Supreme Court Preview of the New Term
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JIM LEHRER: Now Phil Ponce previews the new term of the U.S. Supreme Court.
PHIL PONCE: Every year about 7,000 cases are appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court chooses to decide only about 100. The new term officially starts on Monday, and here with a look at some of the cases on the docket is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Welcome, Jan. And let’s get right to some of the cases you think we should keep an eye on. And the first one deals – is a case dealing with student-on-student sexual harassment. Tell us a little bit about this one.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG, Chicago Tribune: That’s right. Well, with Davis vs. the Murro County Board of Education, the court is returning to an area that occupied a lot of its time last year, when it decided four sexual harassment cases. This year, the court’s going to consider whether or not school districts can be held liable when a student sexually harasses another student.
PHIL PONCE: And this is California case out of Georgia.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right.
PHIL PONCE: What are the facts?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This case involves a young girl who says that she was sexually harassed by one of her fifth grade classmates. She said that he tried to touch her inappropriately, that he used inappropriate language, vulgar language, and that the school did nothing to stop it. In fact, she says one of the teachers refused to let her meet with the principal and another teacher made her sit next to the boy in one of her classes. So her mother – after getting no response – decided to file a lawsuit, which she did in 1994, and trying to hold the school district liable for this behavior.
PHIL PONCE: So unlike the case you referred to from the last term, in this case, the school officials had actual notice that something improper was going on.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. I mean, the girl says what the school district knew about this, and they should have done something about it. Obviously, the difference last term involved a teacher and a student being harassed by a teacher, so this is an important issue, and it’s unfortunately – we’ve seen all over the country – so it’s good that the court’s going to resolve it.
PHIL PONCE: So a pretty broad potential impact, as far as the -
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Exactly.
PHIL PONCE: — responsibilities on educators and in school systems.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Just to see if students have any recourse when they’ve been sexually harassed by other students. It’s hard to believe that, you know, we can’t even talk about, you know, a student sexually harassing student, but apparently it’s becoming a real problem. And many people believe that students should have this recourse.
PHIL PONCE: Let’s go to the second case that you’ve alerted us to, and this one deals – this is a challenge to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That sounds a little less esoteric. Why is this important?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: There’s a number of important business cases this term, but in terms of sheer dollars be challenged under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC versus Iowa Utilities Board, is the biggest in recent memory – billions of dollars are at stake here we’re talking.
PHIL PONCE: What’s the case about?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Essentially it asks how – you know, whether or not lower court correctly interpreted the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was designed to foster competition in local telephone service, and whether or not some of these long distance companies could break into the local markets and offer competition. Now a lower court interpreting the act said that the FCC had certain authority and the big long distance giants were very happy about that. Then that was reversed, so now the court is going to jump in and decide who has the authority to make some of these decisions on how much it’s going to cost the long distance companies to implement this local service.
PHIL PONCE: So basically long distance companies want to get into local service, compete with providers like Ameritech or -
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.
PHIL PONCE: — Southwestern Bell.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.
PHIL PONCE: And -
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Bell Atlantic.
PHIL PONCE: And so those local providers say they obviously are reluctant to share the market with the long distance companies, and they’re putting up a legal fight. So the potential impact on consumers is what?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, anyone who uses a telephone – I mean, in addition to the bottom line for all the businesses, I mean, anyone who uses a telephone and has to make decisions on who provides them local service, you know, will be affected by this – this -
PHIL PONCE: Case number 3, a gang loitering statute, what is this about?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Now, this one comes from the city of Chicago, and it asks whether or not a local law that was designed to kind of deter crime and combat some of the escalating street violence in the city violates the Constitution. Specifically, the law authorizes police officers, when they see groups of people standing on street corners, to walk up to these people and order them to essentially disperse if the police believe one of the people happens to be a gang member. The city says this is an important tool in deterring crime, but opponents – and notably the American Civil Liberties Union – which is involved in this case – say, no, it really runs roughshod over the constitutional rights of innocent people who are being asked to disperse, and then if they don’t, they can be arrested.
PHIL PONCE: Jan, there have been loitering statutes in the past the court has struck down. Why is this one different?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, I mean, essentially there’s no kind of criminal intent here that anyone would have to show. If you’re just standing on the street corner standing, this is how it differs from say a prostitution.
Sometimes those issues have been used under anti-loitering statutes, so the ACLU said this is almost unprecedented. It’s a very important case, though, because more than 30 states have filed legal briefs supporting – they’ve joined on a brief supporting the city of Chicago and saying they think this is something that cities should be able to do. Los Angeles has filed a brief saying that it would consider such a thing, so if the court rules for the city, I think we could expect to see more of these ordinances, as communities look for ways to stop crime and deter it really before it happens, instead of coming in at the end and solving it.
PHIL PONCE: Case number 4 deals with guests and their right to privacy in a criminal context. Tell us about this?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, criminal issues typically consume a lot of the court’s time, and this is no exception. This case looks at the procedures that police have to follow when they’re making arrests or searching for evidence. Specifically, it raises two interesting issues. It asks whether or not if you’re a guest in someone’s home you can challenge the legality of a search if you’re trying to suppress evidence at trial.
PHIL PONCE: And the facts in this case, well, they’re sort of novel. Tell us a little bit about them.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: There are a couple of people sitting around a table in an apartment building. Someone walked by a window, happen to notice it looks like they were bagging some white powder that might be drugs. They went and told a police officer. He went over and walked down the sidewalk across the yard and peered through what were closed blinds and observed what he thought was some illegal activity. So that is also at issue. Is that a search? Did the police officer do something wrong? And that’s why this case is being referred to as “the peeping Tom case,” so we’ve got the guests and then we’ve got the police officer’s conduct. Can cops just come and peer through these closed – kind of closed blinds?
PHIL PONCE: So the guests of the apartment owner were engaged in illegal activity, and they’re the ones who are saying, hey, I have a right to privacy; a cop can’t look in a window. So there’s obviously some law enforcement ramifications to this as far as, what, police looking into windows to try to get evidence?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Opponents of this have said that, you know, this is just scary. I mean, sure the Supreme Court in recent years has allowed police greater leeway in some of these cases, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And if we’re going to allow police just to come up and look through closed blinds, you know, this is just ridiculous, and that this could be a very significant case.
PHIL PONCE: Jan, thank you very much.