News & Politics

Happy SCOTUSTime: A Users Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court Rulings Handed Down Today!

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People are crazy-fanatical about the Supreme Court! Why? Because it’s our most mysterious and mystical and crazy-cool branch of government, wherein, a bunch of people who scored some of the most awesome civil service jobs in the country – it’s almost impossible to get fired – by not appearing to be too much of anything – because that’s what it takes to get appointed – render decisions on the way this country works after hearing arguments by what (supposedly) are the most badass lawyers in this country. And what did we learn today?

Ruling #1: Sex Offenders, Past the Buck.

Case: 08-1301, Carr v. United States

Decision: Reversal!

Opinion By: The Boogie-Down Bronx’s own Sonia “6-Train” Sotamayor.

Who It Matters To: Sex Offenders, Potential Sex Offenders, Especially Sex Offenders Who Sex Offended Before February 2007.

Law Geeks Will Geek Out Over: The ex post facto clause, due process challenges.

Ruling: “The Court rules that a 2007 law (SORNA) that requires sex offenders to register does not apply to sex offenders whose interstate travel occurred before the Act went into effect.”

What it means: Carr involved a guy who didn’t register for SORNA, or the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, after he moved from Alabama to Indiana. This guy, Thomas Carr, had already registered as a sex offender in Alabama in 2004, but when he moved to Indiana, failed to register as one there, which law enforcement officials found out when he was busted for an unrelated crime in July 2007. Earlier that year, in February 2007, the Attorney General ruled that SORNA applied to all sex offenders, even those who were convicted before SORNA went into effect. Carr argued a defense of the constitution’s ex post facto clause, wherein, he’s protected because you can’t be retroactively punished by new laws. And the court ruled in his favor!

Who Wins: Criminals whose crimes aren’t actually crimes until after they’ve committed them.

Ruling #2: Keep Your Comity Out Of Our Hair, Please.

Case: 09-223, Levin v. Commerce Energy.

Decision: Reversal!

Opinion By: Ruth Bader “G-Funk” Ginsburg.

Who It Matters To: People in Ohio who buy and sell gas. Tax nerds. Mostly, appellate law nerds. Oh, states’ rights nerds, too.

Law Geeks Will Geek Out Over: Changes in the concept of comity and the PIC, or Privileges and Immunities Clause.

Ruling: “The Court rules that, under the doctrine of comity, a tax payer’s lawsuit claiming discriminatory state taxation must proceed originally in state court, even when it is a request to increase the tax burden on a competitor. .”

What it means: If there are two things that will never go away, they’re death and taxes. And if there are two truths to death and taxes, it’s that they both suck and they’re both boring. Long story short, some gas retailers and a gas customer got pissed off that Ohio tax laws favored the suppliers (the big guys) to these retail chains (the small guys) essentially screwing the customer (the smallest guy of them all). The Small Team argued that this violates the Equal Protection Act, a federal law, and the PIC, which theoretically protects one American from getting the short end of the stick and another American getting the long end when it comes to things like laws, and taxes, and thus, they should be able to take this up with Higher Powers (like the Feds). The state argued that comity and the Tax Injunction Act (which “precludes federal courts from enjoining the ‘assessment, levy or collection’ of any state tax when there is an adequate state remedy”) wins out here, and so they told The Small Gas Guys to go to hell, or at the very least, back to wherever in Ohio they came from. Close enough. The Small Gas Guys weren’t about to take this lying down, so they appealed, and won, because the Sixth Circuit argued that the concept of Comity was actually on the Small Gas Guys’ side. And now, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth’s decision, arguing that their state argument must proceed in state court. Why? Comity! The short version of what the opinion they likely rendered is, Everyone else has to deal with the assholes in state court, therefore, so do you.

Who Wins: People who know how to take advantage of individual state’s tax laws. People who the state favors. Bodies of authority who have a problem with people trying to go over them. Anybody who understands this ruling enough to take advantage of this.

Ruling #3: Miranda Schmiranda: Put Up or Shut Up, But If You Shut Up, Tell Us That You’re Shutting Up.

Case: Berghuis v. Thompkins (08-1470).

Decision: Reversal!

Opinion By: Anthony “Tony” Kennedy

Who It Matters To: People who watch Cops. People who know they’re going to get arrested at one point. People who watch either too many or not enough legal dramas. People who think the “silent treatment” is an effective negotiation tactic.

Law Geeks Will Geek Out Over: Changes in interpretation of Miranda Rights and the effect of “silence” on a legal ruling. The 5-4 close call nature of the ruling. 

Ruling: “The Court upholds the state court decision rejecting the claim of a violation of Miranda v. Arizona. The defendant’s silence while being questioned by police did not amount to an invocation of his Miranda right to remain silent.”

What it means: Easily the most exciting decision today! In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided that in order to invoke your Miranda Rights, or specifically, the right to remain silent under interrogation, you actually have to make a point of noting that you’re invoking your Miranda Rights. This guy, Van Chester Thompkins, was interrogated and stayed (mostly) silent through the interrogation. He was convicted for murder. Here’s the problem:

The officers in the room said Thompkins said little during the interrogation, occasionally answering “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” nodding his head and making eye contact as his responses. But when one of the officers asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for “shooting that boy down,” Thompkins said, “Yes.”

But Thompkins and his lawyer argued that he had invoked his Miranda Rights by being (mostly) uncommunicative, and that cops had violated the protections afforded to Thompkins by them. And the Supreme Court just sided with law enforcement in Michigan, where Thompkins was busted, noting that if Thompkins wanted to invoke his right to stay silent, he needed to say so. Justice Sotomayor is PISSED, however, noting that this ruling “Turns Miranda upside down.”

Who Wins: Cops, people who write cop dramas, Law & Order fanatics, cops arresting perps without good knowledge of recent Supreme Court Decisions.

There were two other decisions, Alabama v. North Carolina and Samantar v. Yousuf. Alabama v. North Carolina is about some interstate battle (read here) that’s far less interesting than it sounds. Samantar v. Yousuf is about foreign immunity, and unless you’re a foreign diplomat who’s no longer a foreign diplomat, or something, it doesn’t matter. Yay Supreme Court, here’s an idea: start handing down decisions us PEONS can actually understand.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]

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