Highlights of the Supreme Court’s 2002-2003 Term

During the past term the Supreme Court ruled on:

Affirmative Action

  • Point-system evaluation (Undergraduate Admissions) - Gratz v. Bollinger (June 23, 2003)
    In possibly the most anticipated decision of this term, the Court determined that the University of Michigan’s use of race in its freshman Admissions Policy violated the Equal Protection Clause. Although "diversity" is an acceptable compelling state interest, the "point system" used by the Michigan Admissions Office had the effect of making "the factor of race… decisive" for almost all "minimally qualified underrepresented minority" applicants. While Bakke allows for the University to give certain classes of applicants a "plus" in furthering an interest in diversity, Michigan’s system made race too decisive a factor, and failed to consider applicants as "individuals."
  • Applicant-by-applicant evaluation (Law School Admissions) - Grutter v. Bollinger (June 23, 2003)
    In contrast to the Undergraduate admissions policy, the Court found that the Law School admissions policy was narrowly tailored, and served the compelling state interest of diversity. The Court maintained its view that "narrow tailoring does not require exhaustion of every conceivable race-neutral alternative or mandate that a university choose between maintaining a reputation for excellence or fulfilling a commitment to provide educational opportunities to members of all racial groups." The Court also suggested that 25 years from now "the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." The University of Michigan Law School itself has promised to find a race-neutral admissions policy "as soon as practicable."

Civil Procedure

  • Punitive damage awards - State Farm v. Campbell (April 7, 2003) In a covert revival of Substantive Due Process, a divided Court, split along unusual lines, struck down a $145 million punitive damages award, terming it "excessive" enough to trigger due process protection under the 14th Amendment. Despite strong objections from Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Ginsburg, the Court adhered to, and clarified the standard for punitive damages created in B.M.W. of America v. Gore, calling this case "neither close nor difficult" under Gore’s rubric. As a guide for the future, the court suggests that "single-digit multipliers [between compensatory and punitive figures] are more likely to comport with due process, while still achieving the State’s deterrence and retribution goals, than are awards with 145-to-1 ratios, as in this case."
  • Article III Territory Judges on Appellate Court Panels - Nguyen v. United States (June 9, 2003)
    The Court ruled that non-Article III judges from territories such as the Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands cannot sit on appellate court panels. .

Criminal law & procedur

  • Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act - Woodford v. Garceau (March 25, 2003)
    The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) limits pre-execution litigation, and applies to all cases that "commenced" on or after the bill's effective date of April 24, 1996. The Court clarified in this case, holding that Garceau's motion for appointment of federal habeas counsel and a stay of execution, although filed before April 24, 1996, did not qualify for exemption from AEDPA, as it was not seeking a decision on the merits of his claim, and thus was not a full-scale appeal.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act - Demore v. Kim (April 29, 2003)
    8 U.S.C. § 1226 of the Immigration and Nationality Act compels the Attorney General to take into custody, pending a formal removal hearing, immigrants who are either inadmissible to the United States or who are "deportable" as a result of having committed specific crimes. The Court held that the mandatory detention provisions do not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. .
  • Limits on habeas corpus petitions - Abdur'Rahman v.Bell (December 10, 2002)
    In a brief per curiam decision, given over the dissent of Justice Stevens, the Court dismissed (without deciding) a challenge to a Sixth Circuit decision which held that every motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) constitutes a prohibited "second or successive" habeas petition.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel - Massaro v. United States (April 23, 2003)
    The Court overturned the Second Circuit’s view that ineffective assistance of counsel motions may be raised only on direct appeal. The Court held that the objectives of conserving judicial resources and respecting the finality of judgments were not "promoted" by such a direct-appeal limitation, and stated that the proper course of action is to allow a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to be presented in a collateral proceeding. In this way, ineffective-assistance claims will most often be ruled upon by the trial judge, who is arguably in the best position to hear such a claim. The Court stressed that its holding should not be construed, however, to limit ineffective-assistance claims to collateral proceedings. "There may be cases in which trial counsel’s ineffectiveness is so apparent from the record that appellate counsel will raise the issue on direct appeal," or so obvious that the court itself may choose to raise the issue sua sponte.

