Entries in Supreme Court (102)


Challenge to the Voting Rights Act Reaches Supreme Court

Hemera/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The opposing sides in a landmark Supreme Court case concerning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have filed court briefs that suggest they see America through two different lenses.

At issue is a key provision of the law -- Section 5 -- that requires certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to have any changes in voting procedures pre-cleared by either the attorney general or a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.

On one side is the Department of Justice, which says that Section 5 is the "most consequential, and amply justified exercises of federal power in the nation's history." A brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says that Section 5 is still necessary because "notwithstanding undeniable progress, striking voting discrimination continues and is concentrated in the covered jurisdictions."

On the other side are lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act, who say that Congress was wrong in 2006 to extend the provision for 25 more years. They argue that "things have changed in the South" and that the mostly Southern states covered by Section 5 should no longer be subject to a law that exacts a "heavy, unprecedented federalism cost" absent a widespread and persisting pattern of constitutional violations.

Both sides meet Wednesday, when the Supreme Court takes up the issue.

Last December, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made a speech in which he vigorously defended Section 5, calling it an "indispensable tool for eradicating racial discrimination." He noted that Congress reauthorized it in 2006, and that it has been upheld eight times from 1965 to 2012.

But Holder said that over the past two years there had been at least 10 lawsuits -- more than in the first four decades of the statute's existence -- arguing that it is no longer constitutional.

He said, "The reality is that, even today, too many citizens have reason to fear that their right to vote, their access to the ballot and their ability to have their votes counted is under threat."

The jurisdictions covered under the law include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as portions of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

All sides agree on the importance of the Voting Rights Act that was passed after "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, when protesters urging voting rights protection were beaten while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The question before the court is whether Congress assembled an appropriate record in reauthorizing Section 5 for 25 more years.

The case will be decided by July.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Supreme Court Appears Divided on Major DNA Case

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- It’s not very often a Supreme Court justice says something like this at arguments: “I think this is perhaps the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades.”

But that was Justice Samuel Alito Tuesday, talking about Maryland v. King, a case concerning a Maryland law that allows officials -- without a warrant -- to take the DNA of someone who has been arrested but not convicted of a serious crime. The federal government and 28 other states have similar laws.

Alonzo Jay King Jr. is challenging the law. In 2009 he was arrested for assault. But when -- pursuant to the Maryland DNA Collection Act -- officials took his DNA, they were able to eventually produce a match with a previously unsolved rape case from 2003. King argued that the DNA draw violated his constitutional rights, but he lost and was sentenced to life in prison for the 2003 case. In April, an appeals court ruled in favor of King. The court said that King’s rights to be free from unreasonable warrantless searches had been violated.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the State of Maryland and the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to rule in favor of so-called Arrestee DNA laws.

During extremely animated arguments the justices seemed divided on some key issues.

Alito teed up a central question: "So this is what is at stake: Lots of murders, lots of rapes that can be solved using this new technology that involves a very minimal intrusion on personal privacy. But why isn’t this the fingerprinting of the 21st century?”

Kannon K. Shanmugam, King’s lawyer, argued emphatically that the taking of DNA is distinguishable from the taking of fingerprints because DNA contains far more information, the search is physically intrusive, and law enforcement’s primary purpose to take the DNA is not for identification purposes.

On the question of the law’s purpose, Shanmugam stressed the fact that the government was using the DNA to solve cold cases. He said the intrusive swab of his client’s cheek constituted a search.

“Maryland searched my client without a warrant in order to investigate crimes for which there is no suspicion,” Shanmugam argued. “It is settled law that warrantless, suspicionless searches are presumptively unconstitutional.”

Justice Elena Kagan posed critical questions regarding the law. She asked Katherine Winfree, the chief deputy attorney general of Maryland, that if the purpose of the law is not so much for identification, but to solve cold cases, “then it’s just like searching your house, to see what’s in your house that could help solve cold cases.” A search of the home – unless there is an emergency – requires a warrant.

