Highlights of the Supreme Court’s 2003-2004 Term

During the past term the Supreme Court ruled on:

Civil Procedure
Employment Discrimination
Executive Power
First Amendment
Fourth Amendment
Fifth Amendment
Sixth Amendment
Criminal procedure
State immunity from suit
Telecommunications Services
Tort cases

Civil Procedure

  • Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices: The Supreme Court held that Federal Courts are authorized, but not required, to order discovery upon the request of an 'interested person' regarding a 'foreign or international tribunal.' Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), as a complainant before the Directorate-General of the Commission on European Communities, requested information of Intel Corp., whom AMD accused of violating European antitrust laws. Intel Corp. argued that since AMD was only a complainant, not a litigant, and that the Commission (the investigating tribunal) had not requested the information in the first place, that 28 U.S.C. § 1782 didn't provide Federal Courts with the authority to order Intel to produce the documentation. The Supreme Court, however, said that the plain meaning of § 1782, which is designed to assist foreign tribunals in proceedings that require discovery to be ordered between nations, gives courts the power, but does not require them, to order such production of evidence. The Court ruled that under § 1782, complainants are 'interested persons', and thus may request the information, that the Commission is a tribunal, since only evidence presented to the Commission may be used on appeal, and that § 1782 does not require the proceeding in which the complainant is engaged to be 'pending', or even 'imminent.' It must only be "within reasonable contemplation." Thus the Court affirmed the 9th Circuit's judgment to remand the proceeding to the District Court, where the merits of ordering discovery can be decided. Further references

Employment discrimination

  • Age discrimination - General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline (February 24, 2004)
    The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was created in order to limit discrimination of older employees in favor of younger employees. In the instant case, a new union contract negotiated by General Dynamics eliminated a clause requiring the company to provide health benefits to retired employees, except for then-current employees over fifty years of age. Cline filed suit against his employer on behalf of all of the other 40 to 49-year-old workers who were adversely effected by the new contract. The Court, by a vote of 6-3, sided with the company, ruling that the Act does not work in reverse. Specifically, the Court determined that the Act does not protect younger workers from discrimination in favor of older workers. Further references
  • Sexual harrassment - Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders (June 14, 2004)
    In a mixed ruling that had both sides claiming victory, the Supreme Court found that an employee who quits his or her job after allegedly being the victim of sexual harassment can sue their former employer. In addition, however, the Court ruled that the employer may use evidence of their sexual harassment policies and the employee's use, or non-use, of them in their defense. Suders, a former police dispatcher who was allegedly a victim of sexual harassment in Pennsylvania police barracks, will have her case heard by a jury in Federal District Court. Further references

Executive power

  • Cheney v. United States Dist. Court for D.C.: The Supreme Court held that the Government need not assert Executive Privilege in order to obtain a mandamus order granting immunity from discovery. The respondents in this case were granted discovery by the District Court regarding the "structure and membership" of Vice President Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group. The respondents alleged that the Group had private, nonfederal employees as members, and was therefore subject to disclosure requirements under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Vice President then filed a mandamus petition in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 [1974], alleging that the United States District Court for D.C. violated separation-of-powers principles by ordering limited discovery against the Group. The Court of Appeals held that Cheney had to invoke executive privilege in order to obtain a mandamus order. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that in this case, where a civil, not criminal, action was filed, and the discovery was ordered to ascertain whether there was a violation of law (as opposed to obtaining necessary information relating to an actual breach of law), the Government could obtain mandamus order without having to invoke executive privilege. Thus, the Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to decide the mandamus petition on its merits. Further references

First Amendment (speech, press, religion, assembly)

