More Surprising Decisions from Chief Justice Roberts?

It’s called the “Roberts Court” so of course U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts garners a lot of attention. But his profile is rising even more with the pending Affordable Care Act and marriage equality decisions.

The Washington Post reports Roberts is not only the court’s most visible justice but also its most scrutinized. He is expected to play a pivotal role in both high profile cases that will affect millions of Americans. He’s already surprised some with his decisions this term, and last week’s opinion in the Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case may be the most shocking and upset some conservatives.


KS Supreme Court Won’t Hear School Funding Lawsuit

The Kansas Supreme Court told a lower court that it must complete a school funding lawsuit case before it can be heard by the high court. reports that an order issued Thursday means a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court must finish hearing the lawsuit first. The lower court has a May 7 hearing scheduled.

Four school districts are suing the state after lawmakers enacted a new school funding law promising additional aid that did not meet the $548 million the lower court earlier ordered.

High Court to Decide Death Penalty Lethal Drug Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the drug midazolam can continue to be used as part of the drug protocol for lethal injections.

According to CNN, the debate was intense Wednesday when the justices discussed the lethal injection protocol that came into question after the botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett (see Gavel Grab).

Justice Samuel Alito suggested that there are drugs available that would allow executions to be carried out pain free but death penalty opponents are making it impossible for states to obtain them.

The justices are not considering the constitutionality of the death penalty in this case, but whether the drug in question passes constitutional scrutiny and what guidance could be offered to states that are looking for other options due to the shortage of lethal injection drugs.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor had many questions and suggested that the case should be sent back to the lower court for further review.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Elects New Chief Justice

Chief Justice Patience Roggensack

A new Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court was elected Wednesday after the constitutional amendment that changed how the chief is selected was certified, but the former chief insists she is still the top justice.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the court elected Justice Patience Roggensack as chief via an email vote but former Justice Shirley Abrahamson does not accept it and still believes she holds the position.

Abrahamson is suing to block any change to the selection process until her term ends in four years. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for May 15.

Wisconsin Chief Justice Uncertainty Remains

Chief Justice Abrahamson
Chief Justice Abrahamson

A Wisconsin constitutional amendment, changing how the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court is selected and passed by voters on April 7, has been certified but numerous questions remain unanswered.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that an attorney representing five of the court’s seven justices said a vacancy would exist as soon as the vote was certified. However, longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who filed a federal lawsuit,  has maintained she remains chief justice for now (see Gavel Grab for background.)

Some of the court’s conservative majority want Justice Patience Roggensack as the top justice but Justice N. Patrick Crooks, who is known as a swing vote, has also expressed interest in becoming chief justice. The Court has not said when it will take a vote. Justice David Prosser said they should wait until the new term begins August 1.

Supreme Court Arguments Reveal ‘Deep Divide’ Among Justices

29SCOTUS2-master675The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

According to The New York Times, the justices seemed  “deeply divided” on the civil rights issue, debating both what the  right answer is and the way in which to reach that answer. Comments from the justices included:

  • Chief Justice John Roberts said that he had looked up definitions of marriage and had been unable to find one written before a dozen years ago that did not define it as between a man and a woman. “If you succeed, that definition will not be operable. You are not seeking to join the institution. You are seeking to change the institution.”

  • Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he was concerned about changing a conception of marriage that has persisted for millennia. Later, though, he expressed qualms about excluding gay families from what he called a noble and sacred institution

  • Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether groups of four people must be allowed to marry.

  • Justice Antonin Scalia said a ruling for same-sex marriage might require some members of the clergy to perform the ceremonies, even if they violate their religious teaching.

  • Justice Stephen G. Breyer described marriage as a fundamental liberty.

  • Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan said that allowing same-sex marriage would do no harm to the marriages of opposite-sex couples.


Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The News Tribune reports that campaign finance reform has hit a snag in Washington state after several business trade associations lobbied against the proposal.
  • According to the New Haven Independent, the city of New Haven shined at a roundtable discussion “New Approaches to Fighting Big Money in Politics,” because of its public financing system.

Court Powers Threatened Over Marriage Equality Cases

Proposed legislation by Rep. Steve King (Iowa-R) to strip federal courts of their power to rule in marriage equality cases is being called “radical” by some.

MSNBC reports that King’s “Restrain the Judges on Marriage Act of 2015” has seven Republican co-sponsors. In a press release, King said:

“This bill strips federal courts of jurisdiction to hear cases related to marriage.  The effect of the bill would prevent federal courts from hearing marriage cases, leaving the issue to the States where it properly belongs. My bill strips Article III courts of jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court of appellate jurisdiction, ‘to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, any type of marriage.’”

This type of “court stripping” by Congress has been proposed around other hot button issues in the past, including  school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. This proposal, which would not survive a Democratic filibuster in the Senate or be signed into law by President Obama, but is yet another example of legislative attacks on the court.

PA Supreme Court Efficiency Improves in 2014

Statistics from 2014 show that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made improvements in productivity over the past several years.

According to The Legal Intelligencer, the annual report from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts shows that the court disposed of 151 matters by 132 opinions. That number is on par with the most recent years but way up from the 85 opinions in 2010.

The most dramatic improvement came from the number of petitions for allocatur left pending. At the end of  2009 and 2010 it was greater than 1,200. By 2014’s end, 783 were left over.