Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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In 2007, a Louisiana jury found Edwards guilty of armed robbery, rape, and kidnapping. Louisiana law then permitted non-unanimous jury verdicts if at least 10 of the 12 jurors found the defendant guilty; 11 of 12 Edwards jurors returned a guilty verdict as to some crimes, and 10 of 12 jurors returned a guilty verdict as to others. After Edwards’s conviction became final, Edwards filed a federal habeas corpus petition. The district court rejected his argument that the non-unanimous jury verdict violated his constitutional rights as foreclosed by “Apodaca.” The Fifth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability.While Edwards’s petition for a writ of certiorari was pending, the Supreme Court repudiated Apodoca and held (“Ramos”) that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offense.The Supreme Court affirmed with respect to Edwards. The Ramos jury-unanimity rule does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review. New rules of criminal procedure apply to cases on direct review, even if the defendant’s trial has already concluded but, historically, did not apply retroactively on federal collateral review unless a new rule constituted a “watershed” rule of criminal procedure. The Supreme Court has never found that any new procedural rule actually satisfies the “watershed” exception and acknowledged that the exception is “moribund.” Continuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies "offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes" resources. View "Edwards v. Vannoy" on Justia Law

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An Alaska jury convicted Wright of 13 counts of sexual abuse of a minor. Wright finished serving his sentence and moved to Tennessee. Once there, he failed to register as a sex offender as required by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, 34 U.S.C. 20913. Wright pleaded guilty to failure to register and received a sentence of time served plus supervised release. During those federal proceedings, Wright filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Alaska under 28 U.S.C. 2241 and 2254, arguing that the Alaska Supreme Court had unreasonably applied clearly established federal law when it denied his Sixth Amendment claims and affirmed his 2009 state conviction and sentence. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that Wright was not in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court. The Ninth Circuit reversed, reasoning that Wright’s state conviction was “ ‘a necessary predicate’ ” to his federal conviction. The Supreme Court vacated. Section 2254(a) permits a federal court to entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court.” A habeas petitioner does not remain “in custody” under a conviction “after the sentence imposed for it has fully expired, merely because of the possibility that the prior conviction will be used to enhance the sentences imposed for any subsequent crimes.” That Wright’s state conviction served as a predicate for his federal conviction did not render him “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court.” If Wright’s second conviction had been for a state crime, he independently could have satisfied section 2254(a)’s “in custody” requirement, though his ability to attack the first conviction would have been limited. View "Alaska v. Wright" on Justia Law

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The FTC filed a complaint against Tucker alleging deceptive payday lending practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act Section 5(a). The district court entered a permanent injunction to prevent Tucker from committing future violations and relied on the same authority to direct Tucker to pay $1.27 billion in restitution and disgorgement. The Ninth Circuit rejected Tucker’s argument that section 13(b) does not authorize the award of equitable monetary relief.The Supreme Court reversed. Section 13(b) does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement. The Commission has authority to enforce the Act’s prohibitions on “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” 15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)–(2), by commencing administrative proceedings under Section 5. Section 5(l) authorizes the Commission, following completion of the administrative process and the issuance of a final cease and desist order, to seek civil penalties, and permits district courts to “grant mandatory injunctions and such other and further equitable relief.” Section 19 authorizes district courts to grant “such relief as the court finds necessary,” in cases where someone has engaged in unfair or deceptive conduct with respect to which the Commission has issued a final cease and desist order.In Tucker's case, the Commission sought equitable monetary relief directly in district court under Section 13(b)’s authorization to seek a “permanent injunction” without having used the Commission’s traditional administrative proceedings. Section 13(b) does not explicitly authorize the Commission to obtain court-ordered monetary relief, and such relief is foreclosed by the structure and history of the Act. It is unlikely that Congress, without mentioning the matter, would grant the Commission authority to circumvent traditional Section 5 administrative proceedings. In enacting Section 19 two years after Section 13(b), Congress did not create an alternative enforcement path with similar remedies. View "AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission" on Justia Law

