The Supreme Court issued its first decision of the October 2016 term, a per curiam (unsigned) opinion in Bosse v. Oklahoma, on Tuesday, October 11. Bosse, a simple case involving the use of victim impact statements (testimony from the relatives of the victims of a crime) retains some limits that such statements.
Linda Greenhouse eloquently described the recent trend of courts beginning to question legislative intent for discriminating laws in The New York Times last week (The Courts Begin to Call Out Lawmakers). The court’s history of overturning race-neutral laws that discriminate has a fascinating genesis. In Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court reviewed a San Francisco ordinance that required consent from the city board to operate a laundry business in a wooden structure. The statute was race-neutral at first glance, but its application was anything but. While nearly every non-Chinese operator received a permit, the board had been so generous to only one Chinese laundry operator, though about two hundred had applied.
The Court decided the case in favor of one such Chinese laundry operator. The decision was unanimous. The year was 1886. It was the first time the Court relied on data to determine whether a law had discriminated.
Few, if any, of the justices serving on the Court at that time have established themselves in the collective American memory. Students may learn about Marshall and Warren, but few will know Chief Justice Morrison Waite, much less his contemporaries. For too long, this was understandable: decisions like Yick Wo were exceptions to the rule of a Court unmoved by discrimination. Fortunately, at least five of our current Justices have begun to transform Yick Wo into a harbinger of a new jurisprudence.
Since the wave of state and lower federal courts’ rulings that struck down Voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and many other states last month, both Texas and North Carolina have attempted to continue litigation in order to keep their laws on the books.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday decided 5-3 to stay a recent decision from a federal appeals court, G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, temporarily suspending enforcement of that court’s finding that a trans boy was illegally prevented from using the men’s restroom at his Virginia high school. (Too many negatives? The school has been granted the ability, temporarily, to ban the boy from men’s restrooms in the school.)
It’s a fact of life: fees are everywhere. And for prisoners, one of those costs is the cost of lawsuits, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The law was passed in order to prevent prisoners from filing hundreds of frivolous lawsuits at no cost.
Who gets to decide who lives and who dies (by the death penalty)? If you recall, this is in a way the question that the Supreme Court addressed in Hurst v. Florida – a death penalty case from the state. Florida’s death penalty system allows a judge to skirt around a jury’s non-binding recommendation in the sentencing phase of the trial. But under the Constitution, who gets to decide the sentence? The jury or the judge?
The Justices issued another per curiam opinion early in the term, in November. That case, Mullenix v. Luna, took a look at a Texas police chase that resulted in the shooting death of the perpetrator and whether the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court handed down an 8-1 decision, with an unsigned majority opinion, joined by a concurrent decision by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.