Time for a Supreme Court retrospective; ‘goodbye and good riddance’

Three days after assuming the presidency in 2009, Barrack Obama looked House and Senate Republican leaders in the eye and uttered the phrase, “Elections have consequences.” The just-concluded term of the U.S. Supreme Court proves the former president was exactly right — most likely much to his chagrin. I know I have written about the court often over the past few months. Thankfully, this will be the last time I address the topic for a while because the justices are headed off to do whatever they do when they remove their robes and go on vacation. Here is a retrospective on the 2021-2022 term, which, by any measure, was one of the most consequential in history.

I will begin with the biggie: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 6-3 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and tossed nearly a half-century of legal precedent on the trash heap of history. With hours of the decision, Ohio AG David Yost successfully petitioned a federal court to lift a stay on the state’s “heartbeat bill,” which bans abortions after six weeks and does not include an exception for rape or incest. A few days later a 10-year-old girl who was six weeks and three days pregnant as result of a sexual assault was forced to travel to Indiana to receive the medical care she needed.

The 6-3 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen eviscerated a New York state law that required residents to obtain a permit to carry a weapon and will make it extremely difficult for other states to strengthen their gun safety regulations. Keep in mind, this is the same year in which there were mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and the July 4th massacre in Highland Park, Ilinois, where seven people died including the parents of a 2-year-old toddler who was left to wander down the street as her mother and father laid dead.

A number of decisions eroded the constitutional wall the Founding Fathers erected between church and state. Most notable were Carson v. Makin, which will make it easier for state governments to divert tax dollars from public education to religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which cleared the way for prayer at public school football games and other events.

The conservative 6-3 majority struck a blow in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency by curtailing the EPA’s ability to order existing power plants to reduce their carbon emissions. Ironically, this means that if more kids are born as a result of Dobbs it will be more difficult for them to breathe. Just saying.

Because the federal government has not broken enough promises to or heaped enough indignity upon Native Americans, the Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. Conservative Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s three liberals in dissent arguing that the decision reneges on the federal government’s centuries-old promise that tribes would remain forever free from interference by state authorities.

Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I will acknowledge that the justices ruled correctly in a few cases, including Biden v. Texas, a 5-4 ruling that permitted the current administration to reverse a Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are reviewed in U.S. courts. And Biden v. Missouri approved a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers employed at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

So, with that, I will say goodbye and good riddance to SCOTUS’s 2021-2022 term and take a three-month break from writing about the Supreme Court.

Leak of Alito’s draft Roe v Wade opinion threatens American jurisprudence

Supreme Court will decide unprecedented number of blockbuster cases during 2021-2022 term

Attorney David BetrasLike kids counting the days until Christmas, attorneys, legal scholars, and jurisprudence junkies, including me, eagerly anticipate the first Monday in October, the day the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) begins its new term each year. We can barely control ourselves as we wait for the justices to decide which of the 7,000 cases submitted to them annually become one of the 150 or so they hear.

Under normal circumstances, the justices go about their work in relative obscurity because the cases on the Court’s docket, which is dominated by battles between states over water rights, business disputes, and arguments about arcane legal principles, do not impact the lives of most Americans or generate much media coverage aside from long, jargon-packed pieces posted on SCOTUSblog. Believe me, if you have insomnia, spend a few minutes on the site and you will be sleeping in no time.

This year, however, is far from normal. Although the 2021-2022 term is less than two weeks old, the Court is under intense scrutiny because the justices have agreed to hear a number of cases that may ignite legal and societal firestorms while further undermining the public’s waning support for the Court which was once widely regarded, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, as the “least dangerous” branch of government.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtChief among the potential blockbusters is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which centers on a Mississippi law which, with few exceptions, prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Dobbs gives the Court the opportunity to overturn  Roe v. Wade which established a woman’s right to choose and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which protects that right until viability. It is, quite simply, the most important reproductive rights case to come before the Court in 30 years.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen is the first significant firearms case to come before the Court since the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that extended Second Amendment protections to individuals. Bruen arrives at the Court on appeal from the 2nd Circuit which upheld New York state’s strict gun licensure law which requires residents to obtain a permit to possess a firearm and totally bans open carry. A decision in favor of the Association could gut gun laws across the nation.

