Marcia Coyle: ‘It’s Homestretch Time at the Supreme Court’

BY Beth Summers  May 23, 2011 at 2:47 PM EDT


Supreme Court (Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Monday’s sharply divided ruling ordering California to release tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons was just one of several widely-anticipated decisions the Supreme Court is expected to issue before July.

And the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term have been anything but boring.

There have been arguments over violent video games, overcrowded prisons, and the long-running battle over the estate of Anna Nicole Smith.

We’ve seen female Walmart employees accuse executives of holding business meetings at Hooters restaurants. And who could forget the microbiologist who, upon discovering her husband had impregnated her best friend, sought revenge by sprinkling toxic chemicals in her former friend’s mailbox?

Now that the oral arguments are completed, Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal is here to tell Court-watchers what to look forward to for the remainder of the 2010 – 2011 term, expected to draw to a close in late June.

What exactly are the justices working on between now and the end of June?

Marcia Coyle: It’s homestretch time at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court will be in serious opinion-writing mode. And anxious businesses, states, prisoners and consumers will be engaging in some serious nail-biting as they await outcomes to their cases. The justices finished hearing arguments on April 27 in the 79 cases on their argument docket. Although they have been issuing rulings in those cases since about mid-November, they still have 39 pending decision, and, as typical, some of those involve the most complex and divisive issues of the term.

Walk us through some of the biggest cases to watch. Let’s start with the much-anticipated decision on who can buy violent video games. What is at stake in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association?

Marcia Coyle: A First Amendment challenge to California’s ban on the sale or rental to minors of violent video games now holds the dubious record for the longest pending case. The video game case was argued last November and the justices intensely questioned the lawyers before them. The Court has been extremely reluctant to carve out categories of speech from the First Amendment’s protection and that could mean bad news for California’s law. But the long wait for a decision in this case has everyone wondering what may happen.

Are there other free speech cases for the Court to decide this term?

Marcia Coyle: In Arizona Free Enterprise Freedom PAC v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett, the Court is examining whether Arizona’s matching funds trigger in its public financing system for candidates running for state offices violates the First Amendment by chilling the speech of candidates who don’t participate in the system. And in Sorrell v. IMS, data mining companies and drug manufacturers contend that a Vermont law violates their speech rights by prohibiting pharmacies from selling information in prescription drug records to data mining companies without the prescribing physician’s consent.

Do you see any other themes emerging?

Marcia Coyle: The rights of parents and minors figure in two important cases. The justices have been asked in J.D.B. v. North Carolina whether the age of a minor should be a factor in determining whether a juvenile is in custody, a requirement for law enforcement to give the well-known Miranda warnings before questioning. The juvenile here was questioned on school grounds about some neighborhood burglaries and admitted his involvement. They also will answer whether a police officer and a social worker violated the Fourth Amendment when they questioned a minor on school premises without a warrant and without parental consent. The officials, who were sued by the minor’s mother, suspected that the minor was a victim of abuse. Those cases are Alford v. Greene and Camreta v. Greene.

And there are two cases with potentially major ramifications for the nation’s prisons and courts. In Brown v. Plata, the justices will decide* whether a federal judge in California properly ordered the state to reduce its prison population as a remedy for longstanding unconstitutional conditions in those prisons. A child support fight is the background in Turner v. Rogers. Does an indigent parent have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel if he or she could go to jail for contempt of court after failing to pay court-ordered child support?

Some media reports have characterized the Roberts Court as being “business-friendly,” though there is disagreement. What business cases should NewsHour viewers look for to judge for themselves?

Marcia Coyle: The Court has some major business-consumer cases still undecided. In only their second case to involve global warming, the justices will decide whether a group of states can sue five large utilities for relief from the utilities’ emissions. The issue is the kind of lawsuit that the states are pursuing. They are using a very old type of suit known as a public nuisance action and they claim the utilities’ emissions contribute to the public nuisance of climate change in American Electric Power v. Connecticut.

Workers and employers are keeping a close eye out for Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the largest employment discrimination class action in history. The justices will not decide whether Wal-Mart discriminated against its female workforce in pay and promotions. They will decide whether the women can join in a class action as the vehicle for their lawsuit.

There have been no blockbuster rulings so far like last term’s controversial campaign finance decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Sometimes, however, there is a sleeper case in the wings that produces the most significant decision. Stay tuned. The answers are coming.

*This case was ruled on Monday, after this interview was conducted.

Even though oral arguments have ended, if there was a favorite case that intrigued you, the audio as well as the written transcripts of all the term’s arguments can be found on the Supreme Court website. Just click on “oral arguments” on the left column of the home page and then follow the links to either the audio or the transcripts.