“Just because you’ve been arrested, doesn’t mean that you lose the privacy expectations and things you have that aren’t related to the offense that you’ve been arrested for, ” Kagan said.

Winfree responded that there was a “very real distinction” between the police "generally rummaging in your home” and “swabbing the inside of an arrestee’s cheek to determine his DNA profile.” She said that the DNA numbers revealed “tell us nothing about that individual.”

The United States government favors the law, and argues that arrestees lose some of their privacy by virtue of the fact they’ve been arrested: “Arrestees are in a unique category, they are on the gateway into the criminal justice system. They are no longer like free citizens who are wandering around on the streets retaining full impact Fourth Amendment rights.” Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben noted that when someone is taken into jail he is subject to a visual strip search. If he’s admitted into the prison population, he is subject to a TB test and a thorough medical screening.

Dreeben also said that the government’s analysis of the DNA is restricted and that it is not like going into a house and exposing “a substantial number of highly private things." He said it is much more like taking a fingerprint.

The fingerprint comparison brought up another concern of the justices. A fingerprint analysis is almost immediate while DNA can take days or sometimes weeks to analyze depending upon the available technology and backlog. How can something that can take days to acquire have a primary purpose for identification?

Dreeban said that soon this distinction won’t matter: “The future is very close to where there will be 'rapid DNA analyzers' that are devices that can analyze and produce the identification material in the DNA within 90 minutes.”

Winfree followed up on the point. She said that “rapid DNA” is developing so quickly that the FBI estimates that within about two years it will be more of a reality.

“This is the fingerprinting of the 21st century, but it’s better,” she said, echoing Justice Alito.

But Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia noted that if, at the end of the day, the case revolves around the primary purpose of the law, and if that is for identification purposes, then today, DNA is not readily available for that purpose.

"How can I base a decision today on what you tell me is going to happen in two years? You say in two years we will have this 'rapid DNA' available, but we don’t now. Don’t I have to base a decision on what we have today?”

And Scalia said: “If we believe that the purpose of it has much to do with whether it’s legitimate or not, you can’t demonstrate that the purpose is immediate identification of the people coming into custody.”

“The purpose now,” he continued, is “to catch the bad guys, which is a good thing. But you know, the Fourth Amendment sometimes stands in the way.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Supreme Court Rejects Secret Surveillance Challenge

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a group of lawyers, journalists and human rights researchers do not have the legal right to challenge the constitutionality of a federal law that expands the government’s authority to conduct secret electronic surveillance of international calls and communications.

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court said opponents of the law who brought the suit “cannot demonstrate that the future injury they purportedly fear is certainly impending and because they cannot manufacture standing by incurring costs in anticipation for non-imminent harm.”

Jameel Jaffer, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer representing the groups, had argued that the law violates the privacy and free speech rights of his clients, who are in contact with potential targets of government surveillance.

But the Court agreed with the government and found that the groups couldn’t challenge the law because they had not demonstrated that they would be harmed by it.  

In court, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said that the secret program targets only those people “reasonably believed” to be overseas and it is not meant to intentionally target a person in the United States.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in dissent for himself and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Ginsburg, said that the issue of “standing”  depends upon the likelihood that the government, under the law, will harm the groups by intercepting at least some of their private, telephonic or email conversation.

“In my view," Breyer wrote, “this harm is not ‘speculative.’  While I express no view on the merits of the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, I do believe that at least some of the plaintiffs have standing to make those claims.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Arrestee DNA and Rape: One Prosecutor's Story Arrives at Supreme Court

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- When the Supreme Court hears a case challenging a Maryland DNA law this week, one former prosecutor will be remembering the dormant rape case she says was solved because of the law.

At issue before the court is the Maryland DNA Collection Act, a law that allows officials to take the DNA from those who have been arrested, but not convicted of a serious crime.

