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Supreme Court 2009-2010: Pro-Corporate, But Continued Trend Towards Deferral to State Authority

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ended its term with a bang with a ruling in McDonald v. City of Chicago that state gun control regulations can be struck down by federal courts based on the Second Amendment.  While the number and scale of blockbuster decisions was not so high this session, the singular impact of the Citizens United case earlier in the term unleashing unregulated corporate money on elections, combined with the dangerous implications of the Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson arbitration decision, emphasizes the pro-corporate bias the Supreme Court has increasingly exercised in recent years.

As detailed below, other decisions on public university governance of student groups, property rights challenges to beach restoration programs and regulation of ballot initiative processes, did continue the trend in recent terms of the Supreme Court deferring to state authority in major cases.  And criminal justice cases continued to be a mixed bag of protecting individual rights versus upholding state discretion.


Table of Contents:
- Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s Pro-Corporate Bias
- Supreme Court’s Deferral to State Authority
- Criminal Justice
- Conclusion


Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s Pro-Corporate Bias

There is little question that Citizens United will be one of the major cases that defines this year’s term—and in many ways will frame the legacy of the rise of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito whose presence on the court has led to the dismemberment of campaign finance regulation.

"A Massive New Threat of Corruption and Corporate Control":  With Citizens United, the Supreme court has given corporations the same free speech rights as individuals and allowed unlimited election spending by corporations when not coordinated with candidates.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said recently, 

The Citizens United decision -- yet another 5-4 decision [opens] our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control.  There is an unmistakable pattern.  For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.

To emphasize its hostility to restrictions on the power of the wealthy over our elections,  the Supreme Court ordered a freeze of Arizona's public financing matching funds system which gives candidates participating in public financing additional funds when opponents spend above benchmarked levels of spending.  This means that publicly-financed candidates will be eligible to receive only one-third of the money to which they'd otherwise be entitled.

Letting Corporate Arbitrators Decide if Their Own Decisions are Unfair:  In Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson, the Supreme Court - by the same pro-corporate 5-4 vote lineup of Justices - further closed the courthouse door for individuals abused by their employers.  The Court held that employees cannot only be forced to have complaints about racial discrimination or other employer abuses decided by private arbitrators (a reality decided in previous terms), but also that where an employee feels the terms of the arbitration agreement are unfair and unconscionable, it is up to the corporate-chosen arbitrator to decide if the arbitration agreement is unfair.  In this case, for example, the arbitration agreement limited claims an employee might bring against the employer, while exempting those claims that Rent-a-Center might raise, and restricted an employee’s ability to gather evidence.

Instead of allowing a judge to decide whether the agreement to arbitrate could be enforced, the Supreme Court majority leaves it to the arbitrator chosen by the agreement alleged to be unfair to decide the issue, cutting off access to the courts even for the most basic threshold issue of whether these arbitrators and the rules imposed are a fair substitute for a day in court.

Privatizing Democracy:  So just as corporations now have unlimited rein to use their money without regulation to dominate elections, those same corporations now have de facto have authority to run private courts to decide the legal rights of their own employees without little or no judicial restraint.

Supreme Court’s Deferral to State Authority

However, beyond these pro-corporate decisions, the Supreme Court, often with surprising configurations of majorities, continued its trend in recent years of deferral to state authority in more cases where core corporate interests are not at stake.

States and the Second Amendment:  The exception to the trend this year was McDonald v. City of Chicago, which extended the Second Amendment to restrict state gun regulations.  But even in that case, the majority went out of its way to affirm that many traditional gun control regulations will still be upheld even where an individual right to keep firearms for self-defense in the home is protected. Since most states have their own constitutional and statutory reasonableness test for gun regulations, the practical effects of McDonald may end up being relatively limited.

Rejecting “Takings” Doctrine:  While right-wing constitutional lawyers for years hoped to create a majority to limit most local government land regulations as illegal “takings” under the Constitution, the Court in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection not only rejected a property rights challenge to a state beach-erosion statute, but Justice Anthony Kennedy refused to even give a fifth vote to the proposition that a court ruling could ever constitute a “taking” of private property, a sign that most reasonable land use regulations will be protected from federal judicial second-guessing in the future.

Universities and Groups Excluding Gay Students:  In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, state universities retained their authority to deny funding to student groups that exclude certain students, such as gay and lesbian students, from membership.  The Court upheld the University of California-Hastings' policy of requiring student groups to take on "all comers" as a prerequisite to official school recognition as a reasonable and viewpoint neutral restriction.