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A Mississippi jury convicted Jones of murder for killing his grandfather when Jones was 15 years old. Under Mississippi law, murder carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole. That sentence was affirmed on appeal. The Supreme Court subsequently held, in Miller v. Alabama, that the Eighth Amendment permits a life-without-parole sentence for a defendant who committed homicide when he was under 18 only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer has the discretion to impose a lesser punishment. The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered that Jones be resentenced. The judge at resentencing acknowledged that he had discretion under Miller to impose a sentence less than life without parole but determined that life without parole remained the appropriate sentence. The Supreme Court had recently held (Montgomery v. Louisiana) that Miller applied retroactively on collateral review. The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected Jones’s argument that, under Miller and Montgomery, a sentencer must make a separate factual finding that a murderer under 18 is permanently incorrigible before sentencing the offender to life without parole.The Supreme Court affirmed. In the case of a defendant who committed homicide when he was under 18, Miller and Montgomery do not require the sentencer to make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing the defendant to life without parole; a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient. The cases require consideration of an offender’s youth but not any particular factual finding nor an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an “implicit finding” of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole. Jones's resentencing complied with Miller and Montgomery because the sentencer had discretion to impose a sentence less than life without parole in light of Jones’s youth. View "Jones v. Mississippi" on Justia Law

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In March 1985, Hines, carrying a concealed hunting knife, checked into a motel. The manager had put Jenkins in charge of the motel, providing her with a bag of money. Another visitor, Jones, later found Jenkins’ body in a guest's room, with several knife wounds. Her money, keys, and vehicle were missing. A group of travelers later picked Hines up from beside Jenkins' broken-down car. Hines had dried blood on his shirt and “ke[pt] contradicting himself.” Hines admitted to his sister that he had stabbed somebody at the motel; he had a lot of money and the keys to Jenkins’ car. Hines changed his story when he surrendered to the police but offered to confess if guaranteed the death penalty. A search of Hines' motel room revealed stab marks. Jones testified he knew the motel's owners and had stopped by, taken a key from the office, and entered Hines’ room to use the bathroom. Hines’ counsel stressed to the jury this odd sequence of events. The jury heard discrepancies between his account and the first responders' timeline. When Hines unsuccessfully sought post-conviction review, Jones admitted that he was at the motel with a woman other than his wife and had helped himself to a room key. His story was confirmed by his companion who watched through the room’s window. Hines’ attorney was aware of Jones’ affair but had decided to spare him some embarrassment.The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's 2020 grant of habeas relief. A federal court “shall not” grant habeas relief unless the state decision took an “unreasonable” view of the facts or law. Substantial evidence linked Hines to the crime. The theory that a more aggressive attorney could have changed the result by casting doubt on Jones’ credibility or portraying him as a viable suspect ignores that Jones’ testimony about discovering the body did not indicate that Hines was the culprit. Ample other evidence did that. If Jones’ credibility mattered, the jury had good reasons to be skeptical. Had the Sixth Circuit properly considered the entire record, it would have had little trouble deferring to the Tennessee court’s conclusion that Hines suffered no prejudice. View "Mays v. Hines" on Justia Law

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New Mexico State Police officers arrived at an apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant and approached Torres, then standing near a car, and attempted to speak with her as she got into the driver’s seat. Believing the officers to be carjackers, Torres hit the gas to escape. The officers fired their service pistols 13 times to stop Torres, striking her twice. Torres escaped and drove to a hospital 75 miles away. Torres was airlifted back to an Albuquerque hospital, where she was arrested. Her suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983 was rejected on summary judgment. The Tenth Circuit held that “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim.”.The Supreme Court vacated. The application of physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued. The required corporal seizing or touching can be as readily accomplished by a bullet as by a finger. The focus of the Fourth Amendment is “the privacy and security of individuals,” not the particular form of governmental intrusion. A seizure requires the use of force with intent to restrain, as opposed to force applied by accident or for some other purpose. The inquiry is whether the challenged conduct objectively manifests an intent to restrain. The officers seized Torres by shooting her with the intent to restrain her movement. The Court did not address the reasonableness of the seizure, damages, or the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity. View "Torres v. Madrid" on Justia Law

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Uzuegbunam, a Georgia Gwinnett College student, talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus until a campus police officer informed him that campus policy prohibited distributing religious materials outside two areas designated for that purpose. Speaking about religion or distributing religious materials in those areas required a permit. Uzuegbunam obtained a permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone. A campus officer again asked him to stop, saying that people had complained. Campus policy prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” Uzuegbunam complied. Another student decided not to speak about religion because of these events. The students sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. College officials discontinued the challenged policies. The Eleventh Circuit held that the students’ plea for nominal damages could not establish standing, absent a request for compensatory damages.The Supreme Court reversed. A request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right. To establish Article III standing, the Constitution requires a plaintiff to identify an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and to seek a remedy likely to redress that injury. Under common law, a party whose rights are invaded can recover nominal damages without furnishing evidence of actual damages, without a plea for compensatory damages. Nominal damages are not purely symbolic. One dollar may not provide full redress, but the partial remedy satisfies the redressability requirement and constitutes relief on the merits. In addition to redressability, the plaintiff must establish the other elements of standing and satisfy other relevant requirements, such as pleading a cognizable cause of action. View "Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski" on Justia Law

