15 Key Cases of the Supreme Court Term

BY Larisa Epatko  July 5, 2010 at 6:29 PM EDT

On Monday’s NewsHour, Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog and other legal experts will review the highlights of the just-completed Supreme Court term. Here on the Rundown, Goldstein and his legal team at SCOTUSblog agreed to break down the most important cases of the term, and summarize some key issues. Read SCOTUSblog’s breakdown below and find full text of the rulings here:

  • Campaign Finance: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission supsign.jpg Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.
  • Dog Fighting Videos: U.S. v. Stevens dogvideo.jpgA law which makes it a crime to create or sell depictions of animal cruelty (including, in this case, videos depicting dogfights), applies to such a broad spectrum of expression that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
  • Privacy in Signing Referendum Petitions: Doe v. Reed petition.jpgDisclosure of the identity of persons who sign petitions for ballot referenda does not normally violate the First Amendment. However, forced disclosure of this information is subject to court review under the First Amendment.
  • Religious Monuments on Public Land: Salazar v. Buono cross.jpgThe Court ruled, first, that a citizen has a legal right to challenge a religious monument (in this case, a cross) standing in a remote spot on a massive piece of federal property as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Second, Congress may transfer to private ownership the plot of federal land on which the religious monument stands in order to avoid that legal challenge.

  • Religious Groups on Campus: Christian Legal Society v. Martinez A public college can refuse to officially recognize a student organization (in this case, a religious one) that fails to comply with a college policy that requires organizations to allow all comers to participate in the organization’s activity and be eligible for its leadership positions.
  • Police Questioning: Maryland v. Shatzer and Florida v. Powell Shatzer case: When the police arrest a suspect, they must tell him his “Miranda rights,” which include the right to a lawyer and the right to remain silent. Once the suspect requests a lawyer, the police may not question him again until he is given one, even if he later waives that right. In this case, the Court ruled that, if the suspect has been released from custody for at least fourteen days since he last requested a lawyer, the police may resume questioning him if he waives his right to a lawyer at that time. In the prison context, the police may resume questioning an inmate after he has been released into the general prison population for fourteen days. Powell case: When detaining a criminal suspect, police officers informed him that he had “the right to talk to a lawyer before answering [any]questions” – i.e., they told him his “Miranda rights.” The warning given by the police officers in this case was constitutional because it conveyed to the suspect that he had the right to have an attorney present.
  • Employee Text Messaging: City of Ontario v. Quon The search of a police officer’s text messages sent over a government pager to private parties was reasonable, and therefore the officer’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated.
  • Juvenile Sentencing: Graham v. Florida It is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole when the crime does not involve murder, given the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
  • Congressional Power: United States v. Comstock The court upheld, under the Commerce Clause, the law passed by Congress allowing the civil commitment of a mentally ill federal prisoner convicted of a sex offense beyond the end date of his or her sentence.
  • Separation of Powers: Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, created by an act of Congress, has expansive powers to regulate accounting firms that monitor public companies. Its members are appointed by a federal commission that is overseen by the president of the United States, and they cannot be removed except for “good cause.” The court ruled that the structure of this board (1) violates the constitutional separation of powers between the courts, Congress, and the president and (2) does not violate the Constitution’s requirement that officers be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, because the board members are low-level officers exempt from that requirement.
  • Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act: Samantar v. Yousuf The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) generally protects foreign states from being sued in American courts for, among other transgressions, violations of human rights. The Court ruled that FSIA does not protect officers of foreign states from suit. In this case, a former Somalian defense minister is not protected from suit for alleged atrocities committed in Somalia under the Act.
  • Material Support for Terrorism: Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project The federal government may prohibit providing non-violent material support for terrorist organizations – including legal services and advice – without violating the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
  • Gun Control: McDonald v. City of Chicago The Second Amendment right of individuals to keep and bear arms in self defense applies against state and local governments as well as the federal government.
  • Property Rights: Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection Florida’s beach restoration program deposits sand on eroded beaches, effectively creating new land at the water’s edge. When a court held that the state does not owe compensation to the owners of formerly beachfront property adjacent to the newly created land, it did not violate the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against the government “taking” land without just compensation.
  • Honest Services: Skilling v. United States and Black v. United States: Skilling case: (1) Former Enron C.E.O. Jeffrey Skilling had a fair trial before an impartial jury despite publicity of his case before trial and community prejudice; and (2) the federal law that makes it a crime to deprive people of “honest services” covers only bribery and kickback schemes. Black case: Two business executives were convicted of “honest services fraud” after the judge at their trial instructed the jury that a person commits such fraud if he misuses his position for private gain and knowingly and intentionally breaches his duty of loyalty. Given the court’s ruling in Skilling restricting the scope of the “honest services fraud” statute, it ruled in this case that those jury instructions were erroneous.

Find more from SCOTUSblog here and NewsHour analysis of the term from Marcia Coyle here.