Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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During his 2018 Senate reelection campaign, Cruz loaned his campaign committee $260,000. Section 304 of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act restricts the use of post-election campaign contributions, 52 U.S.C. 30116(j). Federal Election Commission regulations establish that a campaign may repay up to $250,000 in candidate loans using contributions made at any time and may use pre-election contributions to repay any portion exceeding $250,000 only within 20 days of the election; after that deadline, any portion above $250,000 is treated as a campaign contribution, precluding repayment. The Committee began repaying Cruz’s loans after the 20-day post-election window, leaving $10,000 unpaid. Cruz and the Committee challenged Section 304.The Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs had standing. An injury resulting from the application or threatened application of an unlawful enactment remains fairly traceable to such application, even if the injury was "willingly incurred." The present inability of the Committee to repay and Cruz to recover the final $10,000 is traceable to Section 304.The loan-repayment limitation abridges First Amendment rights by burdening candidates who wish to make expenditures on behalf of their own candidacy through personal loans. It increases the risk that such loans will not be repaid in full, which deters candidates from making loans. Debt is a ubiquitous tool for financing electoral campaigns, especially for new candidates and challengers. Section 304 raises a barrier to entry. The only permissible ground for restricting political speech is the prevention of “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. The government failed to identify a single case of quid pro quo corruption in this context, even though most states do not impose any similar limitations. View "Federal Election Commission v. Cruz" on Justia Law

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Boston’s City Hall Plaza has three flagpoles; one flies the American flag and another the state flag. The city’s flag usually flies from the third pole but groups may hold ceremonies on the plaza during which participants may hoist a flag of their choosing on the third pole. Over 12 years, Boston approved the raising of about 50 unique flags for 284 such ceremonies, most were other countries’ flags, but some were associated with groups or causes. In 2017, Camp Constitution asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community and to raise the “Christian flag.” Worried that flying a religious flag could violate the Establishment Clause, the city approved the event but told the group it could not raise its flag. The district court and First Circuit upheld that decision.The Supreme Court reversed. Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech so Boston’s refusal to let Camp Constitution fly its flag violated the Free Speech Clause. Employing a “holistic inquiry,” the Court noted that the history of flag flying, particularly at the seat of government, supports Boston, but Boston did not shape or control the flags’ content and meaning and never intended to convey the messages on the flags as its own. The application process did not involve seeing flags before plaza events. The city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception. When the government does not speak for itself, it may not exclude private speech based on “religious viewpoint”; doing so “constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.” View "Shurtleff v. Boston" on Justia Law

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Cummings, who is deaf and blind, sought physical therapy services from Premier, requesting an American Sign Language interpreter at her sessions. Premier declined. Cummings sought damages, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability under the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act. Premier is subject to those statutes because it receives reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. The district court determined that the only compensable injuries allegedly caused by Premier were emotional in nature.The Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. Spending Clause legislation, including the statutes at issue, operates based on consent; a particular remedy is available in a private Spending Clause action only if the funding recipient is on notice that, by accepting federal funding, it exposes itself to liability of that nature. Because the statutes at issue are silent as to available remedies, the Court followed the contract analogy. A federal funding recipient is on notice that it is subject to the “usual” remedies traditionally available in breach of contract suits; emotional distress is generally not compensable in contract.The Court rejected an argument that such damages may be awarded where a contractual breach is particularly likely to result in emotional disturbance. Even if it were appropriate to treat funding recipients as aware that they may be subject to rare contract-law rules, they would lack the requisite notice that emotional distress damages are available under these statutes. There is no majority rule on what circumstances may trigger the allowance of such damages. View "Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C." on Justia Law

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The 2020 census revealed that Wisconsin’s State Assembly and Senate districts were no longer equally apportioned. The Governor vetoed new maps passed by the legislature. The Wisconsin Supreme Court invited proposed maps and selected the Governor's proposed maps; the Assembly map created seven majority-black districts—one more than the current map. The court stated there were “good reasons” to think that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), 52 U.S.C. 10301 “may” require the additional majority-black district.The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Under the Equal Protection Clause, districting maps that sort voters on the basis of race cannot be upheld unless they are narrowly tailored to achieving a compelling state interest, such as compliance with the VRA. Preconditions to demonstrating a VRA violation require showings that the minority group is sufficiently large and compact to constitute a majority in a reasonably configured district, the minority group is politically cohesive, and a majority group votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to usually defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate. If the preconditions are established, a court considers the totality of circumstances.The Governor’s main explanation for the seventh majority-black district was that there is now a sufficiently large and compact population of black residents to fill it. Strict scrutiny requires more. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s analysis of the preconditions improperly relied on generalizations and “made virtually no effort” to parse data at the district level or respond to criticisms of expert analysis. The court improperly reduced the totality-of-circumstances analysis to a single factor–proportionality--and failed to address whether a race-neutral alternative that did not add another majority-black district would deny black voters equal political opportunity. View "Wisconsin Legislature v. Wisconsin Elections Commission" on Justia Law