Public Disclosure of Ballot Initiative Signers:  Given increasing use of fraud by those promoting right-wing ballot initiatives, progressives won an important victory in Doe v. Reed, in which the Court held that disclosure of signers of political ballot initiatives did not generally violate the First Amendment (although they might be able to in the future argue that specific harms could lead to some restriction on disclosure in a future case).  In a strong argument for respecting state regulation of ballot initiatives, Justices Sotomayor, Stevens and Ginsburg wrote:

These mechanisms of direct democracy are not compelled by the Federal Constitution.  It is instead up to the people of each State, acting in their sovereign capacity, to decide whether and how to permit legislation by popular action.  States enjoy “considerable leeway” to choose the subjects that are eligible for placement on the ballot and to specify the requirements for obtaining ballot access (e.g., the number of signatures required, the time for submission, and the method of verification).

Reviewing Public Employee Text Messages:  In a slightly idiosyncratic case, the Court in City of Ontario v. Quon unanimously held that a police department’s decision to review the text messages of employees who exceeded the monthly limit on their office pagers in order to determine whether the monthly limit should be raised was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice decisions by the Supreme Court invariably combine a combination of invocation of individual rights, discussions of state authority and obscure procedural explorations.  While cases this term had few singular disruptions of previous principles, they had a number of clear incremental changes effecting state criminal proceedings. (See this ACLU writeup for an extended list of additional cases).

State Convictions and Immigration:  Of import for current debates on the role of states in immigration policy, the court ruled in two cases that courts had to carefully weigh how state criminal statutes interact with federal deportation rules:

  • In Padilla v. Kentucky, the Court  held that attorneys have an obligation to carefully advise their clients of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.  In this case, the defendant— a lawful permanent resident for 40 years who pled guilty to drug trafficking — was incorrectly advised by his lawyer that he was unlikely to face deportation because of his long stay in the United States. 
  • In Carchuri-Rosendo v. Holder, a unanimous Court ruled that defendant’s conviction for possession of a single Xanax tablet without prescription, following an earlier state court conviction for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, could not qualify as an aggravated felony under federal immigration law, and thus did not render the petitioner ineligible for potential discretionary relief from deportation.

Restricting Miranda: The Court significantly limited restrictions the Miranda “right to remain silent” in a series of cases limiting the Miranda ruling:

  • In the most critical case, in Berghuis, Warden v . Thompkins, a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court affirmed that a suspect did not properly invoke his right to remain silent, so statements were properly admitted in court.  Justice Sotomayor, writing for four dissenters said, “the Court today creates an unworkable and conflicting set of presumptions that will undermine  Miranda’s goal.”
  • In Florida v. Powell, the Court held that police warnings that a suspect had a right “to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions” adequately complied with Miranda, since the right does not require a particular set of words for police compliance.
  • In a 6-3 Graham v. Florida decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court found a Florida law unconstitutional under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause where juvenile offenders could be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-murder.
  • In Maryland v. Shatzer, the Court held that police did not violate the law by collecting incriminating statements from a person who had invoked his Miranda rights two and a half years earlier, and that the right against interrogation lasts only 14 days after invocation.

In other key decisions effecting state proceedings:

  • In Bobby v. Van Hook, Wong v. Belmontes and Porter v. McCollum, the court created a series of new standards for when counsel is so ineffective as to warrant a new trial.  
  • In Presley v. Georgia, the Court concluded that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial had been violated when the public was excluded from the jury voir dire proceedings.
  • In Holland v. Florida, a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Court agreed that an attorney could harm his client so badly that the defendant’s time to seek habeas must be extended.

Conclusion

Elana Kagan’s likely replacement of Justice Stevens on the Court is unlikely to change the broader trends on the Court and states will continue to face the challenge of reining in the corporate election spending unleashed by Citizens United and protecting access to justice in the courts eroded by the Rent-a-Center case.  As People for the American Way wrote in a recent report, Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Businesses First, “the conservative-tilting Court has reached out to enshrine and elevate the power of business corporations.” 

While deferral to state authority has emerged as an increasing consensus among the Justices on a number of issues, lurking in the dissents of the most conservative Justices are even more extreme pro-corporate and right-wing views that with one more ally could push legal doctrine in ways that would completely erode democratic decision-making over economic and social policy.  So even the more positive trends on the Court warrant only partial relief, since small changes in personnel in the future could readily enable the more activist impulses of the block of the four most right-wing members of the Court.

Resources:
Progressive States Network - The Supreme Court and the States 2008-2009: Trend Defending State Authority Emerges this Term
Scotusblog - Everything you read about the Supreme Court is wrong
ACLU - ACLU Summary of the 2009 Supreme Court Term
People for the American Way - Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Businesses First
Alliance for Justice - The Corporate Court