We touched upon the Lewis v. City of Chicago case in our March audio interview. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the black firefighters seeking redress for racial discrimination in hiring. The case will be sent back to appeals court to be tried once again.The Supreme Court also ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole if they haven't killed anyone. Of course, that any teenagers get life sentences in the United States is still astounding and unusual from an international perspective. It’s worth noting, though, that the juvenile offender case was a 5-4 ruling (written by Justice Kennedy), which serves as yet another reminder of how important the selection of the justices is in preserving basic rights.
The big news last week was the 5-4 ruling on “Miranda rights,” having to do with the right to remain silent when under arrest. Though NCRCR largely focuses on access to the courts to enforce anti-discrimination law, the rights of workers and our ability to protect the environment (among other things), this case is a big deal and serves as a reminder of the important role of the court system. The Supreme Court ruled that criminal suspects seeking to protect their right to remain silent must actually speak up in order to invoke it, redefining the court’s 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona.Another 5-4 ruling in April further restricted fees that lawyers can receive under laws that were intended to encourage attorneys to take on civil rights cases. Though many people may not be so interested in the issue of attorneys' fees, the question whether attorneys can receive payment when they take on civil rights cases is an important one. Clients in these cases are often low-income and thus cannot pay for legal services. The way the law is structured, when people who are discriminated against win their case, they’re entitled to fees, so that the lawyers can get paid something for their work and so there will be an incentive for lawyers to take these cases in the future, which helps to ensure that the law is enforced and benefits us all. Perdue v. Kenny A. dealt with how judges should determine how much the losing side has to pay. Though the Court didn’t rule out the possibility that attorneys might be recognized for extraordinary work, they set the standard so high that it’s hard to see what might qualify. (In this case, the judge increased fees in light of the fact that, as he put it, it was the best performance he had seen in his 28 years on the bench. This apparently wasn’t good enough to meet the Court’s new standard). Perdue is one of a number of cases over the last decade that raise questions about when the prevailing party is entitled to fees and how much they can get, cutting back on when lawyers can get an award (see Buckhannon, for example) and how much they can get.
The Supreme Court announced that visitors to its courthouse will no longer be allowed to enter through the front door. The New York Times describes this decision as “ripe with symbolism about access to justice in the age of terror.”
THE YET UNDETERMINED
In March, the Supreme Court heard a case challenging the way the government interprets immigration laws. The case involves a lawful permanent resident (with four children who are US citizens) who had been convicted of a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana and one Xanax pill. José Angel Carachuri-Rosendo was subsequently located and ordered to be deported on grounds that he “could have” been convicted of a felony. Kevin Johnson writes on the ACSblog that, “The U.S. government's tortured interpretation would have a devastating impact on immigrant communities, especially long-time residents with deep family and community ties to the United States.” We are awaiting a ruling.
Also still pending a decision is McDonald v. Chicago, a challenge to the authority of state and local governments to regulate individual possession of guns. Legally, the question is whether or not the right to bear arms, which the Court has recently ruled restricts the federal government’s latitude, also applies to state and local governments. It’s a tricky issue for people who have been fighting against gun control and, at the same time, argue for “strict constructionism” or a more “textual” reading of the Constitution, which has no explicit language suggesting that the states can’t regulate possession of guns. Invalidating the Chicago law at issue in the case would require a broad interpretation of the due process clause or other restrictions on states found in the 14th Amendment, something that “strict constructionists” have been staunchly against.
Stay tuned for more information and feel free to comment on which cases you think are most important!
(Photo by The Library of Congress.)