Like Bruen, Carson v. Makin which challenges Maine’s prohibition against using state funds to pay tuition for schools that offer religious instruction has nationwide implications. The justices will decide if Maine’s law violates the free exercise, establishment, and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. If they so hold, voucher programs across the U.S., including Ohio’s will be impacted and taxpayer dollars will begin flowing to schools that promote religion.

Other important cases include Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College which poses a lethal threat to race-based college admission programs,  CVS Pharmacy Inc. v. Doe which involves alleged discrimination against persons with HIV, as well as cases focused on national security, campaign finance laws, and Texas’ new draconian abortion restrictions.

The last time the Court ruled on this many consequential cases in one term was, well, never. Throughout history, cases of similar magnitude to the ones on SCOTUS’ 2021-2022 docket were heard and decided every five or ten years. As a result, one thing is certain: the justices will not labor in obscurity over the next 12 months.

You have the right to remain silent…Use it because what you don’t say can’t be used against you in a court of law.

Attorney David BetrasIf you have viewed Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Organized Crime, Law and Order LA, Law and Order Def Comedy Jam or one of the dozen or so other iterations of the franchise, you have undoubtedly heard a cop recite the following to a suspect as they slap on the cuffs:

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present while you are being questioned.

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish.

You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.

Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?

Just a hint: the answer to the last question is always “no.” I will expand on this point shortly.

After watching Lenny Briscoe “Mirandize” a couple thousand criminals, people think they understand what the warning means. Believe me, they do not because this area of the law, like most, is extremely complicated. And that explains why 90% of criminal cases are solved when people who think they know their rights tell on themselves.

Man in handcuffsFor starters, according to the Supreme Court’s 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, law enforcement officers do not have to issue a Miranda warning unless they are conducting a custodial interrogation. In plain English, that means suspects do not have to be advised of their right to keep their yap shut unless and until they have been deprived of their freedom of action in a significant way.

In light of this fact, police officers often delay placing a suspect in custody and tell them they are free to go. They then begin asking questions that can lead to an arrest. For example, a police officer stops a driver who is swerving and asks, “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” More often than I care to remember, the driver, who I am almost invariably standing next to in front of a judge, will answer, “Well, I’ve had a couple of beers,” as if the officer will be satisfied by the qualifier “couple of beers” and happily send the driver on his or her way with a friendly wave.

Uhm, not so much. At that point, the officer, who was not required to issue a Miranda warning when he posed what amounts to the $10,000 dollar or so question, will ask the driver to exit the car, submit to a field sobriety test, and then a breathalyzer exam. At the end of the process, the driver will be arrested and Mirandized—which does not mean much at that point.

So, here are the takeaways from this week’s column:

First,  if you are stopped by law enforcement and questioned you are under no obligation to do anything other than provide your name and ID.

Second, remember, the police will delay placing you in custody so they can use what you say to establish probable cause for arrest.

Third, your pre-arrest statements are admissible in court.

Fourth: Shut up. What you do not say cannot be used against you.

Libel, slander and why Facebook can’t be held accountable for outrageous statements posted by users

Attorney David BetrasIn his most recent blog post/Mahoning Matters column, BKH Managing Partner David Betras defines defamation, libel, and slander and explains why it is virtually impossible for public figures to win defamation suits and the legal shield that protects Facebook and other social media sites from being helped accountable for statements posted by users…

As I have noted in previous columns, the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution are not absolute.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1919 that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech under the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, this one exception has given rise to many questions and hundreds of cases regarding what type of expression is shielded by the Bill of Rights. For example, can a person in that hypothetical crowded theater stand up and accuse another of a crime or pass out a leaflet that impugns someone else’s character?

As is often — and often maddeningly — the case with issues involving the Constitution, the answer is, “It depends.”

In this instance, it depends on the laws governing defamation which is defined as a false statement presented as a fact that injures or damages a third party’s reputation. There are two types of defamation: slander, an untrue statement made orally; and libel, an untrue statement made in writing. And, since the dawn of the computer age and the internet, that includes email and social media posts.

