Articles Posted in

This week’s legal news was dominated by four highly anticipated opinions that came down from the United States Supreme Court on affirmative action, voting rights and marriage equality.  That said, our writers also found a few other opinions of note to include in their weekly picks.

United States Supreme Court

Marriage Equality

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two highly anticipated decisions affecting the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry. Here are some resources to help you understand the two cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry (Prop 8) and United States v. Windsor (DOMA).

Hollingsworth v. Perry

The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4, authored by Chief Justice Roberts) held that the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 lacked judicial standing to defend the law, and therefore it vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case. The practical effect is that Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision at the district court level is reinstated, and that strikes down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.

1282931_untitledBack in February, I wrote about the crowdsourced effort to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act called Fork the Law. Now, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden  (D-OR) have introduced legislation in the House and the Senate to make changes to the CFAA.

In an op-ed in Wired, Lofgren and Wyden introduced the bill as “Aaron’s Law,” in honor of Internet activist Aaron Schwartz, who committed suicide last year. Their bill would amend the CFAA to narrow the scope of its enforcement and clarify what constitutes a breach.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, codified at 18 USC 1030 et. seq. amended the Counterfeit Access and Abuse Act, essentially criminalizing any intentional, unauthorized access to a protected computer that houses government data or is involved in interstate commerce. The statute can be used to prosecute crimes, and also allows for some civil actions.

The Supreme Court issued three opinions today. Read more about the decisions below.

Shelby County v. Eric H. Holder, Jr. 
Docket: 12-96
Date: June 25, 2012

Read commentary and review lower court decisions related to Shelby County decision here.

vote signJustia Opinion Summary:  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. 1973(a), was enacted to address racial discrimination in voting. Section 2 bans any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen … to vote on account of race or color,” applies nationwide, and is permanent. Other sections apply to some parts of the country. Section 4 defines “covered jurisdictions” as states or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting and had low voter registration or turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. Section 5 provides that no change in voting procedures can take effect in covered jurisdictions until approved by federal authorities (preclearance). The coverage formula and preclearance requirement were to expire after five years, but the Act was reauthorized. In 2006, the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years, but coverage still turned on whether a jurisdiction had a voting test and low registration or turnout almost 50 years ago. Shelby County, in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, sought a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional. The district court upheld the Act. The D. C. Circuit affirmed. A 5-4 Supreme Court reversed, finding Section 4 unconstitutional. Its formula may not be used to require preclearance. States have broad autonomy in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives; the Tenth Amendment reserves to states “the power to regulate elections.” There is a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the states. The Voting Rights Act departs from those principles by requiring states to request federal permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute. The Act applies to only nine states (and additional counties). In 1966, the departures were justified by racial discrimination that had “infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century” so that the coverage formula was rational in practice and theory. Nearly 50 years later, “things have changed dramatically.” Voter turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions approach parity; blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. Minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. Congress, if it is to continue to divide the states, must identify jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense under current conditions. Data compiled by Congress before reauthorizing the Act did not show anything like the pervasive, rampant discrimination found in covered jurisdictions in 1965. Congress reenacted the formula based on 40-year-old facts with no logical relation to the present day.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion on the Voting Rights Act today  – Shelby County v. Holder.  To help you better understand the decision, below are some links to commentary on the matter and other helpful resources, including briefs and a transcript of the the Supreme Court oral argument.

The Supreme Court issued six opinions today. Read more about the decisions below.

Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin
Docket: 11-345
Date: June 24, 2013

Read commentary & review related lower court decisions here.