  • Campaign finance reform - McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (December 10, 2003)
    In one of the most highly anticipated decisions of the term, the Supreme Court largely upheld the McCain-Feingold (Bipartisan Campaign Reform) Act by a 5-4 vote. Provisions banning "soft money" contributions to political parties and new rules governing television and radio advertisements in the weeks directly prior to elections were approved by the Court. In addition, the Court ruled that a provision restricting those under the age of 18 from contributing to a political campaign unconstitutional, and approved an increase to campaign contribution limits. Justices Thomas and Scalia had the most striking objections to the new law, saying that the new restrictions would limit the freedom of speech described in the First Amendment. Further references
  • Internet pornography - Ashcroft v. ACLU
    The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals decision enjoining the enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (47 U.S.C § 231). The Court ruled that, following Reno v. ACLU (521 U.S. 844 [1997]) the "Government bears the burden of proof on the ultimate question of COPA’s constitutionality, [and] respondents must be deemed likely to prevail unless the Government has shown that respondents’ proposed less restrictive alternatives are less effective than COPA." The Government had not met this burden on the record, the Court said. Therefore, the injunction should be allowed to stand until the district court rules on the merits of the respondents' claims. Further, the Court noted that there were alternatives, such as the promotion of internet filtering, that are prima facie less harmful and more effective than COPA. Moreover, practical considerations, such as filling the current evidence gap, and the fact that overruling the injunction would have an immediate and damaging chilling effect, suggest that the injunction should be allowed. In his concurrence, Justice Stevens goes further, saying that COPA is constitutionally invalid because it uses "community standards" to justify restriction of speech, holding to his dissent in Ashcroft v. ACLU (535 U.S. 564, 603 [2002]). He also stated his belief that criminal prosecution is an inappropriate means to regulate "offensive" material. In his dissent, Justice Breyer concludes that COPA is constitutional. Justice Scalia filed a separate dissent, stating that the Court and Justice Breyer were incorrect to scrutinize COPA. Further references
  • State-sponsored scholarships for higher education - Locke v. Davey (February 25, 2004)
    In a case that will have a significant effect on the continued discussion of the separation of church and state, the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 7 to 2 that Washington State's Promise Scholarship Program, which offers scholarships to low-income, academically qualified students, does not violate the First Amendment by disallowing students from studying theology or religion. Although the Constitution does not prohibit government aid to students studying religion, the Court determined that the Constitution's guarantee of religous equality and freedom does not require states to offer equal aid to students receiving secular and religous education. In his dissent, Justice Scalia reasoned that if the State chooses to fund education for one profession it must be willing to fund education for any profession. Further references
  • Tax Injunction Act - Hibbs v. Winn (June 14, 2004)
    The Supreme Court decided that the Tax Injunction Act (28 U.S.C. § 1341), which prevents Federal interference in the "assessment, levy, or collection," of a State tax does not bar a suit that seeks prospective relief for an alleged violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The held that the Tax Injunction Act was intended by Congress to dismiss suits against States brought in Federal courts where the plaintiffs were attempting to circumvent the State's procedures for remedy. In the present case, the respondent was not attempting to gain retroactive remedy from the State for tax money, but rather prospectively trying to limit what the State could spend their money on. She was seeking an injunction that would put tax credits normally given to private religious schools in the general State school fund, thus barring the religious schools from recieving the credit. Therefore States may not defend their tax schemes against such claims using the Tax Injunction Act. Further references
  • The Pledge of Allegiance - Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (June 14, 2004)
    In a Flag Day decision, the Supreme Court determined that Michael Newdow could not challenge the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because he does not have legal custody of his daughter and therefore can not speak for her interests. He filed the case in an attempt to block the school district from requiring her to recite the pledge in school every morning. As a result of the decision, the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, deciding that the phrase is unconstitutional, was reversed. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor and Thomas each wrote concurring opinions outlining their views on the constitutionality of the phrase, displaying their belief that the words are constitutional. Justice Scalia took no part in the decision because he had made statements prior to hearing the facts of the case that clearly identified his position on the issue. For the time being, the words will remain in the pledge, but other cases are working their way through the judicial system and may arrive at the Supreme Court in the coming years. Further references

Fourth Amendment (search and seizure)

  • Roadblocks established for informational purposes - Illinois v. Lidster (January 13, 2004)
    After a hit-and-run accident days earlier, an Illinois police department set up a roadblock in the precice location at the precise time of the event in the hope of finding witnesses and information about the incident. Lidster arrived drunk at the roadblock and was arrested, charged, and found guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. He appealed the decision, reasoning that the seizure was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment and Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000). The Court determined that the roadblock was constitutional because it was set up for informational purposes and not to determine if drivers and passengers were committing a crime. The decision was reversed and remanded to Illinois courts for further consideration. Further references
  • Search of a car once the driver has exited - Thornton v. United States (May 24, 2004)
    By a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers can search a vehicle without a warrant even if the driver had previously exited the vehicle. The Court reasoned, in agreement with the New York v. Belton 453 U.S. 454 decision, that the arrest of a suspect gives gives concern for the officer's safety and destruction of evidence inside the vehicle. Thornton had previously appealed his conviction on drug and weapons charges on the basis that the officer's search of his car was illegal because he got out of the car and initiated contact with the officer first. Further references
  • Search of passengers where contraband is found in a car - Maryland v. Pringle (December 15, 2003)
    The Supreme Court held that probable cause exists to arrest any and all of the individuals in a passenger car when contraband is found in the car and the individuals refuse to provide evidence implicating a specific person in the crime. The respondent argued that the Fourth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment (which grants all United States citizens Fourth Amendment protection) prevent the police from using a confession resultant from an unreasonable search and seizure. The respondent had confessed after all of the individuals in the car had been brought to the station. The respondent's position was that there was no evidence specifically implicating him in the crime, and thus there was no probable cause (Ybarra v. Illinois). The Supreme Court rejected this argument, stating that, given the facts (three men, driving late at night, with drugs and money in the car), a reasonable person could believe that a crime had been committed. Importantly, none of the men would implicate each other in the crime. Thus, the police could reasonably believe that they were all involved in the crime, absent specific infomation about a particular person. Further references

