Top Ten Supreme Court Cases Hamilton and Griffin on Rights are Following this Term

We look forward to the opening of the Supreme Court’s 2014 Term on Monday, October 6. Here are the top ten cases that we are following. We provide a description below of each case and introduce the commentators who will share their expertise about these cases by posting after the oral argument.

The cases are listed in order of the dates of oral argument.

  1. Heien v. North Carolina. A North Carolina police officer stopped Heien and the friend driving Heien’s car because only one brake light was working. Officers found cocaine in the car and charged Heien with trafficking cocaine. Police mistakenly believed the missing brake light violated North Carolina law, but it did not; North Carolina requires only one working brake light. Heien argues that the police search lacked reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.” Oral argument will be held on Oct. 6. Professor Leslie Shoebotham of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law will provide commentary about the case for our website.

  1. Holt v. Hobbs. The Arkansas Department of Corrections has a grooming policy allowing trimmed mustaches but no other facial hair except for quarter-inch beards for prisoners with skin problems. Prisoner Gregory Holt filed a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) arguing that Islam requires him to wear a beard. He requests a half-inch beard as an accommodation of his religion. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had proven its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling penological interest.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. § 2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious belief.” Oral argument will be held on Oct. 7. Professor Hamilton will provide commentary for our website.

  1. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc.. Teva Pharmaceuticals argues that, in resolving its patent case, the federal district court made accurate findings about the nature of polypeptide chemistry. Although the district court’s findings would usually not have been set aside on appeal unless they were clearly erroneous under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), the Federal Circuit conducts de novo instead of clearly erroneous review in patent cases. Teva argues that, consistent with FRCP 52(a) and the other circuit courts, the Federal Circuit should defer to the detailed scientific findings of the district court.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires.” Oral argument will be held on Oct. 15. Professor Greg Vetter of the University of Houston Law Center will provide commentary avout the case for our website.

  1. Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean. Robert MacLean, a federal air marshal working for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was concerned when he received an unencrypted text message in 2003 cancelling all overnight missions even though federal law required marshals to be present on all flights with high security risks. MacLean revealed the information, and Congress quickly reversed DHS’s action. MacLean was later fired on the grounds that the text contained Sensitive Secuity Information (SSI).

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether certain statutory protections codified at 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8)(A), which are inapplicable when an employee makes a disclosure ‘specifically prohibited by law,’ can bar an agency from taking an enforcement action against an employee who intentionally discloses Sensitive Security Information.” Oral argument will be held on Nov. 4. Professor Griffin will provide commentary about the case for our website.

  1. Alabama’s redistricting after the 2010 census has led to two lawsuits alleging that the redistricting was racial gerrymandering that diluted and isolated the strength of black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Alabama’s legislative redistricting plans unconstitutionally classify black voters by race by intentionally packing them in districts designed to maintain supermajority percentages produced when 2010 census data are applied to the 2001 majority-black districts.”

In Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, the Court granted cert. on the question “Whether Alabama’s effort to redraw the lines of each majority-black district to have the same black population as it would have using 2010 census data as applied to the former district lines, when combined with the state’s new goal of significantly reducing population deviation among districts, amounted to an unconstitutional racial quota and racial gerrymandering that is subject to strict scrutiny and that was not justified by the putative interest of complying with the non-retrogression aspect of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act; and whether these plaintiffs have standing to bring such a constitutional claim.” Oral argument will be held on Nov. 12. Janai Nelson, the Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will provide commentary for our website.

  1. Elonis v. United States. Amber Morrissey, one of Anthony Elonis’s employees, made five sexual harassment claims against him. Elonis put a picture of Elonis holding a knife to Morrissey’s neck with the caption “I wish” on Facebook. Elonis also posted violent threats against his ex-wife. Elonis was convicted of transmitting in interstate commerce communications containing a threat to injure the person of another.

The Court granted cert. on the questions “(1) Whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort; and (2) whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten.” Oral argument is scheduled for Dec. 1. Professor Nancy Leong of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law will provide commentary about the case for our website.

  1. Young v. United Parcel Service. Peggy Young drove a delivery truck for UPS. After Young became pregnant, her doctor recommended a twenty-pound lifting restriction for the first twenty weeks of her pregnancy and a ten-pound restriction thereafter. UPS decided that Young could not perform the essential functions of her job and was not eligible for light duty assignment. UPS offered light duty to employees injured on the job, employees disabled according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and for some other reasons, but not for pregnancy.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), requires an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant employees with work limitations to provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” Oral argument will be held on Dec. 3. Professor Jessica Roberts of the University of Houston Law Center will provide commentary for our website.

  1. Hana Financial v. Hana Bank. The two parties in this case share the name Hana, which in Korean means number one, first, or top. Hana Financial filed a lawsuit complaining that Hana Bank had infringed its trademark name “Hana Financial.” Involved in the dispute is the “tacking doctrine” of trademark law, which allows a party to tack the date of its first use of a mark onto a subsequent use to establish trademark priority.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the jury or the court determines whether use of an older trademark may be tacked to a newer one.” Oral argument will be held on Dec. 3. Professor David Fagundes of Southwestern Law School will provide commentary for our website.

  1. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona. Good News Community Church alleged that Town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance favored some noncommercial speech over other noncommercial speech in violation of the First Amendment. Good News usually erected about 17 signs around its place of worship until Gilbert told the church it was violating the town’s sign ordinance.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the Town of Gilbert’s mere assertion that its sign code lacks a discriminatory motive renders its facially content-based sign code content-neutral and justifies the code’s differential treatment of petitioners’ religious signs.” Oral argument has not yet been scheduled. Randal Morrison, of the law firm Sabine & Morrison, San Diego, CA, will provide commentary for our website.

  1. Mach Mining v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mach Mining was the target of an EEOC lawsuit for sex discrimination in hiring. Because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires the EEOC to negotiate an end to discriminatory practices before filing a lawsuit, Mach argued that it had an affirmative defense to the discrimination lawsuit that EEOC had failed to conciliate. The Seventh Circuit ruled that an alleged failure to conciliate is not an affirmative defense to the merits of a discrimination lawsuit.

The Court granted cert. on the question “Whether and to what extent a court may enforce the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s mandatory duty to conciliate discrimination claims before filing suit.” Oral argument has not yet been scheduled. Professor Angela Morrison of the UNLV Boyd School of Law will provide commentary for our website.

Leslie C. Griffin

Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Professor Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.