Supreme Court

Richard Wolf 12-03-2014
A view of the Supreme Court on Oct. 7, 2014. Photo via Lauren Markoe / RNS.

A view of the Supreme Court on Oct. 7, 2014. Photo via Lauren Markoe / RNS.

The Supreme Court — the last stop for condemned prisoners such as Scott Panetti, a Texan who is mentally ill — and whose case was just stayed by an appellate court —  appears increasingly wary of the death penalty.

In May, the justices blocked the execution of a Missouri murderer because his medical condition made it likely that he would suffer from a controversial lethal injection.

Later that month, the court ruled 5-4 that Florida must apply a margin of error to IQ tests, thereby making it harder for states to execute those with borderline intellectual disabilities.

In September, a tipping point on lethal injections was nearly reached when four of the nine justices sought to halt a Missouri prisoner’s execution because of the state’s use of a drug that had resulted in botched executions elsewhere.

And in October, the court stopped the execution of yet another Missouri man over concerns that his lawyers were ineffective and had missed a deadline for an appeal. The justices are deciding whether to hear that case in full.

Richard Wolf 11-07-2014

The National Organization for Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2013. Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes/RNS.

The same-sex marriage movement lost its first major case in a federal appeals court Thursday after a lengthy string of victories, creating a split among the nation’s circuit courts that virtually guarantees review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2-1 ruling from the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed lower court rulings that had struck down gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

More important, it gives Supreme Court justices an appellate ruling that runs counter to four others from the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th circuits. Those rulings struck down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, leading to similar action in neighboring states.

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, one of the Republican Party’s most esteemed legal thinkers and writers, issued the 42-page decision precisely three months after hearing oral arguments in the cases, with fellow GOP nominee Deborah Cook concurring. He delivered a rare defeat for proponents of same-sex marriage, who had won nearly all the cases decided from Florida to Alaska since the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013.

Sutton argued that appellate judges’ hands are tied by a one-sentence Supreme Court ruling from 1972, which “upheld the
right of the people of a state to define marriage as they see it.” Last year’s high court decision requiring the federal government to recognize legal same-sex marriages does not negate the earlier ruling as it applies to states where gay marriage is not legal, he said.

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States of America. Photo courtesy of Steve Petteway via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

In some ways, the case of the Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a beard seems easy.  When it comes to a prisoner’s religious rights, federal laws favors accommodation when possible.

So how could Gregory Holt — known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad after his conversion to Islam — possibly lose at the Supreme Court, where the justices heard his case on Oct. 7?

Holt wants to grow a mere half-inch beard — a length of whisker allowed in the vast majority of state prison systems, but not the one where he is incarcerated: Arkansas.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts wondered how such a seemingly straightforward case came before the high court, which usually occupies itself with the thorniest of legal questions.

Brad Heath 10-07-2014

Participants celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26. Photo by Sally Morrow/RNS.

The Supreme Court’s decision to sit out the legal battle over same-sex marriage will — for now, at least — leave the future of laws prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying in the hands of lower state and federal court judges. But it also almost certainly means the couples challenging those laws are more likely to win in the end.

The court said Oct. 6 that it would not hear appeals from five states whose same-sex marriage bans had been invalidated by lower federal courts. The decision, issued without explanation, will likely lead to recognition of gay marriages in 11 more states. It also allows an avalanche of legal challenges to the remaining bans to keep going forward in state and federal courts, where gay and lesbian couples have overwhelmingly prevailed.

The court’s decision leaves unchanged 20 state laws blocking same-sex unions. Each is already under legal attack, facing challenges in state or federal court, and sometimes both. Challenges to marriage bans already have reached a handful of state appeals courts and the federal appeals courts for the 5th, 6th, 9th and 11th circuits.

Some of those judges had been waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do. The court’s instruction Oct 6. was: Proceed.

the Web Editors 10-06-2014
The Supreme Court's inaction granted marriage rights to same-sex couples in 5 ne

The Supreme Court's inaction granted marriage rights to same-sex couples in 5 new states on Monday. Image via USAToday.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear several cases where federal appeals courts upheld the Constitutional rights of same-sex couples to marry, causing a seismic, if quiet, shift in several states' debates over same-sex marriage. The decision to not hear cases leaves intact lower appeals rulings that had overturned same-sex marriage bans. For five states and potentially six more, this guarantees the legal right for same-sex couples to marry.

USA Today reports:

The unexpected decision by the justices, announced without further explanation, immediately affects five states in which federal appeals courts had struck down bans against gay marriage: Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Utah.