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A New York Executive Order imposed restrictions on attendance at religious services. In "red zones," no more than 10 persons could attend each religious service; in "orange zones," attendance was capped at 25. In challenges under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court enjoined enforcement of the restrictions pending appellate review.The congregations made a strong showing that the challenged restrictions violate the minimum requirement of neutrality to religion. Some statements made in connection with the rules can be viewed as targeting the “ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] community,” but even disregarding those comments, the regulations single out houses of worship for harsh treatment. In red zones "essential" businesses may admit as many people as they wish; “essential” businesses include acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics, and all transportation facilities. In an orange zone, even non-essential businesses may decide how many persons to admit. A large store in Brooklyn could have hundreds of people shopping on any given day but a nearby church or synagogue would be prohibited from allowing more than 10 or 25 people inside for worship services. The Governor stated that factories and schools have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but they are treated less harshly than churches and synagogues, which have rigorously adhered to health protocols and have admirable safety records.Stemming the spread of COVID–19 is a compelling interest for purposes of “strict scrutiny” but the regulations are not “narrowly tailored.” Less restrictive rules could minimize the risk to those attending religious services; maximum attendance could be tied to the size of the facility. The challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. Many important religious traditions require personal attendance. Granting the applications will not harm the public. View "Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo" on Justia Law

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Kayer murdered Haas in 1994. Kayer was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder, refused to fully cooperate with a mitigation specialist, and refused to agree to a continuance. The court ruled him competent to make that choice. At sentencing, Kayer again refused an offer of more time and stated he would not cooperate.Arizona law authorized a death sentence only if a judge found at least one aggravating circumstance and found no mitigating circumstance sufficient to call for leniency. The judge found two aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt: Kayer's 1981 conviction for first-degree burglary and that Kayer murdered Haas for “pecuniary gain.” The court found one nonstatutory mitigator: his importance in his son’s life. Judge Kiger sentenced Kayer to death; the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.Kayer sought postconviction relief, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorneys failed to investigate mitigating circumstances at the outset of their representation. The judge considered evidence of Kayer’s addictions to alcohol and gambling; his heart attack weeks before the murder; mental illness, including a diagnosis of bipolar disorder; and of his childhood difficulties. The court found that trial counsel’s performance was not deficient because Kayer had refused to cooperate and, alternatively, that there was no prejudice because it had considered the assertions of mental illness, physical illness, jail conditions, childhood development, and addictions. The Arizona Supreme Court denied review.Kayer filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Ninth Circuit reversed.The Supreme Court vacated. A state prisoner may not obtain federal habeas relief with respect to an ineffective assistance claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court. The Arizona decision is not so obviously wrong that its error lies “beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.” The Ninth Circuit “essentially evaluated the merits de novo, only tacking on a perfunctory statement" that the state court’s decision was unreasonable and that “there is a reasonable probability Kayer’s sentence would have been less than death.” The most probable reason for Judge Kiger’s determination is that the new mitigation evidence offered in the post-conviction proceeding did not create a substantial likelihood of a different sentence. A fair-minded jurist could see Kayer’s past conviction as having substantial weight. Fair-minded jurists also could take a different view of Kayer’s mitigating evidence. View "Shinn v. Kayer" on Justia Law

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The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) provides a remedy to redress federal government violations of the right to free exercise under the First Amendment. Practicing Muslims sued under RFRA, claiming that federal agents placed them on the No Fly List for refusing to act as informants against their religious communities. They sought injunctive relief against the agents in their official capacities and monetary damages against the agents in their individual capacities.The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit in holding that RFRA’s express remedies provision permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their individual capacities. RFRA’s text provides that persons may “obtain appropriate relief against a government,” including an “official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States,” 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–2(1). RFRA supplants the ordinary meaning of “government” with an express definition that includes “official[s]” and underscores that “official[s]” are “person[s].” Under RFRA’s definition, relief that can be executed against an “official . . . of the United States” is “relief against a government.” What relief is “appropriate” is context-dependent. In the context of suits against government officials, damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief. Damages are available under section 1983 for clearly established violations of the First Amendment; that means RFRA provides, as one avenue for relief, a right to seek damages against government employees. View "Tanzin v. Tanvir" on Justia Law