Elizabeth Ireland, the former prosecutor from Wicomico County, Maryland, knows the Supreme Court arguments will revolve around the legal standard the Justices should apply in analyzing the law. But she says she will be thinking back to 2009 when she was notified that there was a "DNA hit" on a rape case that had been unsolved for six years.

"I went to visit the victim to tell her they had finally matched the DNA retrieved after she had been raped, with a man who had recently been arrested," Ireland said in an interview.

The victim, who told Ireland she had nailed shut her windows in the years following the crime, was relieved that authorities had a name—Alonzo Jay King Jr. The victim had never seen the attacker because he had a scarf over his face and a hat pulled over his head. After he raped her she went to the hospital and underwent a sexual assault forensic exam and semen was collected. The sample was loaded into a DNA data base, but no matches were returned—until 2009.

"I remember the victim telling me in 2009, 'Thank God, I can stop wondering," Ireland said. At the time Ireland was told by a scientist that the DNA evidence was strong. "Here's how he put it: it was 3.9 quadrillion times more likely that the DNA had originated from the victim and Mr. King than from the victim and some unknown male," Ireland says.

King's lawyers moved to suppress the evidence of the DNA match, saying that the initial draw violated his constitutional rights. But the lower court later found King guilty of first-degree rape and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Last April, Ireland was stunned when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against a key provision of the law. "We saw a carefully crafted collection statute," she said, "that closely matches similar laws in 27 other states."

But opponents of the law say it allows officials to run roughshod over the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, points out that before King was ever linked to the 2003 rape he was in jail for assault. The prosecutors could have waited for a conviction in the assault case, which carries a penalty of up to ten years, before taking his DNA.

"What we want in our DNA databases is DNA from people who have actually been involved in criminal conduct," says Risher, "and the way we do that is to take it from those people who have been convicted. What arrestee testing does is to take DNA from people—many who haven't done anything wrong."

"It's a violation of privacy, a huge waste of resources and it doesn't do anything to make us any safer," he says.

Steven D. Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), also opposes the law.

"This case is an excellent example of the need to balance competing interests," he says. "The nature of law enforcement is that they seek every tool possible to more effectively solve and prevent crime. It's the responsibility of the courts to draw a constitutional line to ensure that our most fundamental rights as American people are protected."

Benjamin says, "The Fourth Amendment requires both probable cause to believe that a search will yield evidence of a crime and a warrant. The collection of DNA from someone who has merely been arrested violates the Fourth Amendment because there is no reason to believe that the DNA they collect is evidence of a crime."

In court briefs, lawyers for the NACDL told the Supreme Court that those who have been arrested for a crime have broader rights than those who have been convicted. They say that Maryland is attempting to "shoehorn" a DNA search of an arrestee into the "exceptionally limited categories of warrantless, suspicionless searches" that the court has approved.

Ireland, who now works for a rape crisis center, has heard these arguments before. She is focused on the victim in her case. "I am experiencing the victim's anguish in my case. There are literally thousands of other victims that might be in her shoes depending on the outcome of this case," she said.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice have filed a brief supporting the law. The government argues that the DNA collection advances an important government interest that outweighs an arrestee's privacy rights.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Supreme Court to Hear Major DNA Case

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court will revisit the crossroad of privacy and evolving science later this month when it considers whether officials can take the DNA -- without a warrant -- of someone who has been arrested but not convicted of a crime.

While all states require DNA from individuals convicted of a felony, the federal government and 28 states also require DNA collection and analysis from at least some arrestees.

Alonzo Jay King Jr., claims his constitutional rights were violated when he was arrested in 2009 for assault.  At the time of his arrest, pursuant to Maryland's DNA Collection Act, officials swabbed his cheek and collected his DNA without a warrant.

His 2009 sample was later matched in a state database to DNA from a 2003 rape case.  It was a cold case involving a 53-year-old female victim identified as "Vonette W." in Maryland.  Based on the new evidence, King was eventually charged with the 2003 rape and robbery. He is currently serving a life sentence.

