WASHINGTON, December 21, 2014 — It has been a year filled with big news stories, many of them tied to our nation’s courts.
“Obamacare” was a constant target for detractors who challenged technical glitches and consumer confusion. Open enrollment is now taking place until mid-February. Some say another Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard this spring, King v. Burwell, could dismantle the entire program. The legality of subsidies in states using the federal exchange will be examined.
Related to healthcare, this year the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that corporations closely held by religious families cannot be required to pay for some types of contraception coverage for female workers. This may trigger many other kinds of religious objections from businesses.
Hobby Lobby touched on religious issues, but there were some other significant rulings relating to religion this past year, and at least one more will occupy the attention of the Court in the coming year.
In Town of Greece (New York) v. Galloway, the Supremes ruled that town boards could begin their meetings with sectarian prayers, despite the challenge from residents who said the practice offended them. The decision suggests that the Court is open to a larger role for religion in public life.
Coming this year in Holt v. Hobbs, the Court will decide a conflict between individual religious freedom rights and state security issues. An Arkansas man, in prison for life, was prevented from growing a beard in observance of his faith. Holt, who also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, argued that the government cannot place an undue burden on his ability to practice his religion, unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” The state argues that a beard is a security concern because it can hide contraband or dramatically change a prisoner’s appearance.
The Hobby Lobby ruling supported religious freedoms of Christians. Some are looking to see if in Holt the justices are willing to protect other religions.
Of note is that 40 states allow prisoners to grow small beards.
Violence dominated the news this past year. A video went viral showing NFL running back Ray Rice punching his then fiancée, Janay, in the face, and it sparked a national conversation about domestic violence. The NFL initially suspended Ricd for only two games, then indefinitely. Rice appealed and won and has been reinstated in the league. Janay forgave him and married him.
Punishment for past violence for some remains uncertain. The fate of Jodi Arias lies in the hands of a jury for the sentencing phase. Ms. Arias was convicted of killing her boyfriend Travis Alexander. The first jury could not agree on the death penalty or life in prison.
The Court ruled on a death-penalty case this year. In Hall vs. Florida the Supremes rejected Florida’s IQ cutoff as too rigid to determine which mentally disabled people should be spared the death penalty. This case refined the Court’s 2002 ruling that banned execution of the mentally disabled but which also, out of the other side of its mouth, left the determination to the states.
The threat of violence will be examined at the Supreme Court. The Court heard arguments in Elonis v. United States, and will decide if a rap lyric is a real threat. Anthoy Elonis of Pennsylvania got 44 months in prison after posting numerous Facebook lyrics, in rap fashion, threatening former co-workers, his ex-wife and others.
The jury had to decide whether a reasonable person would find the rap comments threatening. Elonis argued that the standard should be whether he meant the comments as threats.
The Court must determine if a comment is a threat — whether it causes a reasonable person to fear for her safety or whether the speaker subjectively meant the comments as threats. It’s also a matter of whether rap lyrics are art, which is new terrain for the justices.
Rap lyrics have been found to be damning evidence in hundreds of prosecutions around the country. Juries and judges apparently view rap as a confession and not as art.
The Court decided a case involving an attempt to prevent violence this year.
Violence and harassment at abortion clinics led to a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot “buffer zone” around the entrances to the clinics. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court struck down the law, not because it violated the protestors’ free speech rights, but because “there were other ways” to achieve the goal of violence reduction. Justice Scalia criticized the majority for their timidity. This ruling is opposite a 2000 ruling upholding similar buffer zones in Colorado.
Violence in Ferguson, Missouri and New York also dominated headlines this year. In Ferguson, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Protesters clashed with police for weeks after the shooting. The violence escalated again after a grand jury voted not to indict Wilson.
A grand jury in New York City similarly declined to indict a white police officer after he used a chokehold trying to subdue Eric Garner. Garner was black, and he died in July following the confrontation.
What is legal in the context of police action was looked at this year and will be examined again in 2015. In June the Supremes decided Riley v. California, ruling that police first need warrants authorizing the search of cell-phones following an arrest. This is counter to many prior court rulings that have long allowed warrantless searches.
This week, the Court decide in Heien v. North Carolina that a police stop made in an officer’s mistaken belief that one broken taillight was a basis for a stop, permits using evidence seized during the stop — cocaine found in the motorist’s car — in court.
Heien argued that North Carolina law requires only that a car have one working tail light, so there was no basis for his stop, and therefore the cocaine discovered was an illegal search and inadmissible. He also argued that ignorance of the law isn’t a defense for criminals, so it shouldn’t be a viable defense for officers.
North Carolina argued and won in their state Supreme Court that a reasonable mistake of the law — it is reasonable that driving with a broken taillight is against the law — should not invalidate the legality of the search.
Perhaps one of the most significant social rulings in modern history awaits the nation this coming year, as a same-sex marriage ruling is likely. This year, there were five cases in which marriage bans were ruled unconstitutional. The Court has not indicated if they will hear any cases involving marriage bans, but if they do, the ruling that comes will be monumental.
Currently, 35 states have laws allowing same-sex marriage and 15 states have bans.
In other significant cases in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that some government workers are not required to pay union dues — Harris v. Quinn.
Presidential recess appointments were limited but not eliminated (many presidents from both parties have made such appointments during brief breaks in the Senate’s work). The Court allowed that such appointments would remain permissible during breaks of ten days or more — N.L.R.B. v. Noel Canning.
Race may be taken into account in public university admissions practices, but must be viewed under “increasingly exacting standards” — Schuette v. Bamn.
And the Roberts court, consistent with its hostile view of campaign finance regulations, eliminated overall limits for contributions from individuals to candidates and political parties, placing other limits at risk according to some — McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
Happy New Year. Shortly, w will move onward to 2015: clearly a year that will focus on some very interesting legal events.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
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