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Thompson was living with his fiancée and their newborn baby in a Brooklyn apartment. Thompson’s sister-in-law, apparently suffering from mental illness, called 911 to report that Thompson was sexually abusing the baby. When Emergency Medical Technicians arrived, Thompson denied that anyone had called 911. The EMTs returned with police officers, Thompson told them that they could not enter without a warrant. The police nonetheless entered. Thompson was arrested and charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. EMTs took the baby to the hospital where medical professionals examined her and found no signs of abuse. Thompson was detained for two days. The charges against Thompson were dismissed without any explanation. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Thompson’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim.The Supreme Court reversed, resolving a split among the Circuits. To demonstrate favorable termination of criminal prosecution for purposes of a section 1983 Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, a plaintiff need not show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence but need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction. The American tort-law consensus as of 1871 did not require a plaintiff in a malicious prosecution suit to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence; similarly construing Thompson’s claim is consistent with “the values and purposes” of the Fourth Amendment. Questions concerning whether a defendant was wrongly charged, or whether an individual may seek redress for wrongful prosecution, cannot reasonably depend on whether the prosecutor or court explained why charges were dismissed. Requiring a plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence is not necessary to protect officers from unwarranted civil suits. View "Thompson v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Ramirez was sentenced to death for a 2004 murder. Texas informed Ramirez of his September 2021 execution date. Ramirez requested that his pastor be present in the execution chamber. Texas amended its protocol to allow a prisoner’s spiritual advisor to enter the execution chamber. Ramirez then asked that his pastor be permitted to “lay hands” on him and “pray over” him during his execution. Texas denied Ramirez’s request without reference to its execution protocol despite a history of allowing prison chaplains to engage in such activities. The district court and Fifth Circuit declined to grant injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc–1(a). The Supreme Court stayed Ramirez’s execution, then reversed. Ramirez is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the state’s compelling interests. Ramirez's requests are “sincerely based on a religious belief.” The laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise; Ramirez’s pastor confirmed that they are a significant part of their faith tradition.The Court rejected arguments about security and possible trauma to the victim’s family; that absolute silence is necessary to monitor the inmate; and that if spiritual advisors were allowed to pray aloud, the opportunity “could be exploited to make a statement to the witnesses or officials.” Prison officials have less restrictive ways to handle any concerns. Ramirez is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent injunctive relief. The balance of equities and public interest tilt in Ramirez’s favor because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution. There was no evidence that Ramirez engaged in litigation misconduct that should preclude equitable relief. View "Ramirez v. Collier" on Justia Law

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Wilson, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System, brought multiple lawsuits challenging the Board’s actions. In 2016, the Board publicly reprimanded Wilson. He continued to charge the Board with violating its ethical rules and bylaws, in media outlets and in state-court actions. In 2018, the Board adopted a public resolution “censuring” Wilson and stating that his conduct was “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “reprehensible.” The Board deemed Wilson ineligible for Board officer positions during 2018. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Wilson’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Supreme Court held that Wilson does not possess an actionable First Amendment claim arising from the Board’s purely verbal censure. In First Amendment cases, long-settled and established practice “is a consideration of great weight.” Elected bodies have long exercised the power to censure their members. In disagreements of this sort, the First Amendment permits “[f]ree speech on both sides and for every faction on any side.”A plaintiff pursuing a First Amendment retaliation claim must show that the government took an “adverse action” in response to his speech that “would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.” Any fair assessment of the materiality of the Board’s conduct must consider that elected representatives are expected to shoulder some criticism about their public service and that the only adverse action at issue is itself a form of speech from Wilson’s colleagues. The censure did not prevent Wilson from doing his job and did not deny him any privilege of office. Wilson does not allege it was defamatory. The censure does not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Wilson from exercising his own right to speak. View "Houston Community College System v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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A stray 9-millimeter bullet killed a child after a Bronx street fight. Eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a blue shirt or sweater. Police officers determined Gilliam was involved and that Morris was at the scene. A search of Morris’ apartment revealed a 9-millimeter cartridge and .357-caliber bullets. Gilliam initially identified Morris as the shooter but subsequently said that Hemphill was the shooter. Morris was charged with murder and possession of a 9-millimeter handgun. The prosecution agreed to dismiss the murder charges if Morris pleaded guilty to possession of a .357 revolver. Years later, Hemphill was indicted for the murder; his DNA matched a blue sweater found in Morris’ apartment shortly after the murder. Hemphill elicited testimony that police had recovered 9-millimeter ammunition from Morris’ apartment, pointing to Morris as the culprit. Morris was not available to testify. The court allowed the prosecution to introduce parts of Morris’ plea allocation transcript to rebut Hemphill’s theory, reasoning that although Morris’ out-of-court statements had not been subjected to cross-examination, Hemphill’s arguments had “opened the door” and admission of the statements was reasonably necessary to correct a misleading impression. Hemphill was convicted. The Supreme Court reversed. Admission of the plea allocution transcript violated Hemphill’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. While the Sixth Amendment permits reasonable procedural rules concerning the exercise of a defendant’s confrontation right, the “door-opening principle” is a substantive principle that dictates what material is relevant and admissible. It was not for the trial judge to determine whether Hemphill’s theory that Morris was the shooter was unreliable, incredible, or otherwise misleading in light of the state’s proffered, unconfronted plea evidence, nor whether this evidence was reasonably necessary to correct that misleading impression. View "Hemphill v. New York" on Justia Law

