Supreme Court Watch
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: The justices severely limited the government’s authority to forcibly medicate mentally ill defendants to make them well enough to stand trial. They also ruled in two First Amendment cases. Here to walk us through those decisions is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune. Well, Jan, the first involved Dr. Charles Sell, a dentist from St. Louis. What was at issue in the case?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: At issue was whether or not the government could forcibly medicate Dr. Sell who has a long history of mental illness in order to make him competent to stand trial on charges that he engaged in a variety of health care fraud. Now, Dr. Sell objected to taking this medication. He acknowledged that he had had delusions, but he did not believe that this medication would solve his problem. So he challenged the government’s authority to forcibly medicate him, arguing that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which insures that the government won’t deprive you of liberty without due process of law, he argued that he had a Fifth Amendment right to reject it.
RAY SUAREZ: And the decision?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the court today set aside a lower court ruling that had ordered Dr. Sell to be forcibly medicated and it told the lower court to rethink that issue in light of a series of new guidelines that the court handed out today. The court’s decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said that government can in some situations forcibly medicate mentally ill criminal defendants to make them fit for trial. But only in certain circumstances where it was medically appropriate, where the drugs were necessary to ensure a fair trial, where it was important to further the government interest, only in several sets of circumstances could the government do so. And the court cautioned that those instances may be rare.
RAY SUAREZ: So let me make sure I understand you. The court ruled today that you can still do this. It is possible for governments to forcibly medicate defendants, but that they just couldn’t do it in this case with Dr. Sell?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Or not at least at this point. The lower courts may come back and say, okay, we’ve looked at what the Supreme Court said, we’ve analyzed these guidelines and based on that we still believe Dr. Sell could be forcibly medicated. Now keep in mind that the Supreme Court has long held that the government could forcibly medicate a criminal defendant who is mentally ill if that person posed a danger to himself or others.
But that wasn’t the issue in this case. Dr. Sell, the federal courts found, was not a danger. The government wanted to medicate him solely to make him competent to stand trial. So that was really the issue today. And the new guidelines that the court issued today on the one hand certainly enabled the government to forcibly medicate mentally ill criminal defendants to make them competent for trial. But it made it difficult. I mean, they have to follow these strict guidelines.
And the court did set aside the lower court opinion and said to the lower court, rethink it, because we want to make sure that you followed all these steps and properly balanced the very important constitutional rights of this criminal defendant, with the government’s also important right to put this person on trial. It’s a difficult issue because you have those two key concerns at stake.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s take a brief mention of the dissent which was written by Antonin Scalia; he suggested that in light of this ruling, defendants could gain the system?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right, he did. There were three justices in dissent. They didn’t take issue with the fact that he should be medicated, they said yes the government should be able to medicate Dr. Sell, but that the federal courts had no business getting involved in this case in the first place, they should wait and resolve this issue at the end of the trial and that by jumping in here now, criminal defendants across the country were going to be encouraged to raise all of these constitutional arguments on the eve of their trial solely to delay proceedings. He gave an example of a criminal defendant who wanted to wear a certain T-shirt before the jury and argued that the judge’s orders saying no would violate his constitutional rights, that he could make that argument and try to delay his trial.
But Justice Breyer addressed the dissent and he said, look, this is a different case, this is an intrusion, this is a serious constitutional concern, and he flatly discounted Justice Scalia’s argument and dissent.
RAY SUAREZ: Another of the rulings today involved a public housing development in Richmond, Virginia, and one Kevin Hicks. What was at issue there?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Kevin Hicks was arrested by Richmond police one day when he was on his way to take his baby diapers, the child lived in this Richmond housing development. Mr. Hicks had been ordered to stay away from this housing development and so he was arrested for trespass. He filed suit and challenged this policy of the Richmond Housing Authority that could bar certain people from the public housing developments on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
So that was the issue before the court today: Whether or not this housing authority policy which enabled the housing authority to keep out people who had no legitimate purpose, as the policy says, whether that violated the Constitution. And the court today said no, not right now, not on these grounds. But Mr. Hicks, you may have some other arguments to raise again in the lower courts. So what they did was they shut the door to Mr. Hicks’ first argument, which was a pretty technical First Amendment doctrine argument.
RAY SUAREZ: Made it a free speech matter?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: He did. He said this policy was overbroad, that it would suppress speech and expression, for example someone who might want to pass out leaflets in the Housing Authority project, would not be able to do so. So because the law was so overbroad, it should not apply to him and should not apply to anyone else. Now, the courts rejected that, they said that’s a pretty novel application of that kind of technical First Amendment doctrine, but it did leave open the door, and suggested certainly the oral argument that Hicks had several other legal avenues that he could pursue below in challenging this policy, and in challenging his exclusion from this Housing Authority development.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, even though this was public housing, it had become private space because it had been put under private management. Did that end up playing into this case, whether or not it was public space?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure, and that’s I think an interesting aspect of this case because the Richmond City Council in an effort to combat crime and drugs that have gripped this housing authority development, like many areas across the country, decided what it was going to do was convey the streets and sidewalks in the Public Housing Authority developments to the Public Housing Authority. And make them private.
So then therefore the Public Housing Authority could pass this policy that says these streets are private, if you don’t live here and you don’t work here and you don’t have a legitimate reason for being here, then you can’t be here. And if you come here, say like Mr. Hicks did, and we don’t want you here or you shouldn’t be here, then we’re going to arrest you for trespassing. So because the streets had been privatized, yes, then the Housing Authority was able to pass that no trespassing ordinance that Mr. Hicks got swept up in.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s take the briefest look at another case argued on free speech grounds, this had to do with private not-for-profits and their political donations. What did the justices rule?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the court today took up a challenge to a ban that prevents corporations from directly contributing to political campaigns. The nonprofit advocacy corporations had said they should be exempt from that ban because they’re advocacy organizations, and a North Carolina Right to Life organization had mounted a challenge to this, saying that it violated the First Amendment free speech grounds. And the court today upheld that ban, even for not-for-profit corporations.
This was a closely watched case, it’s a pretty narrow issue but a closely watched case because many people were looking for clues to see if they could discern any hints of how the court might look at the mammoth overhaul of campaign finance reform that’s headed this way on Sept. 8; that’s the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. And the court on Sept. 8 has set a special argument date just to consider that case.
So today, supporters of McCain-Feingold said they were heartened that the court had upheld this restriction and said they thought it might bode well for some of the soft money effort, soft money loophole to close the soft money loop hole, I’m sorry, that McCain-Feingold does.
RAY SUAREZ: And this was a seven-two decision. Jan Crawford Greenburg, the Chicago Tribune, thanks a lot.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: You’re welcome, Ray.