Lawyers for King appealed the decision arguing that taking the warrantless DNA from someone who has been arrested but not convicted of a serious crime violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure. The Court of Appeals of Maryland ruled in King's favor.

The court rejected an analogy that taking the DNA was no more invasive than taking a fingerprint.

"Although the Maryland DNA Collection Act restricts the DNA profile to identifying information only, we can not turn a blind eye to the vast genetic treasure map that remains in the DNA sample retained by the State," the court's majority said.

Maryland's Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is asking the Supreme Court to step in and reverse the lower court decision.

In court papers filed with the Supreme Court, the two sides address the balance between an individual's privacy and the needs of law enforcement.

King's lawyers say that even though their client has diminished privacy as someone who had been arrested for a serious crime, the government has no right to forgo ordinary rules requiring a warrant and probable cause before forcing him to submit to a search for investigative purposes involving a physical intrusion into the body.

"The collection of an individual's DNA raises profound privacy concerns," writes King's lawyer, Kannon K. Shanmugam.  "Our DNA is our blueprint: an individual's DNA contains not only deeply personal information about the subject's medical history and genetic conditions, but also information that can be used to make predictions about a host of physical and behavioral characteristics, ranging from a subject's age, ethnicity, and intelligence to the subject's propensity for violence and addiction."

Shanmugam cautions the court about the impact of new technologies and individual privacy and says the court needs to draw the line at allowing officials to conduct warrantless DNA tests before arrestees have even been convicted of a crime.

But Gansler defends the law.  He references the cold case that was solved because of the law.

"He [King] did not leave behind his photograph, his fingerprints or his name, but he did leave his identity nonetheless, in the form of a string of numbers engraved upon every cell," he says.

Gansler says the collection of DNA is subject to strict regulations and that the state must destroy a DNA sample and expunge all related DNA records if no conviction arises from the related charges or the conviction is reversed.

The federal government agrees and has filed a brief on behalf of Maryland arguing that the "touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness" and that the law properly balances a person's privacy interest against a legitimate government interest.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Feb. 26.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Gay Rights Activists Look to Roe v. Wade Abortion Strategy 40 Years Later

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Demonstrators will take to the streets this week to protest Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion 40 years ago on Tuesday.

The "March for Life" comes two months before another group of advocates -- gay-rights activists -- will head to the Supreme Court to hear a case that could produce their own landmark decision.

Gay-marriage supporters have disagreed at times about a strategy to achieve gay-rights equality, with some of them looking for lessons in Roe v. Wade.

Roe was a landmark decision for its supporters.  They say that abortion is now safer and occurs earlier in pregnancy than ever before.  But some supporters of a woman's right to choose have criticized the decision, arguing in part that the court ruled more broadly than it needed to.

When Roe v. Wade came down, abortion was illegal in 30 states, but some states were pushing toward liberalizing abortion laws.  Roe called into question the criminal abortion statutes of every state, even those with less restrictive provisions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before she was nominated to the Supreme Court, wrote an essay in 1984 for the University of North Carolina School of Law arguing in part that Roe would have been "more acceptable as a judicial decision" if the court had focused on the extreme Texas statue that was before it instead of issuing such a sweeping decision.

"The political process was moving in the early 1970s," Ginsburg wrote, "not swiftly enough for advocates for quick, complete change, but majoritarian institutions were listening and acting.  Heavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict."

It is something that has not been lost on gay-rights advocates.

In his book, From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage, historian and legal expert Michael Klarman talks about the backlash Roe created.

"When the court intervenes to defend a minority position or even to resolve an issue that divides the country down the middle, its decisions can generate political backlash, especially when the losers are intensely committed, politically organized and geographically concentrated," Klarman writes.

He writes, "Roe v. Wade generated a politically potent right-to-life movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980 and has significantly influenced national politics ever since."