Fifth Amendment (due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination)

  • Suspect's age and police custody - Yarborough v. Alvarado (June 1, 2004)
    The Supreme Court decided that age was not a viable reason to overturn a lower court's ruling as to whether an individual is 'in police custody', and therefore must be read his rights under Miranda v. Arizona. In determining whether a person is in custody, the Court said that one must consider whether, given the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt free to leave. The Court ruled that although Alvarado was seventeen at the time of the questioning, his age was only one factor in determining whether he reasonably felt free to leave given the circumstances of the interrogation. The lower court thus made a reasonable judgment when they concluded that Alvarado was not in custody. Justice O'Connor, in her concurrence, said that while a person's age may be a consideration in some custody determinations, in the present case it was not a controlling factor. Further references
  • Prosecution in a Native American tribal court and a US Court - United States v. Lara (April 19, 2004)
    In this case, Lara, a Native American, was prosecuted by the Federal Government and the Spirit Lake Tribe, on whose territory Lara allegedly committed the crime. Lara claims that since elements of both charges were similar, they violate his Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy. Lara was not a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, and therefore he contended that the tribe was acting under a delegation of Federal authority in prosecuting him. The Supreme Court held, however, that each prosecution was from a separate sovereign (the United States and the Spirit Lake Tribe), and thus they do not count as double jeopardy. Under 25 U.S.C. § 1301(2), American Indian Tribes have the authority to prosecute non-member Indians. Importantly, the Court held that Congress has the power to enlarge or contract the jurisdiction of American Indian Tribes in this way, and that this enlargement or contraction is not a delegation of Federal prosecutorial authority. Congress, according to the Court, intended to give American Indian Tribes inherent powers of prosecution. The Court also said that they have consistently upheld Congress' right to legislate regarding the autonomy of American Indian Tribes. Thus, prosecution by the Federal Government and the Spirit Lake Tribe count as prosecutions from separate sovereigns, rather than as two Federal prosecutions for the same crime. Further references
  • Identification to the police - Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev., Humbolt Cty.
    The Supreme Court held that a Nevada State Law (Nev. Rel. Stat.§ 171.123) requiring a person "encounter[ed] under circumstances which reasonably indicate that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime" to identify themselves by giving their name, and providing for sanctions whenwas constitutional,. The petitioner contended that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protected him from having to answer the police officer's questions. The Court, however, stated that giving one's name, when there is probable cause, does not constitute an unreasonable search and seizure, nor does it reasonably lead to self-incrimination. The Court said that the statute "properly balances the intrusion on the individual’s interests against the promotion of legitimate government interests." The police can be assisted in investigations, especially in domestic disputes, by identifying the parties involved. Furthermore, the nature of the stop is not fundamentally changed by the act of giving one's name, according to the Court. Thus, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Nev. Rel. Stat.§ 171.123 with regards to the Fourth Amendment. Since providing one's name cannot reasonably lead to self-incrimination, the Court denied the petitioner's Fifth Amendment challenge as well. Further references