U.S. Supreme CourtJustia Summary:  Since the Court’s 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Texas at Austin has considered race as a factor in undergraduate admissions. A Caucasian, rejected for admission, sued, alleging that consideration of race in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause. The district court granted summary judgment to the University. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, reasoning that the Fifth Circuit did not hold the University to the demanding burden of strict scrutiny articulated in Supreme Court precedent. A university must clearly demonstrate that its purpose or interest is constitutionally permissible and substantial, and that its use of the classification is necessary to the accomplishment of its purpose, and “that the reasons for any [racial] classification [are] clearly identified and unquestionably legitimate.” A court may give some deference to a university’s judgment that diversity is essential to its educational mission, if diversity is not defined as mere racial balancing and there is a reasoned, principled explanation for the academic decision. The University must prove that the means it chose to attain diversity are narrowly tailored to its goal and that admissions processes “ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.” A reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternative would produce the educational benefits of diversity. The Fifth Circuit simply presumed that the school acted in good faith and gave the plaintiff the burden of rebutting that presumption. Strict scrutiny does not permit a court to accept a school’s assertion that its admissions process uses race in a permissible way without closely examining how the process works in practice. On remand, the Fifth Circuit must assess whether the University has offered sufficient evidence to prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion on affirmative action today – Fisher v. University of Texas.  To help you better understand the decision, below are some links to commentary on the matter and other helpful resources, including briefs and a transcript of the the Supreme Court oral argument.

Commentary

Vikram David Amar, Does the Diversity Justification for Affirmative Action (Mis)Use Minority Students? Reassessing the Supreme Court’s Decision in Grutter

shutterstock_121502677The media has been closely following the criminal trial of George Zimmerman, the racially charged trial in which Zimmerman is accused of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin. Just this week, a jury of six was chosen.

For most people, when we think of juries, we think of them as being comprised of twelve people. Indeed, for over 600 years, juries in the English and American legal systems have been 12 people (men, traditionally—which highlights another interesting aspect of this case with an all-female jury panel).

In 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Utah that the Constitution requires a jury to be comprised of exactly twelve persons. However, in 1970, the Court revisited that holding. After assessing the legislative history of the Sixth Amendment and the purpose of the jury, the Court in Williams v. Florida held that Florida’s law permitting a six-person jury in a criminal trial does not violate the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a trial by jury. The Williams Court reasoned as follows:

American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, United States Supreme Court (6/20/13)
Antitrust & Trade Regulation, Arbitration & Mediation, Class Action

contractAn agreement between American Express and merchants who accept American Express cards, requires that all of their disputes be resolved by arbitration and provides that there “shall be no right or authority for any Claims to be arbitrated on a class action basis.” The merchants filed a class action, claiming that American Express violated section 1 of the Sherman Act and seeking treble damages under section 4 of the Clayton Act. The district court dismissed. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that the class action waiver was unenforceable and that arbitration could not proceed because of prohibitive costs. The Circuit upheld its reversal on remand in light of a Supreme Court holding that a party may not be compelled to submit to class arbitration absent an agreement to do so.

The Supreme Court reversed. The FAA reflects an overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract and does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery. Courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements even for claims alleging violation of a federal statute, unless the FAA mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command. No contrary congressional command requires rejection of this waiver. Federal antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim or indicate an intention to preclude waiver of class-action procedures. The fact that it is not worth the expense involved in proving a statutory remedy does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.

Read more: Arbitration Backed as Court Rules for American Express

Five opinions came down today from the United States Supreme Court. Read the summaries below and read the full text of the opinions at Justia’s U.S. Supreme Court Center.

Alleyne v. United States, United States Supreme Court (6/17/13)
Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

gavelAlleyne was convicted using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A), which carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The sentences increases to a seven-year minimum if the firearm is brandished, 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), and to a 10-year minimum if it is discharged, 924(c)(1)(A)(iii). The jury form indicated that Alleyne had “[u]sed or carried a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence,” but not that the firearm was “[b]randished.” Alleyne objected to a sentencing report recommendation of a seven-year term, arguing that the jury did not find brandishing beyond a reasonable doubt and that raising his mandatory minimum sentence based on a judge’s finding of brandishing would violate his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The district court overruled the objection. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, overruling Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 and applying Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466. Mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime and any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an “element” that must be submitted to the jury. Defining facts that increase a mandatory minimum as part of the substantive offense enables a defendant to predict the applicable penalty from the face of the indictment and preserves the jury’s role as intermediary between the state and criminal defendants. Because the fact of brandishing aggravates the prescribed range of allowable sentences, it constitutes an element of a separate, aggravated offense that must be found by the jury, regardless of what sentence the defendant might have received had a different range been applicable. The Court noted that its ruling does not mean that any fact that influences judicial discretion must be found by a jury.

Read more: Supreme Court says jury should have final say on facts that trigger mandatory minimums