Major gay-rights organizations plotted their own gay-marriage strategy years ago, hoping to move first at the state level to advance their cause to avoid a damaging federal court decision that might slow momentum or slam shut courthouse doors.

"It's no secret that increased political support for marriage equality at the local, state and national levels is obviously very helpful toward our ultimate goal of winning marriage equality across the country, whether it's through the Supreme Court or otherwise," Janson Wu, a staff attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said.

Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage, and gay-rights advocates believe several other states will soon follow suit.

With that momentum behind them, they will head to the Supreme Court in March for a case regarding California's ban on same-sex marriage.  The case asks a very broad question: Do same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution?  But there are a number of ways the court could rule in favor of gay rights, without reaching that big question.

Gay advocates want a win.  But some would be satisfied with a narrow victory that would continue the momentum and allow them to work on the state level to get more states on board, before perhaps returning to the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


How Much Is a Pet Worth? Texas Supreme Court to Rule

Courtesy Medlen Family(AUSTIN, Texas) -- A case that may reflect a pet owner's worst nightmare has made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, which must decide if a family can place sentimental value on a pet that was accidentally euthanized.

Approximately three years ago, Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen's family dog, Avery, escaped from their yard during a thunderstorm.

Days later, the Medlens were happy to hear Fort Worth Animal Control had found their beloved pet and they could come by to pick him up.

"When Jeremy and his two small children went to go pick up Avery, they were told they accidentally killed him the day before," said Medlen's attorney, Randy Turner.

Fort Worth Animal Control had labeled Avery's cage "hold for owner," meaning don't euthanize, Turner said.  But a worker at the facility apparently euthanized Avery anyway.

"She went through and picked the dogs that needed to be euthanized and accidentally picked Avery," said Turner.

It was then that the family decided to hire Turner, who took the case free of charge, to sue the worker, Carla Strickland, for negligence and accidentally euthanizing Avery.

The Medlens, Turner said, "wanted to know if there's anything they could [do to] stop this from happening to anyone else."

In 1963, Texas adopted a "sentimental value rule," which provided that if property is wrongfully destroyed and that property had no market value, then the parties involved could sue.

"Problem is, they never applied sentimental value to dogs," said Turner.  "You can sue and recover the sentimental value of a photograph, but not the dog itself."

Originally, the case was dismissed after a judge ruled the Medlens could not recover damages for companionship with their dog.  However, an appeals court ruled in favor of the Medlens and the case went to the Texas Supreme Court.

Carla Strickland's attorney, John Cayce, said his client feels terrible about the situation.

"Ms. Strickland, from day one, has been devastated by the unfortunate accident that occurred that led to Avery's death," Cayce said.

However, he added, assigning sentimental value to pets would have broad implications.

"This case really goes beyond the dispute between Strickland and the Medlens," said Cayce.  "It would have an adverse impact on just the average citizen in the state that might accidentally run over a dog on the way to work.  With that kind of liability, the insurance rates would go up."

Furthermore, Cayce said, "They have proved that the emotional sentimental value of a pet could be as high as the national debt."

Turner said that the Medlens are not looking for money, but rather, "We're simply asking the court to recognize the value society places on animals, now."

The court will rule on the case sometime in the next nine months, according to both attorneys.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Supreme Court to Hear Case on Warrantless DUI Blood Tests

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court will hear a case on Wednesday about a Missouri man who says his constitutional rights were violated when he was pulled over after drinking beer at a bar called Slinger's and forced to take a blood test without a warrant.

The man, Tyler G. McNeely, was stopped in October 2010 by Cpl. Mark Winder of the Missouri State Highway Patrol for speeding. Winder immediately noticed signs of intoxication including bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and a strong odor of alcohol.

McNeely admitted that he had consumed beer, but he would not consent to an alcohol breath test or a blood test after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Winder, without getting a warrant, decided to take McNeely to the hospital for a blood test to secure evidence of intoxication.

