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Supreme Court releases flurry of decisions

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Posted at 5:12 PM, Jun 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-18 17:17:35-04

The Supreme Court issued six decisions Thursday. Although some will affect many Americans, the two most anticipated cases – same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act federal marketplaces – were left for another day.

License plates are ‘government speech’

In Walker v. Texas., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the court ruled that license plates are a form of government – not private – speech. In 2009, the Sons of Confederate Veterans applied to create a specialty Texas license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag and the group’s logo.

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board rejected the specialty plate. The 5thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that license plates are private speech and Texas must accept the group’s license application. The Supreme Court reversed that decision.

The court ruled that because license plates are government speech, the content can be regulated. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, reading the majority opinion, said a person’s First Amendment rights are protected for bumper stickers but not license plates.

The court ruled 5-4, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joining the majority.

Court supports church’s free speech

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Supreme Court ruled against a government’s ability to categorically regulate speech.

The town of Gilbert, Ariz., has a code that outlines how outdoor signs can be displayed. For different types of signs – political, ideological and religious – the town has different rules about how large signs can be and when and where they can be placed.

The case focused on signs posted around the town showing start times for church services. The Good News Community Church’s placement of signs violated Gilbert’s sign code. The town cited the church on two separate occasions. For example, the church placed signs out on Saturday mornings, exceeding the sign code’s time limit. The church was also cited for not putting event dates on some of its signs.

Reversing the 9th Circuit’s ruling that Gilbert’s regulation of signs was content-neutral, the Supreme Court ruled that free speech cannot be regulated by holding different types of speech (political, ideological or religious) to different standards.

The court ruled unanimously, but split its reasons among three other opinions. Thomas delivered the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John G.  Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Samual A. Alito Jr. and Sotomayor. Alito wrote a concurring opinion, which Kennedy and Sotomayor joined. Kagan wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Ginsburg and Breyer, who also wrote his own concurring opinion.

Clarifying criminal conviction processes

In four cases, the Supreme Court issued opinions clarifying conviction and punishment processes.

Kevan Brumfield, sentenced to death in Louisiana, petitioned for a hearing to present evidence that he was mentally disabled. In Brumfield v. Cain, the Supreme Court held that the Louisiana state court must offer Brumfield a chance to present evidence about his mental health.

Brumfield was convicted for the 1993 murder of an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer.

The court voted 5-4, with Sotomayor writing the opinion. She was joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.

The case of Davis v. Ayala focused on juror selection. Ayala, a Hispanic man sentenced to death in California, claimed the prosecution struck seven potential jurors from his trial because of their race. The seven were eliminated during jury selection without Ayala’s attorney present.

The prosecution proved it eliminated at least some of the seven potential jurors for race-neutral reasons. The Supreme Court held that leaving Ayala’s attorney out of part of juror selection was harmless, given the race-neutral reasons the seven potential jurors were eliminated.

The court ruled 5-4, with Alito writing the opinion. He was joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas.

In Ohio v. Clark, a domestic violence case evolved into a battle over what evidence can be presented in court. Darius Clark had his girlfriend work as a prostitute while he cared for her 3-year-old son, L.P. When L.P.’s preschool teachers noticed red marks on his body, the boy said they were Clark’s doing.

Though L.P. did not testify at the trial, the prosecution introduced evidence of what the boy told his preschool teachers. Clark argued that what L.P. said could not be used as evidence under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment because L.P. did not testify.

The Supreme Court ruled mandatory reporting between a worried teacher and a student does not translate into a direct effort to prosecute. The ruling upheld Clark’s conviction and 28-year sentence.

Alito wrote the opinion for the unanimous ruling, with concurring opinions by Ginsburg and Thomas.

Finally, the case of McFadden v. United States involved a man convicted for distributing bath salts. McFadden sought to have the jury instructed to convict him only if it could verify he knew bath salts had similar effects to other drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 4th Circuit, which must now determine if the jury was properly instructed to establish the defendant knew he was dealing with “a controlled substance.”

Thomas wrote the unanimous opinion and Roberts wrote a concurring opinion.

The court is expected to issue the final 11 rulings of this year’s term before the end of the month. It is scheduled to issue rulings Monday and June 29, but could add another day to issue opinions.

Reach Matthew J. Connor at matthew.connor@scripps.com or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.