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Texas Senate Bill 8, the 2021 Heartbeat Act, prohibits physicians from performing or inducing an abortion if the physician detected a fetal heartbeat. S.B. 8 does not allow state officials to enforce the law but directs enforcement through “private civil actions” seeking injunctions and damages awards against those who perform or assist with prohibited abortions. Abortion providers may defend themselves by showing that holding them liable would place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.Abortion providers (petitioners) sought pre-enforcement review of S.B. 8 and an injunction barring its enforcement. They sought to certify a class and request an order enjoining all state-court clerks from docketing S.B. 8 cases, and all state-court judges from hearing them. The district court denied motions to dismiss. The Fifth Circuit denied a request for an injunction barring enforcement pending appeal. The petitioners sought injunctive relief in the Supreme Court, which concluded that the filings failed to identify a basis for disturbing the Fifth Circuit’s decision.On certiorari, the Court held that a pre-enforcement challenge to S.B. 8 under the U.S. Constitution may proceed against certain defendants but not others, without addressing whether S.B. 8 is consistent with the Constitution.The Eleventh Amendment and sovereign immunity do not allow an action to prevent state-court clerks and judges from enforcing state laws that are contrary to federal law. No Article III “case or controversy” between “adverse litigants” exists between the petitioners and either the clerks or judges. Texas Attorney General Paxton should be dismissed as possessing no enforcement authority in connection with S.B. 8. Even if Paxton had enforcement power, a federal court cannot parlay that authority into an injunction against any unnamed private parties who might pursue S.B. 8 suits. No court may “enjoin the world at large” or purport to enjoin challenged “laws themselves.” Sovereign immunity does not shield executive licensing officials who may take action against the petitioners for violations of Texas’s Health and Safety Code, including S.B. 8. A single private party, Dickson, should be dismissed, given his sworn declarations that he has no intention to file an S.B. 8 suit. View "Whole Woman's Health v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Rollice’s ex-wife called 911. Rollice was in her garage, intoxicated, and would not leave. Three officers responded to the call and spoke with Rollice through the garage’s doorway. Rollice began fidgeting with something in his hands; he appeared nervous. Rollice refused a request for a pat-down. Police body-camera video captured Rollice conversing with the officers as he turned around and walked toward the back of the garage where his tools were hanging. No officer was within six feet of Rollice. The officers state that they ordered Rollice to stop. Rollice kept walking, grabbed a hammer, and turned toward the officers, grasping the hammer's handle with both hands and pulling it up to shoulder level. The officers backed up, drawing their guns. They yelled at Rollice to drop the hammer. Rollice took steps toward Officer Girdner, raised the hammer behind his head, and took a stance as if he was about to throw the hammer or charge at the officers. Two officers fired their weapons, killing Rollice. Rollice’s estate filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit. The officers did not violate any clearly established law and are shielded by qualified immunity. None of the decisions cited by the Tenth Circuit established that the officers’ conduct was unlawful. Officers engaged in a conversation with Rollice, followed him into a garage at a distance, and did not yell until after he picked up a hammer. Precedent did not “clearly establish” that their conduct was reckless or that their ultimate use of force was unlawful. View "City of Tahlequah v. Bond" on Justia Law