Rights of terrorism suspects

  • Foreign combatants, captured abroad, held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - Rasul v. Bush (June 28, 2004)
    The Supreme Court held that foreign nationals captured abroad and detained at Guantanamo may challenge the legality of their detention in federal courts. The Court said that 28 U.S.C § 2241 gives district courts jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions by "aliens held in a territory over which the United States exercises plenary and exclusive jurisdiction, but not "ultimate sovereignty."" The Court therefore instructed the district courts to hear the merits of the habeas corpus petitions. In his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy agreed that the petitioners have jurisdiction, but said that Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763 (1950), controls this case. Importantly, he found that the facts of this case, when analyzed according to the purpose of the Eisentrager decision, produce a different result. He reasoned that because Guantanamo is, for all intents and purposes, a U.S. territory, and since the detainees in this case are being held indefinitely with no legal status, that the courts have jurisdiction to hear their case. Further references
  • United States citizen, captured abroad, held in US - Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (June 28, 2004)
    The Supreme Court ruled that detention of enemy combatants may occur in times of war, but that a citizen held as an enemy combatant must be given the opportunity to contest his detention before a neutral fact-finder. The Court held that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed after September 11, is an act of Congress which allows for detention of enemy combatants. Further, the Court found that enemy combatants can be detained for as long as active hostilities last. However, the Court also held that citizen detainees must be given the chance to contest the government's determination of fact. The Court said this can be done before a military tribunal, and that the court can institute procedural safeguards, such as shifting the burden of proof to the defendent, during these hearings. In his concurrence, Justice Souter agreed that enemy combatants can be detained where there is a clear congressional enactment providing for their detention, but he disagreed as to whether the AUMF was such an enactment, concluding that it wasn't. Justice Scalia dissented, holding that without congressional suspension of habeas corpus, a citizen cannot be detained without charges being filed against him. Justices Thomas and Rehnquist also dissented, holding that detention was within the powers of the executive branch, and that courts should not intervene in determining whether someone is actually an enemy combatant. Further references
  • United States citizen, captured in US, held in US - Rumsfeld v. Padilla (June 28, 2004)
    The Supreme Court ruled that the District Court for the Southern District of New York does not have jurisdiction to hear Padilla's habeas corpus petition. The proper respondent to Padilla's habeas corpus petition, according to the Court, is Commander Melanie Marr, the commander of the Navy brig in Charleston, N.C. where Padilla is held. According to the Federal habeas statute (28 U.S.C. § 2241), only the person who has custody over the prisoner is the proper respondent. The Court has interpreted this, according to the Opinion, to mean that there is only one proper respondent, namely the person who can bring the prisoner before the court hearing the habeas petition. Further, the Court held that the district court did not have jurisdiction over Marr. The Court reasoned that a habeas corpus petition must be brought in the district of confinement to avoid forum shopping. Thus, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case, instructing the lower court to dismiss it without prejudice. In his concurrence, Justice Kennedy notes that there are exceptions to the rule that a habeas petition must be brought in the district of confinment. Further references

Sixth Amendment (trial, jury, witnesses, counsel)

  • Blakely v. Washington (June 24, 2004)
    The Supreme Court held that sentences increased by judges on the basis of facts not found by the jury and not admitted by the defendant are unconstitutional, violating the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights. The Court cited the rule in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which states, “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” The sentence in this case was increased due to an aggravating factor not found by the jury and not admitted by the defendant. Therefore, the sentence given in this case was unconstitutional. The Court's opinion stated that it did not find sentencing schemes in general to be unconstitutional, but rather that they must conform to the demands of the Constitution, such as a right to a trial by jury. In her dissenting opinion, Justice O'Connor predicts that this decision will undermine all sentencing guideline schemes, including the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In his dissent, Justice Breyer argues that this decision will call into question sentences and cases pending across the country. Further references.
  • Crawford v. Washington (March 8, 2004)
    The confrontation clause in the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant's right to confront an accusing witness in court. Michael Crawford's wife invoked her marital privilege in order to avoid testifying against her husband, but a previously taped statement, which helped to convict her husband of first degree assault with a deadly weapon, was admitted into evidence. The Court determined that this violated the confrontation clause and accordingly reversed and remanded the Washington Supreme Court's decision while criticizing the Court's previous opinion in Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980) in which an "unpredicable and inconsistent" framework for the confrontation clause was created. Further references

