A look at 2011’s biggest Supreme Court decisions
By A.J. Wagner
It’s like an annual trip up the mountain to ask the guru for wisdom. Every fall, lawyers attend an update of the past year’s most important court decisions as presented by Judge James Brogan. Judge Brogan retired last year from Ohio’s Second District Court of Appeals where he served for three decades, but he continues to counsel judges and lawyers on the most important developments in case law.
I present here a year-end review of case law from the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Much of what is presented here has its roots in Judge Brogan’s annual summary. It is his generosity of research and time that deserves the credit for this article.
Although I will review some fairly important decisions, the summaries will be brief. To hear more about a particular decision you can e-mail me (AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com) and I will get you a link to the full decision. If you would like me to explain a decision further in an article, let me know and I will try to fit it in down the road.
SCOTUS hears dozens of cases each year, but I will only mention a few of the more interesting ones. Truth is, many Supreme Court cases involve procedural issues that only a nerdy lawyer can get excited about. I have tried to remove my nerdy sensibilities in my selections.
There are, at least, four decisions on First Amendment topics. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett the Court used the First Amendment to strike down a campaign finance law that created a matching fund for underfunded candidates. The court, equating money with free speech, said it is unfair to burden the speech of a well-funded candidate requiring competition with speech created by public funds.
In Snyder v. Phelps SCOTUS let protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate near a military funeral where the demonstrators harass the mourning family of an American soldier killed in Iraq with taunts that homosexuality in the military is the cause of military casualties. Chief Justice Roberts said that there is a right of protestors to express their views on matters of public concern in a public forum, no matter how offensive those views may be.
It has only been a few days since Christmas, but some of you are already regretting the gift of video games your child received, especially those with extreme violence. California tried to outlaw them, but SCOTUS held, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, that video game violence is protected free speech. You’re on your own, parents.
The one limitation on free speech the court allowed to stand was a Nevada law that prevents state legislators from voting on bills where they have a conflict of interest. In Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan, the Supreme Court found that a vote on behalf of constituents is not personal speech and therefore not subject to constitutional protection.
You may recall reading about Walmart Stores Inc. v. Dukes. In that case, 1.5 million women who claimed unfair treatment by the giant retailer filed a class action lawsuit. A class action suit allows those with similar claims against the same person or company to file one collective suit. The idea is to save litigating the same facts over and over again while giving large groups of people who may have only lost a small amount of money the economies of scale. The women of Walmart were told that, even though their claims are basically the same, since each person may be entitled to a different amount of money you cannot use a class action lawsuit to get that damage award. Each of the employees must sue on her own.
Class action lawsuits were also dealt a blow in AT&T Mobility LLC. v. Concepcion. Here a Federal rule requiring arbitration was held to ban a class action suit. The future of class actions has grown murky.
I want to throw in a domestic relations case. SCOTUS seldom deals with domestic relations issues, but they did consider whether a poor person held in civil contempt for not paying child support was entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. The court ruled that as long as the person was given clear notice and a clear explanation of his situation the answer is no. See Turner v. Rogers.
Many lives are endangered by the carelessness and speed of drivers trying to elude police. In Sykes v. United States, SCOTUS said such conduct was a “violent felony” and worthy of a longer lock up.
Judge Brogan always runs out of time before getting to all the cases he has in his outline. Same here. Next week, however, I will write about some of the interesting cases coming up in 2012.
Happy New Year!
Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein.
A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.