The U.S. Supreme Court began its 2009-10 term on October 5, 2009 – the first Monday in October – with recently confirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor as its newest member. The Court’s docket this year includes cases with a number of important and interesting issues, including the following:
Gun laws. Last year, the Court overturned a handgun ban in Washington, DC, ruling that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution granted citizens of the District of Columbia, a federal enclave, the right to possess firearms. This year in McDonald v. Chicago, the Court will debate a similar gun ban in Chicago, and decide whether the Second Amendment also applies to state and local gun laws. The case will be argued in early 2010.
Freedom of Speech. The Court heard arguments in U.S. v. Stevenson on October 6, 2009. In this case, the Court will decide whether a federal law (18 U.S.C. §48) prohibiting the sale or marketing of videos depicting dog fights and other acts of animal abuse violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. Only a few types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment: for example, obscenity, fighting words, incitement to riot, libel, and child pornography. The United States is attempting to get the Court to add video depictions of animal cruelty to that list; however, a variety of groups have aligned asking the Court to uphold the lower court’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional, including hunting equipment manufacturers, professional photographers, and even dog breeders. Many of the groups opposing the law are concerned the law is too broad and may outlaw videographic depictions of even relatively acceptable actions. Other groups are concerned about any further limitations on the First Amendment. A ruling is expected in several months.
Freedom from Establishment of Religion. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Salazar v. Buono on October 7, 2009. At issue in this case is a Christian cross erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) on the Mojave National Preserve without government permission. Since the cross was erected on federal land, its challengers argued that it was a prohibited endorsement of religion by the federal government, in violation of the First Amendment, and lower federal courts agreed, ordering that the cross be removed. Congress first passed a law prohibiting government funds from being used to remove the cross, to stop the U.S. Park Service from removing it, and later Congress transferred a small piece of land including the cross to the private VFW. The U.S. government has argued that the Court should uphold the display of the cross since it is now privately owned. Lower courts had viewed the transfer as an illegal way of circumventing the courts’ orders to remove the cross. A decision in the case is expected in a few months.
Juvenile Justice. In Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, the Court will decide whether states may sentence juveniles to life in prison for charges other than homicides, or whether such punishment violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The petitioners, then juveniles, who were both sentenced to life in prison for violent acts committed as juveniles, are asking the Court to extend its previous 2005 holding in Roper v. Simmons (that sentencing of juveniles to death for capital crimes violated the Eighth Amendment) to non-capital crimes. (Graham was convicted of the sexual assault of an elderly woman while he was 13, and Sullivan was convicted of violating parole by attempted armed robbery while on parole for two previous robberies, at the age of 19; both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole).
Miranda Rights. The Supreme Court will further define the scope of the rights of criminal suspects as articulated in the Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona. (That case gave rise to the now-standard “Miranda Warnings” that police officers routinely give to a suspect, advising the suspect of the right against self-incrimination, right to counsel, etc., as is often seen in police dramas on television). In Maryland v. Shatzer, a police officer questioned Michael Shatzer about abuse of his child, after advising him of his right to counsel pursuant to Miranda. Mr. Shatzer refused to answer any questions without his attorney present. Three years later, a different police officer who was unaware of Mr. Shatzer’s original request for an attorney, questioned Mr. Shatzer, and he admitted abusing his child. Mr. Shatzer argues that his confession is inadmissible because the second officer questioned him without his attorney present. The Supreme Court will decide whether Mr. Shatzer’s original request for an attorney prohibits the police from questioning him at any time after the request (about the same matter) without an attorney present.