South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, September 2008, #5.
Highlights of the 2007-08 U.S. Supreme Court Term
South Carolina LawyerSeptember 2008Highlights of the 2007-08 U.S. Supreme Court TermBy Karen L. HuelsonThe U.S. Supreme Court's most recent session was officially the "October Term 2007," which encompasses the period of October 1, 2007 to September 30, 2008. The Supreme Court issued just over 70 opinions during this term, of which only a small number were fully unanimous (with no dissent or concurrence). The Supreme Court considered more cases from the Ninth Circuit than from any other jurisdiction, and it decided one case in its original jurisdiction. This article highlights some of the prominent cases decided during this term, although there are certainly others that could be included, depending upon the reader's area of interest. As is its custom, the Supreme Court issued a large number of opinions right before its summer recess. Included in this last group of decisions were the Supreme Court's rulings granting limited constitutional rights to Guantanamo Bay detainees, finding the Second Amendment's right to bear arms allows the possession of guns in the home for self-defense, and prohibiting imposition of the death penalty for defendants convicted of child rape. The decisions are reviewed below in alphabetical order.
(1) ALI v. FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS,
128 S. Ct. 831 (2008).
Federal Tort Claims Act
The Supreme Court, in a case arising from the 11th Circuit, held a prisoner's claim for property allegedly lost by officers with the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the prisoner's transfer from an Atlanta prison to a Kentucky prison was barred by the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Supreme Court noted the Act generally waives sovereign immunity for claims arising from torts committed by federal employees, but contains an exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity for a claim regarding "the detention of any . . . property by any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer." The Supreme Court determined this exception was not limited to customs and tax officers, but rather applied to law enforcement officers generally.
(2) ALLISON ENGINE CO. v. UNITED STATES, 128 S. Ct. 2123 (2008).
False Claims Act
This appeal from the Sixth Circuit involves allegations under the False Claims Act for fraud in the negotiation and execution of subcontracts to build Navy destroyers. The False Claims Act imposes civil liability on a person who knowingly uses a false record or statement to get a false or fraudulent claim paid or approved by the Government, 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(2), or one who conspires to defraud the Government by getting a false or fraudulent claim allowed or paid, § 3729(a)(3). In a unanimous decision by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court held it is insufficient to merely show the false statement resulted in obtaining approval or payment of a claim. Rather, a plaintiff asserting a § 3729(a)(2) claim must prove that the defendant intended that the false record or statement be material to the Government's decision to pay or approve the false claim. Similarly, a plaintiff asserting a claim under § 3729(a)(3) must show that the conspirators agreed to make use of the false record or statement to achieve this result.
(3) BAZE v. REES, 128 S. Ct. 1520 (2008).
Two inmates on death row in Kentucky, each convicted of double homicide, argued a one-drug formula used for lethal injections should replace the three-drug protocol that was being used in Kentucky and 35 other states because the possibility of improper administration could result in pain. The Supreme Court, in a plurality opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, affirmed the Kentucky Supreme Court and held the mere possibility of improper administration did not meet the test of showing a "substantial" or "objectively intolerable" risk of serious harm in order to establish cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
(4) BEGAY v. UNITED STATES, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008).
Violent Felony, Armed Career Criminal Act
The Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence upon felons who are convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and who also have three or more prior convictions for a "violent felony" or a serious drug crime. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). The majority, with Justice Breyer presiding, reversed the 10th Circuit and held that Larry Begay's New Mexico felony conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol was not a "violent felony" within the meaning of the Act. The Supreme Court noted the meaning of "violent felony" should be examined in terms of how the law defines the offense, not in terms of how an individual offender might have committed the offense on a particular occasion. Further, the Supreme Court noted that the crimes listed in the Act as examples of violent felonies - burglary, arson, extortion and the use of explosives - differ substantially from driving under the influence of alcohol. The Supreme Court stated the examples involved purposeful, violent and aggressive conduct, whereas driving under the influence of alcohol did not.
(5) BOUMEDIENE v. BUSH, 128 S. Ct. 2229 (2008).
Guantanamo Bay Prisoners, Habeas Corpus
In a decision authored by Justice Kennedy that had both concurring and dissenting opinions, the Supreme Court reversed the D.C. Circuit and held that prisoners detained as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have the constitutional protection of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court held that § 7 of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, 28 U.S.C. § 2241(e), which had suspended the writ, was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia issued a scathing dissent in which he stated, "The Nation will live to regret what the Court has done today."
(6) BURGESS v. UNITED STATES, 128 S. Ct. 1572 (2008).
Definition of Felony Drug Offense
Justice Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous court (9-0), affirmed the Fourth Circuit and held a state drug offense punishable by more than one year in prison qualifies as a "felony drug offense" for purposes of sentencing under the Controlled Substances Act, 18 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), even if state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor. Under the Act, the mandatory minimum sentence for certain federal drug offenses is doubled if the defendant has a prior conviction for a "felony drug offense," which is defined as a drug offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. In this case, Keith Burgess's sentence for a federal drug offense was subject to the doubling provision because he had a prior South Carolina state court conviction for a drug offense that was subject to a sentence of more than one year, even though the state offense was classified under South Carolina law as a misdemeanor, not a felony.
(7) CRAWFORD v. MARION COUNTY ELECTION BOARD, 128 S. Ct. 1610 (2008).
Voter Photo ID Law
The Supreme Court, Justice Stevens presiding, affirmed the Seventh Circuit and held that an Indiana election law requiring any citizen voting in person to present government-issued photo identification did not violate the 14th Amendment or the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court noted the state's provision of free photo identification to qualified voters who could establish their residence and identity, the availability of the right to cast a provisional ballot in cases...