Criminal Procedure

  • Non-equivalence of habeas and execution method challenges - Nelson v. Campbell: The Supreme Court ruled that a challenge to the method of execution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is not equivalent to a Habeas Corpus petition, provided that the challenger is not contesting their imprisonment. In this case, the petitioner claimed that the Alabama prison's intended use of a "cut-down" procedure to access his veins for a lethal injection violated his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The respondent moved to dismiss given the fact that under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b), multiple Habeas Corpus petitions are not allowed. According to the Court, however, the petitioner's claim did not constitute a Habeas Corpus petition. Rather than challenging the fact that he was in prison, the petitioner was challenging a method of execution he could not have foreseen when he filed his Habeas Corpus petition. Thus the Court established that petitions regarding the constitutionality of a particular execution procedure under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 can be brought independently of a challenge to imprisonment. Further references
  • Dretke v. Haley (May 3, 2004)
    Michael Haley was conviced of stealing a calculator from a Wal-Mart in 1997 and was sentenced to 16 1/2 years in prison as a result of being found a habitual offender. Years after recieving the sentence, Haley realized that his prior charges fell outside of the limitation of habitual offender status, and he should only have been given a maximum two-year sentence. Haley appealed his sentence and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to have him re-sentenced. Texas appealed the ruling, arguing that the sentencing issue was not raised during the sentencing hearing and the Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 majority that the Circuit Court ruling should be vacated and the matter remanded to the District Court for proceedings consistent with the ruling. The majority explained that there were alternative grounds for relief, such as ineffective assistance of counsel, that would have the same effect but would not require the Court to stretch a procedural rule. Further references
  • Banks v. Dretke (February 24, 2004)
    By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court gave Delma Banks a chance, for the first time in 20 years, to appeal his original murder conviction. Banks was convicted of capital murder on September 30, 1980 and had been on death row since October 1, 1980. He had filed several habeas petitions that recieved little attention until his counsel was able to track down a witness that admitted to being paid by the police for false testimony. The Court determined that this, and the fact that prosecutors withheld evidence from Banks' court-appointed attorney, warranted the overturning of the Fifth Circuit Court's decision not to award Banks a new trial. Further references


  • Vieth v. Jubelirer: The Supreme Court ruled that judicial intervention in Pennsylvania's redistricting plan was unwarranted. In the opinion of the Court, Justice Scalia stated that Davis v. Bandemer was overruled. The opinion concluded that political redistricting cases were not justicable. That is, no manageable standard exists by which the Court can define the harm inflicted on a particular political group in terms of their representation. Since no standard exists, the Court therefore does not have the justification to supersede a state's decision regarding a redistricting plan. Justice Kennedy disagreed. In his concurrence, he left open the possibility of the Court intervening if a standard for assessing the harm to a political group were to be put forward. The Court as a whole said that the State of Pennsylvania did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, nor Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution when they drew their district, as the petitioners alleged. In their dissents, Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer each proposed their own standards for judicial intervention in political gerrymandering cases. Further references

State immunity from suit (11th Amendment)

  • Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation v. Hood (May 17, 2004)
    The Supreme Court ruled that the discharge of a student loan does not constitute a suit, from which a State is immune under the Eleventh Amendment. Therefore, when a court discharges a student loan, a State is bound by that action. The Court said that a bankruptcy court's jurisdiction is over the debtor's estate, not the person. Thus, when an individual recieves a discharge, it is not an individual who is bringing action against the State in a court of law. The debtor in this case was not bringing an adversary proceeding seeking positive adjudication specifically against the State, but rather she was attempting to absolve all of her outstanding debts. Further references
  • Tennessee v. Lane (May 17, 2004)
    The Supreme Court decided in this case whether disabled Americans, pursuant to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Fourteenth Amendment may bring suit against a state for violation of this act, abrogating the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity. Since the respondents in this case sued because they were not able to enter the courts (the court in question was not accessible to the handicapped), the Supreme Court ruled that the respondents were being denied due process. In remedying this situation, the Court held that section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides Congress with the power to enforce breaches of Equal Protection, provided justification for Congress to supersede the Eleventh Amendment. They held that, under the test espoused in City of Boerne v. Flores, allowing the respondents to bring suit against Tennessee was a 'congruent and proportional' remedy for the breach. Further references

Telecommunications services

  • Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League (March 24, 2004)
    The Telecommunications Act of 1996, (47 U.S.C. 253(a)) says that no state law can prevent "any entity" from providing telecommunications services. In 1997, the Missouri legislature passed a law saying that municipalities within the state could not provide these services. The Missouri Municipal League filed suit to fight this regulation, arguing that "any entity" includes public units as well, and as such, the Missouri legislature could not prevent their involvement in these services under the 1996 Act. The Court decided by an 8-1 vote that "any entity" does not include state subdivisions, and therefore the state could limit municipalities' ability to provide telecommunications services. Further references

