Court Upholds One Person, One Vote

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld Texas’ method of counting total population, rather than the number of voters, when redrawing voting districts.

“The decision was a major statement on the meaning of a fundamental principle of the American political system, that of ‘one person one vote,’” The New York Times reported.

USA Today said the system used by Texas is followed in nearly all of the states. Other coverage included Vox, “The Supreme Court just shut down the demographic equivalent of gerrymandering”; Washington Post (blog), “The conservative go-for-broke legal strategy suffers a blow”; and Reuters, “Supreme Court rejects conservative challenge in voting rights case.”

Supreme Court Floats a Compromise. Was it to Avert a Deadlock?

An unusual request by the Supreme Court for parties to a controversial case to respond to a compromise it crafted, along with a deadlocked decision (see Gavel Grab), quickly focused attention on the court’s ability to do its job with only eight members since Justice Antonin Scalia died.

By floating its own compromise regarding the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, The Washington Post said, the court indicated “that it is ready to undertake creative moves to avoid a series of 4-to-4 votes.” With its order in this case and its 4-4 ruling in a union case, “The reality of an ideologically divided, evenly split, one-man-down Supreme Court became apparent,” the Post said.

It did not immediately appear that the political landscape — with Senate Republican leaders opposed to considering President Obama’s court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in an election year — was (more…)

A 4-4 Deadlock at Supreme Court Hands Unions a Victory

Shorthanded after the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court divided 4-4 on Tuesday and handed a significant victory to public unions, although at the time of oral argument it had appeared ready to decide the other way, The New York Times reported.

In the case from California, an appeals court said public school teachers who declined to join unions still must pay fees for union activity, such as negotiating for higher wages and benefits. The Supreme Court said it affirmed the ruling by an equally divided court; the decision thus sets no precedent. The teachers who brought the court case contended their speech rights were violated.

“It was the most important case yet in which the eight-member court was unable to reach a decision,” The Washington Post reported. The ruling came Senate Republican leaders maintained their blockade against considering Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy. (more…)

A Shorthanded Supreme Court Deadlocks 4-4

For the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia died last month, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-to-4 in a case, leaving a lower court ruling intact. The case, according to Bloomberg,  centered on “a Missouri dispute involving discrimination under a federal equal-credit law.”

As leading Senate Republicans refuse to budge from their pledge to blockade President Obama’s nomination of federal Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland for the high court, Bloomberg noted, “Among the cases offering the prospect of an evenly divided decision are appeals over union fees, undocumented immigrants and Obamacare’s contraceptive rules.”

An Associated Press article looked back at the fact that some Senate Republicans voted favorably in 1997 when Garland was nominated for the appeals bench, and a prominent one, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said then, “Playing politics with judges is unfair, and I am sick of it.” (more…)

Appeal Request Cites Karmeier’s Refusal to Recuse

The St. Louis law firm of lawyer Stephen Tillery has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal and find that Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier improperly declined to recuse himself from a multi-billion dollar anti-tobacco case, according to a column by Jim Dey in The News-Gazette.

There is a long courtroom and judicial election saga involving the case. Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled as it had before in favor of tobacco company Philip Morris, sparing it a $10.1 billion judgment, and Justice Karmeier voted in the 4-2 majority (see Gavel Grab).

In papers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the Tillery law firm asks “whether it violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for a judge to participate in a case where the judge has made pejorative public statements about a litigant or an attorney, and there exists a reasonable public perception that one of the parties (Philip Morris) funded the judge’s election campaign.” (more…)

On Lesbian Woman’s Adoption, High Court Reverses AL Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed an order by the Alabama Supreme Court that found invalid a lesbian mother’s adoption of three children in Georgia.

The unsigned U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Monday said the state court violated the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, according to The New York Times. “A state may not disregard the judgment of a sister state because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or deems it to be wrong on the merits,” the opinion said.

According to USA Today, this case “presented a test of an issue that crops up occasionally in state and federal courts since the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage: Can gays and lesbians be denied adoption rights?”

Commentaries Take Issue With Judge’s Decision Not to Recuse

Two opinion pieces in the Allentown Morning Call and Penn Live take issue with then-Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille’s decision not to recuse himself in a capital case, which is also the subject of the Williams v. Pennsylvania case (see Gavel Grab).  The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on Monday.

In the Allentown Morning Call Brianne Gorod, Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center of Washington, D.C, argues that Castille’s role in the Williams case was a “clear violation of the constitution.” She writes, “Williams asked that Castille recuse himself, but Castille refused. By doing so, Castille created a judicial conflict so extreme that it violated the Constitution’s guarantee of an impartial justice system.” Castille had run the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office when Williams was prosecuted and sentenced to die.

She concludes that “whether the American people trust in our justice system depends, in significant part, on whether they can trust the judges who make up that justice system to be impartial.” (more…)

Widespread Attention for Abortion Case Arguments at High Court

BULLETIN: The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided when it heard arguments in a highly charged abortion case on Wednesday, according to The New York Times and Reuters reports. 

The Supreme Court was to hear arguments today in an abortion restrictions case from Texas, drawing widespread attention over what the Washington Post called the court’s “most important abortion case in a generation.”

Restrictive provisions in a Texas law curtailing access to abortions were largely upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court subsequently put a hold on the appeals court’s decision. The provisions involve requirements for abortion clinics to comply with standards for “ambulatory surgical centers” and for physicians performing abortions to have the privilege to admit patients at a hospital nearby.

With eight justices hearing the case as a result of the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, both sides are looking to Justice Anthony Kennedy as potentially pivotal to a final decision. (more…)

NY Times: ‘Much Broader Problem of Elected Judges’ Persists

VOTEREven if the Supreme Court rules for the accused in a case before it involving a death sentence, an elected judge and recusal, “that will not fix the much broader problem of elected judges,” a New York Times editorial warned.

The editorial discussed the case of Williams v. Pennsylvania, argued on Monday before the high court. Justice at Stake joined an amicus brief in the case, issued a statement (click here for Gavel Grab) and wrote a US News & World Report commentary (click here). The Times editorial was headlined, “Should a Judge Rule on His Own Case?” Echoing concerns raised by JAS, it went on to say:

“Studies have found that when judges must convince voters to put them on the bench, criminal defendants are among the biggest losers. Elected judges hand out longer sentences the closer they are to re-election and are less than half as likely as appointed judges to reverse death sentences. Even the number of judicial-campaign ads on television has an effect: The more there are, the less likely judges are to rule in favor of criminal defendants.”


JAS Spotlights ‘Consequences of Judicial Elections’ in Death Case

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday in a case involving a deathrow inmate who contended he was denied his right to a fair day in court by Pennsylvania’s then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille. The judge  had campaigned for election to the bench on a “tough-on-crime” record as Philadelphia’s top prosecutor.

Justice at Stake Executive Director Susan Liss attended oral arguments in the case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, and made the following statement:

“The facts of this case are critical. Chief Justice Castille, as a prosecutor, approved seeking the death sentence for a defendant – and then campaigned for election to the bench using a ‘tough-on-crime’- death penalty campaign plank. He later declined to recuse himself from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision reversing the lower court and resulting in Terrance Williams being sentenced to death. It was clear today that the Court was very troubled by the appearance of conflict when a judge has also served as prosecutor. 

“During arguments, the justices also acknowledged that at present, recusal standards in U.S. state courts are a patchwork, raising due process and constitutional questions for defendants.

“This case is a stark illustration of the consequences of judicial elections, especially when judges and judicial candidates campaign on ‘tough-on-crime’ platforms. When electoral pressures exert influence, real questions arise about whether people can and will receive justice in state courts.”