It also will bring along six other states located in the judicial circuits overseen by those appellate courts: North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming. Lower court judges in those states must abide by their appeals court rulings.

Read more here.

Dallin H. Oaks. Photo via RNS.

If Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage does not prevail in the United States, Mormons should respond graciously and “practice civility with our adversaries,” a leading church apostle counseled Oct. 4 at the faith’s General Conference.

“We should be persons of goodwill toward all,” said declined to hear appeals from five states, including Utah, in which federal appeals courts had struck down bans against gay marriage. Within hours, clerks across Utah, Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin and Oklahoma began issuing marriage certificates to gay and lesbian couples.

Oaks, who has been outspoken in defending Mormons’ stance against gay marriage, said those in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be exemplars of civility.

“We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs,” he said during the afternoon session of the 184th Semiannual LDS General Conference, a two-day meeting broadcast across the world via satellite, TV or the Internet. “Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious.”

Richard Wolf 10-06-2014

Is Abercrombie & Fitch guilty of religious discrimination? Photo via RNS.

The Supreme Court granted 11 new cases for review Oct. 2, agreeing to rule on controversial topics such as religious freedom, child abuse, immigration, housing discrimination, congressional redistricting and campaign fund-raising by judicial candidates.

While they delayed any decision on same-sex marriage, the justices filled out their docket through January and into February with civil rights cases and others likely to command attention.

Here’s a look at what the justices chose from among some 2,000 cases that accumulated through the summer:

Should Gregory Holt be allowed to grow a beard? Photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, via Arkansas Corrections/RNS.

It’s not every day that a coalition of legal minds is rooting for a violent inmate convicted of stabbing his girlfriend in the neck.

When Gregory Holt’s case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 7, lawyers won’t be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs.

The state of Arkansas says he can’t. Holt — a convert to Islam who now calls himself Abdul Maalik Muhammad — says he would keep his beard no longer than half an inch. But prison officials, backed by the state’s attorney general, argue that even such a short beard poses security risks.

“When it comes to making prison policies, the stakes are high; lives can be lost if the wrong decision is made,” according to the state’s legal brief, which describes Holt as a violent self-declared fundamentalist. “The ADC takes religious freedom seriously, but it takes seriously its paramount interests in safety and security, too.”

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Ray Hobbs, the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction. But it’s hard to find too many others who think that the prison’s case for security trumps Holt’s right to exercise his religion.

Michael Winter 07-10-2014
Creative Commons image by Lbrcomm

Sean Reyes is the 21st Attorney General of Utah. Creative Commons image by Lbrcomm

The Utah attorney general announced Wednesday that he will go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge an appellate ruling that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Attorney General Sean Reyes decided to leapfrog the full 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver after a three-judge panel last month upheld a lower-court ruling and declared that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process extend to gay men and lesbians who want to marry. It was the first time a federal appeals court had ruled on the issue.

Besides Utah, the June 25 decision applies to Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, but the circuit court put its ruling on hold, pending appeals.

Ed Spivey Jr. 07-09-2014

Illustration by Ken Davis

"Please report to Window #12. And bring your Bible."

Tom Ehrich 07-08-2014

Brazil fans watch World Cup quarterfinal at the São Paulo Fan Fest - Brazil v Colombia on July 4, 2014. ©Ben Tavener via Flickr.

After the final whistle ended a hard-fought World Cup match, Brazilian star David Luiz consoled Colombian star James Rodriguez.

They exchanged jerseys to show their mutual respect, and Luiz held Rodriguez close as the losing player wept in frustration.

This poignant moment was much more inspiring than a string of fouls, some intentional, that sent Brazil’s Neymar to the hospital and left players on both sides shouting in agony.

During play, soccer seems eerily like the world outside: opposing forces collide, do anything to gain advantage, bamboozle the game’s referees, shout in mock pain and real pain, challenge joints and muscles beyond their capacity, give everything for their nation’s cause — all while spectators whoop and holler in the safety of the stands.

Richard Wolf 07-07-2014
The United States Supreme Court. Image courtesy Orhan Cam/shutterstock.com.

The United States Supreme Court. Image courtesy Orhan Cam/shutterstock.com.

The Supreme Court offered a further sign that it favors letting employers with religious objections avoid the Obama administration’s so-called contraception mandate.

Over the vehement objection of its three female justices, the court late Thursday blocked the administration from forcing evangelical Wheaton College to sanction insurance coverage for emergency birth control, even though it would not have had to offer the coverage itself.

