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Supreme Court Hands Down Rulings on Labor, Privacy, Property Cases

June 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the end of its term approaches, the Supreme Court handed down rulings on cases involving workplace privacy, property rights and a labor board. Ray Suarez talks to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal for more on what effect these rulings will have.

JIM LEHRER: This was a decision day at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ray Suarez has our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: If you own beachfront property, should you be compensated if a government moves the ocean further away? If you text at work on an office-owned cell phone, do you have a right to privacy for those messages? And how many board members do you need to make a ruling stick at the National Labor Relations Board?

The U.S. Supreme Court is coming to the end of its term.

And joining us to explain these rulings, our eyes and ears at the court, Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”

Well, Marcia, let’s start in Florida, where beachfront property owners ended up with beach view property when an anti-erosion projected just added a lot more distance to the beach. What were they asking for in court?

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Well, they went to court because they felt that what the state was doing here was, in effect, a taking of their private property.

And, under the Constitution, they felt they had a right to be justly compensated for that. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against them. It found that they really didn’t have a property right in what was happening to the beach here, and there had been no taking. So, they came to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court issued its decision today.

RAY SUAREZ: And what did it say?

MARCIA COYLE: There were two important parts to this case. The first part of it was that the beachfront property owners had argued that a judicial decision could be a taking of private property. This is something that never — the Supreme Court had never faced before.

Usually, when we think of a taking of private property, we think of a city, a state, a government unit. But what about a court decision? Four justices said, yes, a court decision can be a taking. But four other justices — there were only eight today, because Justice Stevens recused himself — four others said, we don’t have to decide that issue to decide this particular case.

Unanimously, they decided that there was no taking in this case, that these property owners, they had a right to land that was added gradually and imperceptibly. They didn’t have a right to land that was added suddenly, say, by a hurricane or, as in this case, by the state dumping sand that had been dredged elsewhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the legal idea of a taking, in this case, it just meant that they felt that the value of their property was diminished, right? Nobody took anything away from them.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, that was a very important part of their argument.

Yes, because the strip of land — it was a seven-mile strip of land — the sand that was added was about 75-feet wide — became public land. And it was now between their property and the ocean, they had no control over who would go on that property or what would be done on that property.

RAY SUAREZ: Next to California. A police sergeant tried to keep the content of his texts private. Well, how did this first get to court? What — what — why were they looking at the sergeant’s texts in the first place?

MARCIA COYLE: The city was concerned that its police officers and other employees might be paying more than they had to be paying out of pocket for work-related messages.

They had issued to everyone who had these pager and cell phones a certain number of characters, and they said they wanted to find out if they had issued enough, not only if employees were paying out of pocket, but maybe if the city was paying too much for excessive personal use.

So, they looked at two officers’ pagers and messages. These officers had had overages in the past. But they felt they had an expectation of privacy in their messages because superiors had said, if you pay for the overages, it will be OK. And these officers did.

But, when the city decided to see if it needed to change the allotment of characters, they audited these two officers’ messages, found that, on the one, there were a large number of personal and sexually explicit messages. He was disciplined. He went to federal court, sued, saying his privacy right was violated and the city had engaged in an unreasonable search and seizure, under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, on that Fourth Amendment argument, how did the justices rule? Is there any right to privacy on an office-owned communications device?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, in a way, like the Florida case, the justices decided that they did not — they would not today issue a broad holding about an employee’s privacy expectations in cell phones, pagers, or technology — in any technology.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the court. And he said, this technology is evolving so quickly today, we have to be cautious. And, also, society’s view of this technology and its use of this technology is also evolving. So, we’re not going to decide that. But we are going to assume that Officer Quon here had an expectation of privacy, and we’re going to look at this search.

And the court decided that this was a reasonable search, that the city had a legitimate interest in finding out if it needed to give more characters or if it was paying too much. It felt that it was a reasonable search to look at the transcripts of the messages, because that was efficient and an expedient way to answer the question, and that it wasn’t excessively intrusive, because it only looked at two months’ worth of the office — officers’ messages.

RAY SUAREZ: So, if you’re someone who uses business-owned communications devices, the court is literally still out on just how much privacy you can expect on what you put in there?


Justice Kennedy did say, though, that this type of search would be reasonable in the normal private employer context. But, on the bigger issue of how much privacy we can expect, the verdict is out.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, on the National Labor Relations Board, the active board finally got down to two members, and they were issuing rulings. That was taken to the high court, and what did they rule?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the court said today that roughly 600 labor-management decisions that the board has issued in the last two-and-a-half years were void because only two members acted on those cases.

RAY SUAREZ: So, they’re saying that’s not enough?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. The court was interpreting the National Labor Relations Act. And it said that, looking at the provisions of that act, it was necessary that the board have a quorum of three at all times in order to make decisions.

RAY SUAREZ: So, 600 rulings are void. Does that mean all of them have to be reargued with a larger board?

MARCIA COYLE: No, I — it doesn’t. I mean, we do know for sure that there are about 80 decisions that have been pending in the lower courts that challenge two-member decisions. They will have to go back to the board to be reconsidered.

Another 500, it depends on the facts. In some cases, the employer or the union has already carried out what the board ordered. In other cases, they may still be complying. And, at that point, they may want to petition the court or the board to reexamine it.

RAY SUAREZ: And, very quickly, has the Senate seated President Obama’s latest two nominees for that board?

MARCIA COYLE: He actually did recess appointments of two, and there’s a third pending. So, the board has four of its five members right now. The recess appointments can expire, though, and the board could be back in the same position in a couple years.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks for joining us.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.