Sunday, June 29, 2008

Brief overview of this year's major SCOTUS rulings

This month sees the conclusion of the Supreme Court's docket of the 2007-08 term (known as Volume 554... how did that number come to be by the by, if there's only been about 216 years or so of rulings?). Here's some of the highlights:

1) District of Columbia v. Heller - one of the last ones issued, and boy it's a bigg'un. The ruling directly involved the most contentious amendment in the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment. There's been arguments over comma placement for over a century, and now we know exactly what the rules of grammar are. Oh wait, actually the fighting was over whether or not the amendment granted citizens the right to own firearms (AK-47s for EVERYBODY!) or if the amendment allowed firearms under state-regulated militias (Gun Control! No Uzi For You!).
Heller goes with the right to own firearms, specifically handguns, under the common law right of self-defense. The ruling specifically ended an attempt by the District to ban handguns altogether from the district, and also struck down similar laws in other cities/states. However, do note that Heller doesn't grant free and easy ownership of every possible firearm: The Court decision "should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." This does mean government can impose gun ownership restrictions where a need for public safety is obvious: preventing felons from owning guns means common sense stuff like background checks remain on the books. The Court also allowed for separate considerations for firearms, leaving handguns allowable for self-defense while putting machine guns (and other 'offense-type' weapons) on a more restricted level.
The immediate implication is that gun ownership as a right is now defined and (relatively) unshakable: it'll take another SCOTUS ruling to undo it, and the Court rarely overturns itself (it only does so over obviously stupid moves, such as Dred Scott or Plessy or Betts v Brady). Scalia's ruling doesn't have any holes to it, so overturning it would take tons of political will. Heller didn't completely close the door on the argument, so we can see more cases on gun rights heading to the courts. The political implication is that the pro-gun politicians and the Republican Party (with it's pro-gun stance) won a big victory... and possibly lost the coming election, as it means the GOP can't use the boogeyman argument of "OOOO the Democrats are gonna take your guns from ye" to keep the NRA crowd interested.

2) Kennedy v Louisiana - the case involved the Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, that it was cruel to apply the death penalty to child rapists.
Talk about a third rail. This one touched child rape AND the death penalty. The immediate reaction to the court's ruling - that Louisiana's law was unconstitutional - was swift and condemning. C'mon, we're talking about punishing child rapists! These are the guys who have a special Hell waiting for them. How else could you argue against them getting the electric chair?
By pointing out what the Court pointed out: that the law was unbalanced in punishing only one set of rapists, and by applying a punishment (death) reserved for capital cases (murder). The only way for a law imposing the death penalty on child rapists could be upheld was if they applied the death penalty to all rapists across the board. That noise you just heard was all the guys with the date rape pills gasping in horror. So then the question becomes: does the crime of rape deserve the punishment of death? Personally, I'm all for it. Not because the death penalty would act as a deterrent (it never does), but because it would remove a dangerous portion of the population from threatening innocent lives (rapists tend to leave multiple victims in their wake, and there's little evidence that rapists can be 'cured' of their... habits). the fact that some rape cases are not cut and dried or easy to prove guilt... the problems we have now of applying the death penalty in cases where the perp turns out to be innocent would get worse.

3) Exxon Shipping v Baker - basically the case where Exxon weaseled their way out of paying a $2.5 billion fine for the Valdez oil spill disaster. They now have to pay a $500 million fine instead. Considering they can make that much money in a day, without even trying, doesn't make it much of a penalty... The case does have potential impact on future lawsuits with punitive damages involved: the ruling that punitive damages be one-on-one to compensatory damages could crimp any attempt at punishing corporate criminal behavior.

4) Boumediene v Bush - the Habeus case. The ruling basically ruled unconstitutional a Military Commissions Act (MCA) that had been put in place during the War on Terror to keep suspected 'unlawful combatants' aka 'people we label terrorists' detained indefinitely without even charging them with any crime. It didn't free them: it meant they could now challenge their detention in court. But don't be surprised if the Bush admin keeps finding new ways to keep these guys detained without ever answering any call to present their case.
Boumediene deserves attention because the ruling cheesed off a lot of far right neocons who feared it will free a bunch of "dangerous and irredeemable" terrorists... almost half of whom have been proven even by our own government to be innocent (because we grabbed the wrong guys, or because we had people turning over their rivals in local tribal arguments for the reward bounties). Because we'd denied them Habeus they couldn't prove a damn thing, and have been held (and based on a lot of solid reports also have been tortured) over the past 6 years. And still the neocons are horrified... and are swearing they'll amend the Constitution itself to restrict and limit Habeus rights. Yup. They're threatening the one key legal right in the whole of Anglo-American law since the Magna Carta. Which begs the question: whose side are the neocons really on...?

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