards the dissenting opinion. It is virtually impossible to conduct business today without accepting credit cards and thus it seems to me the parties do not enter into business together on an equal footing.
The final major ruling today was in the case of Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International.
This case focused on the issue of what strings the Federal Government can attach to the receipt of funds including restrictions on free speech by the organization. Congress had passed a law which provided funding for the fight against AIDS and HIV. This funding was provided to a variety of international organizations for use overseas. One of the requirements to receive the funding was that the organization publicly oppose both prostitution and sex trafficking.
Obviously these are reasonable positions, indeed I know a few people who favor sex trafficking. But some organizations had argued that the restrictions could hamper their ability to work with many people, in particular those engaged in prostitution or those trapped in some sort of sex trafficking situation.
Certainly these organizations would prefer to get the women out of those situations but often it was not possible and at minimum they wanted to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
Over the years the court has examined similar situations to this and found that while the federal government did have the power to attach some strings to the receipt of funds that such power was restricted by the First Amendment.
The test they established holds that Congress can restrict speech when it is directly related to the core purpose of the funding in question (or the program related to it).
For example if the Congress provides funding for anti-drug program aimed at teenagers then certainly it can require that any organization receiving funds under that program be opposed to teenage drug use.
On the other hand the Congress could not require that the same organization oppose the distribution of needles because the distribution of needles is less geared at encouraging drug use than a preventing the spread of disease.
In this case the court ruled by a 6-2 vote that opposing prostitution and sex trafficking while certainly reasonable was not directly related to the prevention of the spread of HIV and AIDS and accordingly could not be required.
A bit of a win for the First Amendment although largely a restatement of existing law nonetheless a bonus for free speech.