In doing so, the court made clear that it’s not done with the religious liberty issue following the court’s June 30 ruling that closely-held, for-profit corporations with objections to certain contraception methods do not have to offer this type of coverage to their employees.

Suzanne Ross 07-03-2014
A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shutterstock.com

It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." 

The Mount Soledad cross was installed on public land in San Diego in 1954. Creative Commons image by Jun Pinili

The decades-long battle over a cross erected on public land in California will drag out even longer now that the Supreme Court declined Monday to hear the case.

In the last full day of the current session, the court said the case must first go to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before the high court will consider it.

The conflict in Mount Soledad Memorial Association v. Trunk, is over a 43-foot cross that sits atop Mount Soledad on public land in San Diego. The cross was erected in the 1950s and has since become a veterans’ memorial.

The nine Supreme Court justices, public domain

The nine Supreme Court justices, public domain

Five things to know about one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions of the year:

1. Corporations can’t pray, but they do have religious rights.

Hobby Lobby isn’t a person. It’s a chain of crafts stores owned by a religious family. And though the evangelical Green family objects to parts of the Affordable Care Act’s emergency contraception mandate, it’s not the Greens but the company that writes the check for employees’ health insurance. The first question the justices had to answer was this: Does Hobby Lobby have religious rights? To many Americans, this sounds a little nutty. Does a craft store believe in God?

A majority of the justices held that a closely held company such as Hobby Lobby does have religious rights. The court didn’t apply those rights, however, to publicly held corporations, where owners’ religious beliefs would be hard to discern.

But well before the justices had delivered their verdict on this question, many legal scholars said they wouldn’t be surprised were they to affirm the company’s religious rights. American corporations do have some of the rights and responsibilities we usually associate with people. And in the 2010Citizens United campaign finance case, the justices overturned bans on corporate political spending as a violation of freedom of speech — corporations’ free speech.

Supporters and opponents of ACA’s contraception mandate rallied outside the Supreme Court, March 25. RNS photos by Adelle Banks.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to finally issue its ruling this week in the highly anticipated case of the craft companies vs. Obamacare.

Technically, it’s Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a showdown over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. The core legal question is whether a private company can have religious rights.

But to the general public, this is seen as a showdown between employers — the evangelical Green family behind Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite Hahn familythat owns the Conestoga cabinet company — and the employees’ personal reproductive choices under their insurance.

While conservatives have cast the battle as one for religious freedom, the general public may see it as a showdown over personal health choices.

Elmbrook Church was the site of multiple Elmbrook School District graduation ceremonies. Creative Commons image by Sergeantjoe.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that a Wisconsin high school acted unconstitutionally when it held its graduation ceremonies in a local megachurch.

The case, Elmbrook School District. v. Doe, involved a high school in a suburb of Milwaukee that rented the nondenominational Elmbrook Church for its graduation exercises in 2009. In 2012, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the event was “offensive” and “coercive.” The church’s banners, pamphlets, Bibles, and other religious materials remained in the sanctuary during the graduation.

As is their custom, the justices did not give a reason for declining to hear a challenge to the 7th Circuit ruling.

Monday’s decision may be a signal by the court that despite its approval of sectarian prayers at public meetings in the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision in May, it draws the line at exposing children to religious symbols when they have not choice about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper 06-03-2014

Can a vote outlaw equal protection under the law? The Court seems to think so.

C. Welton Gaddy 05-16-2014

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance. Photo courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications.

The great rejoicing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on public prayer reminded me of the infamous line from an officer who commented on the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

There isn’t much to celebrate in the high court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway to allow sectarian prayers to be spoken in all kinds of public meetings. The big loser in this judicial decision was prayer itself — its uniqueness and its authenticity.

This most recent decision from the court, like many before it, has provided a “win” for conservative forces. But it comes at the price of a broadside against (if not a compromise of) religion. Why? Because prayer is a spiritual practice that’s better defined theologically rather than politically or legally.
Stephen Prothero 05-13-2014

The Book’s curriculum cover. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

On April 14, the school board in Mustang, Okla., voted to institute an elective Bible course. This is not news. More than a thousand U.S. public schools offer Bible as literature courses.

But the curriculum for the Mustang course was developed by Steve Green, president of the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain, which is committed, according to its website, to “honoring the Lord in all we do.”

In March, Hobby Lobby argued before the Supreme Court for a religious liberty exemption to the Affordable Care Act. Now Green is promoting the Bible curriculum the Mustang school board just adopted — a curriculum he predicts will soon be adopted in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American public schools.

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