Fifth Amendment Rights

  • Coercive questioning without prosecution - Chavez v. Martinez (May 27, 2003)
    In its first post-September-eleventh/War-on-Terror decision regarding the rights of suspects, the Supreme Court held that unless a statement is used against a criminal in the course of a "criminal case" (i.e. legal proceedings have been initiated), failure to read Miranda rights does not violate the Self-Incrimination clause of the 5th Amendment. According to the majority, in most cases, coercive questioning generates "automatic protection," so the absence of proper Miranda warnings is rendered only marginally relevant to whether such coerced statements are admissible in court. On remand, the Ninth Circuit will decide whether the substantive due process violations, if any, generate a claim for damages. In his dissent, Justice Stevens suggests that "unusually coercive police interrogation procedures" will trigger such remedies, yet the constitutional standard that must be met is that such an interrogation must "shock the conscience."
  • Double jeopardy - Price v. Vincent (May 19, 2003)
    The Court ruled that a double jeopardy violation claim was erroneous where state court judge first granted motion for directed acquittal as to first degree murder, then allowed further prosecution on same charge. Concluding that because the judge never informed the jury of the initial motion, and never made a formal note of it, it was necessary to allow the court to reconsider the motion before it became official.
  • Forced medication of non-violent defendants - Sell v. United States (June 16, 2003)
    The Court held that forced medication of mentally incompetent defendants in preparation for their trial is Constitutionally acceptable when courts follow specific guiding principles.
  • Sex offender registration ("Megan's Law") - Smith v. Doe (March 5, 2003)
    Supporting a version of Megan's Law, the Court held that Alaska's Sex Offender Registration Act is not punitive, but rather a civil sanction in the interest of public safety, and therefore "its retroactive application does not violate the Ex Post Facto clause" of the Constitution.
  • Statute of limitations - Stogner v. California (June 26, 2003)
    The Court overturned a California statute that allowed sexual molesters to be prosecuted after the statute of limitations had expired on their alleged crimes if it was within one year of when the victim first reported the abuse. Holding that the Constitution bars states from revising, or extending already-expired statutes of limitations, the Court concluded that California’s law was unconstitutional and therefore, many previous convictions under the law must be overturned.
  • Three strikes law - Lockyer v. Andrade (March 5, 2003)
    The Court ruled that a decision resulting in two consecutive terms of twenty-five years to life in prison for a "third strike" conviction was not "contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law." Although respondent argued that the sentence was disproportional to the crime, the Court noted that the "gross disproportionality principle reserves a constitutional violation for only the extraordinary case," and this case was not extraordinary.

  • First Amendment Rights (Speech, Press, Assembly, Religion)

  • Cross burning - Virginia v. Black (April 7, 2003)
    The Court held that a State may ban cross burning carried out with the "intent to intimidate" without violating the First Amendment. However the act of cross burning itself was held to be insufficient evidence from which to infer "intent to intimidate," thus the Court struck down the Virginia statute’s prima facie provision.
  • Children’s Internet Protection Act - United States, et al. v. American Library Assn. (June 23, 2003)
    The Supreme Court reversed a federal District Court decision, holding that the Children’s Internet Protection Act - which requires that public libraries receiving federal money for Internet services install software in order to prevent its patrons (most notably minors) from accessing obscene or pornographic websites - is constitutional and does not violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. .
  • RICO and anti-abortion demonstrations - Scheidler v. Nat'l Org. for Women, Inc. (February 26, 2003)
    The Court held that anti-abortion demonstrators did not commit extortion by engaging in a campaign to shut down abortion clinics using various protesting methods, thus not violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1962(a), (c), and (d) or the Hobbs Act. The Court ruled that although some of the protestors’ efforts may have resulted in a loss of property or loss of control over that property, this did not constitute "obtaining" that property, as required by the law.

Fourteenth Amendment

  • State anti-sodomy laws - Lawrence v. Texas (June 26, 2003)
    In reversing a Texas court ruling, the Court overruled its previous decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, holding that a Texas statute prohibiting certain sexual acts - namely those between same-sex partners - violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Intellectual Property

  • Copyright Term Extension Act - Eldred v. Ashcroft (January 15, 2003)
    The Court upheld the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which extends copyright protection by 20 years, placing existing and future copyrights in "life-plus-70-years" parity. The Court held that Congress acted within its constitutional limits as protection is still for a limited period, and furthermore that copyrights do not present First Amendment free speech issues.
  • Trademark dilution - Moseley v. V Secret Catalog, (March 4, 2003)
    The Court ruled that the Federal Trademark Dilution Act (FTDA), 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(1), requires proof of actual harm to a "distinctive and famous" mark. Although many state dilution statutes require only proof of a "likelihood of harm," the Court noted that "the FTDA provides relief if another’s commercial use of a mark or trade name 'causes dilution of the [mark's] distinctive quality, §1125(c)(1) (emphasis added).'" It reasoned that this unambiguously requires proof of actual dilution.

Foreign Policy

Foreign Sovereignty

  • Native American tribes - Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians (May 19, 2003)
    Although the Court had an opportunity to pass on whether Federal Common Law allows a Tribe, as a separate sovereign, to seek declaratory and injunctive relief against state criminal processes, it chose instead to remand those issues back to the Ninth Circuit, simply deciding that a Tribe may not sue under 42 U.S.C. 1983, as it is neither a "citizen" nor a "person within the jurisdiction" of the United States. To reach this decision, the Court assumed that Tribes are not subject to suit as defendants under 1983, thereby suggesting a rationale of recriprocal protection under the Constitution. Tribal members may be claimants under 1983, but not the Tribe as a whole. This is one of the few Fourth Amendment cases decided this term.
  • Foreign sovereign immunity: instrumentality status - Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson (April 22, 2003)
    In Dole Food, the Supreme Court defined "instrumentality" status under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. To claim instrumentality status, and the accompanying right to automatic removal under 28 U.S.C. 1441(d), a majority of a corporation’s shares must be owned by a foreign state. The corporate structure ("tiering") in this particular case prevented the Dead Sea Companies from claiming instrumentality status. The Court also determined that instrumentality status is determined at the filing of the complaint.

Voting Rights

  • Supermajority-minority retrogression - Georgia v. Ashcroft (June 26, 2003)
    Georgia's proposed State Senate redistricting plan reduced minority populations in several supermajority-minority districts (retrogression) in order to increase such populations in districts with lower minority populations. The Court held that a simple finding of retrogression in some districts is insufficient to invalidate the entire plan; rather, "all relevant factors" such as the overall statewide effect on minority voting should be considered.