Tort cases - International

  • Retroactive application of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act - Republic of Austria v. Altmann (June 7, 2004)
    When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, a Jewish widower left all of his possessions, including six paintings, and fled to Zurich, Switzerland. His wife's will had requested the paintings be donated to the Austrian Gallery and the paintings have hung there since the Nazis confiscated them during World War II. The widower passed away in 1945, revoking all prior wills and leaving his entire estate to one nephew and two nieces. The Austrian government had elected only to honor the prior will. Altmann, one of the nieces, filed suit in an attempt to retrieve the paintings. Austria moved to dismiss the suit claiming sovereign immunity, but the Judge held that the suit fell under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) giving Altmann the right to sue. The Supreme Court affirmed, saying that the suit falls inside the Act, even though the events leading to the suit occurred before its existence. As a result, other cases are now coming forward to apply the FSIA retroactively. The Court has ordered lower courts to reconsider their positions on several cases based on this finding. Further references
  • Alien Tort Claims Act - Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (June 29, 2004)
    The Supreme Court held that Alvarez-Machain, who was detained in Mexico by foreign nationals and subsequently brought to the United States to be charged, cannot recover in an action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (28 U.S.C. § 1346), or against Sosa under the Alien Tort Statute (28 U.S.C § 1350). Regarding the FTCA law, the exception 28 U.S.C. § 2680 (k), which states that "Any claim arising in a foreign country," is an exemption to FTCA. The respondent argued that the operation which caused his detention was planned and authorized in the United States, and thus should not fall into the category of arising in a foreign country (Alvarez-Machain was detained in Mexico). The Supreme Court said, however, that since the original intent of Congress, as expressed by § 2680 (k), was to bar all claims based on injuries suffered in a foreign country, regardless of where the negligent act or omission occurred. The Court in doing so limited the so-called "headquarters doctrine," which states that tortious acts planned and authorized in the United States are actionable, by calling on the maxim lex loci dicti: the courts shall apply the law of the place where the injury occurred. In regards to Alvarez-Machain's claim under the Alien Tort Statute, the Court said that, outside of a few limited causes of action recognized by the law of nations through common law, the ATS does not create any further causes of action. The Court said that the intent of Congress when the ATS was passed provided the Federal Judiciary with the power to enforce certain common law causes of action based on international legal norms of the time. Alvarez-Machain's claim, however, was not based on a norm of international law, and was thus not actionable. In his opinion, Justice Scalia disagrees with the Court that the Federal Judiciary can create causes of action for international-law based norms. Justice Breyer, in his opinion, warns of the danger of recognizing legal remedies to actions done abroad, since these remedies might implicate another nation's sovereign authority. Further references
  • Definition of "accident" under the Warsaw Convention - Olympic Airways v. Husain (February 24, 2004)
    Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention allows for recovery by injured passengers in the case of accidents occurring onboard international aircrafts. Passenger Abid Hanson died aboard an Olympic Airways flight after suffering a severe asthma attack as a result of sitting near the smoking section of the plane. After many requests to have his seat changed, the flight attendant still refused to comply. Olympic Airways held that Hanson's death was caused by the normal atmosphere of the plane and a result of an allergy condition that previously existed in his system. By a 6-2 vote the court determined that the flight attendant's actions constituted an "accident" under the Warsaw Convention and upheld the $1.4 million award given by the District Court. Further references

Tort cases - Domestic

  • Health Insurance - Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila / Cigna HealthCare of Texas, Inc. v. Calad (June 21, 2004)
    The Supreme Court consolidated these two cases dealing with health insurance. In the Aetna case, the insurance provider required a patient to take a possibly more dangerous drug in favor of a more expensive, but safer drug. The patient ended up having serious medical complications. In the Cigna case, the insurance provider would only pay for one night in a hospital for a patient undergoing a hysterectomy. Medical complications forced the patient back to the hospital days later. he court ruled that the cases fall within the scope of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and remanded the case to federal district court. The court ruled that denial of care falls within the scope of ERISA, and that there is no outside duty of ordinary care under state law. The court also ruled that the benefits determinations in this case were fiduciary in nature, and thus within the scope of ERISA. Justice Ginsburg concurred, but noted her worry that a "regulatory vacuum" currently exists whereby virtually all state law remedies are preempted, but few federal remedies are provided. Further references
  • Consumer credit - Household Credit Services, Inc. v. Pfennig (April 21, 2004)
    Sharon R. Pfennig recieved a credit extension on her credit card, and was unknowingly charged an over-limit fee every month. According to Pfennig, this was a violation of the Truth in Lending Act because the charge was never disclosed to her as a customer. Household Credit argued that over-limit fees are excluded by Regulation Z, a Federal Reserve Board mandate, and therefore the charge was reasonable. By a unanimous decision, the Court sided with the creditors, saying that because Regulation Z does not specifically say whether over-limit charges are excluded, the bank's interptretation of the rule was reasonable. Further references