While defamation is not considered a crime at the federal level or in Ohio, both libel and slander are civil torts which means victims can sue for damages. To win in court a plaintiff must prove:

1.) The statement was reported as fact to another person;
2.) The statement was false;
3.) The plaintiff suffered damages;
4.) The person making the statement was negligent.

Seems pretty straightforward, except we are talking about the law so nothing could be further from the truth. And speaking of the truth, it is an absolute defense to defamation because if what is said or written is true, it cannot be false, and therefore, it can be neither libelous nor slanderous no matter how much damage it may cause.

Here is another fun fact: Public figures have virtually no chance of winning defamation suits thanks to New York Times v. Sullivan, a unanimous 1964 Supreme Court ruling that established the “absent malice” standard. Under this legal principle, the target of a defamatory statement must prove the person or entity that wrote or uttered it did so with knowledge of or reckless disregard for the fact that it was untrue.

Who qualifies as a public figure? Politicians, celebrities, business, labor, and community leaders, and, well, me. This means Mahoning Matters can publish just about anything they want to about me and there is not much I can do about it.

Finally, consider this scenario: two neighbors who are not public figures have a contentious relationship. Neighbor A posts on Facebook that Neighbor B beats his wife and kids and kicks his dog. The statement is false, but people believe it and ostracize Neighbor B, he is fired from his job and suffers other torments.

Neighbor B can sue Neighbor A, but can he sue Facebook for providing a platform for the lies?

No, because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) holds that Facebook and other computer service providers are not considered publishers of content posted by users and are not responsible for it.

So while Neighbor B may be able to wring a few bucks out of Neighbor B, he will not be getting a check drawn on Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar account

Complex deliberative process, legal doctrines drive Supreme Court rulings in controversial cases

Attorney David BetrasThis week the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions in two closely watched controversial cases: June Medical Services LLC. et al. V. Russo and Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Along with being among the most highly anticipated rulings of the term, the opinions in the cases provided valuable insight into both the intricacies of the Court’s deliberative process and two legal precedents, stare decisis and severability, that played a critical role in the outcome and future impact of both cases.

Because the justices discuss and vote on cases in secret, most people have a simplistic view of their decision-making process which, in reality, is extremely complex. The nine members of the Court don’t sit around a table, consider the arguments and issue a ruling when five or more members side with the plaintiffs or the defendants. Discussions go on for months. Memos fly back and forth. Clerks argue with their justices. Positions change. Votes change until a solid majority in favor of an outcome emerges. This is an important point: justices only have to agree on how they are ruling, not on why. The same holds true for dissents.

The decision in June Medical v. Russo illustrates this point of law. The five justices who held that Louisiana’s law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is unconstitutional did so for different reasons. The Court’s four liberals, led by Justice Steven Bryer based their ruling on the fact that Louisiana’s law, like a nearly identical Texas statute struck down in 2016, put an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the fifth vote in the case, based his concurrence on the doctrine of “stare decisis” which means “to stand by things decided.” This doctrine obligates courts, including the Supreme Court, to follow historical cases when making a ruling on a similar matter. Ironically, Roberts had voted to uphold the Texas law in 2016, but his respect for precedent proved more compelling than his opposition to abortion.

Seila Law v. CFPB is also interesting and instructive. After being cited by the CFPB for ripping off thousands of homeowners in a mortgage scam, Seila Law filed suit against the agency alleging that its governance structure was unconstitutional and the Bureau should, therefore, be abolished. Not surprisingly, banks and big business interests who have sought to destroy the CFPB since it was created, filed briefs supporting Seila’s position.

The Court’s five conservative justices, including Roberts, agreed with the plaintiffs but only in part due to the doctrine of severability which states that if a provision of a piece of legislation is found to be illegal the remainder of the law may remain in effect. In this case, the majority rejected the agency’s governance structure but said it could continue to operate. This means that although Seila won the battle on its primary contention, it lost the war against the CFPB because the ruling protects the agency from future constitutional challenges–an outcome that clearly illustrates the way in which the doctrine of unintended consequences can really be a punch in the gut.