That nonconsensual blood test -- considered a "search" in legalese -- is at issue in front of the Supreme Court, which is expected to clarify when and under what circumstances a warrantless search can occur in such cases.

In court papers, lawyers for Missouri say that Winder didn't attempt to obtain a search warrant prior to the blood test in part because, "Obtaining a search warrant in the middle of the night in Cape Girardeau County involves a delay, on average, of approximately two hours."

Winder was concerned about the rate of elimination of alcohol in the bloodstream, which diminishes over time.

It turns out McNeely's blood alcohol level was 0.154 percent, well above the legal limit of 0.08 percent.  In court, McNeely moved to suppress the evidence against him, saying his constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated.

A trial court ruled in favor of McNeely, finding that while there are exceptions to obtaining a warrant in such circumstances, including endangerment of life, and the destruction of evidence, McNeely's case fell outside of those exceptions.  The court said that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream alone was not a sufficient factor to justify a warrantless blood draw in a routine stop.

The case eventually landed at the Missouri Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court's judgment.

Now, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal to the Missouri ruling.  At issue is a 1966 Supreme Court case, Schmerber v. California.  In that case -- involving an alcohol related arrest -- the Court provided some exceptions to the warrant requirement for the taking of a blood sample.

The holding was limited to certain "special facts" that might have led the officer in that case to believe he was faced with an emergency situation in which the delay in obtaining a warrant could be interpreted as the destruction of evidence.  Lower courts have interpreted Schmerber differently.

Attorneys for Cape Girardeau County, Mo., argue in court papers that "allowing a police officer to obtain a warrantless blood test from a drunk driver strikes a favorable balance between legitimate law enforcement interests and the privacy interests of the individual."

They say: "Although the dissipation rate will vary from person to person, one simple fact cannot be refuted -- during a drunk driving investigation the best and most probative evidence of the crime is being lost at a significant rate."

They say motorists have a diminished expectation of privacy, the officer had probable cause to arrest McNeely, and the "search" was conducted in a reasonable manner.

Thirty-two states have filed a brief supporting Missouri and urging the Supreme Court to adopt a rule allowing warrantless blood draws in every drunk-driving investigation.

"The States' interest in fairly and accurately determining guilt or innocence for this serious crime outweighs an individuals' interest in avoiding the slight intrusion involved in halting that evidence destruction by obtaining a blood sample," they write in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing McNeely in the case and it argues that the Supreme Court should not adopt a general rule without consideration for specific circumstances in every case.

"The issue in this case is whether the police can compel a warrantless blood test in every DWI case," writes Steven R. Shapiro of the ACLU in court papers.

Shapiro notes that different states have different procedures for obtaining search warrants and that it has become common for some states to permit telephonic warrant applications.

He argues that whether a warrantless blood test is unreasonable should be determined based on the totality of the circumstances that include: whether there was anything that delayed the officers at the arrest scene, whether there was more than one officer at the scene, how far police have to travel to a hospital, and how long it typically takes to obtain a warrant in that jurisdiction.

Shapiro writes that Missouri "overstates the need for warrantless blood tests, and understates the affront to personal privacy and dignity when the States override an individual's objection and sticks a needle in his arm."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Supreme Court Returns with Gay Marriage, Voting Rights and More in View

iStockphoto/ThinkstockUPDATE: The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear the Prop 8 case: Hollingsworth v. Perry on March 26 and the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor on March 27.

(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court is poised to take the bench on Monday and begin the second half of a term laced with hot button issues such as affirmative action, gay marriage, voting rights and government secrecy.

The justices will hear two potentially blockbuster cases in March concerning gay marriage.  One of the cases -- Hollingsworth v. Perry -- addresses whether there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.  The other -- Windsor v. United States -- deals with the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

In both cases, the court will hear arguments on potential procedural obstacles that could stop it from getting to the core constitutional questions.

The court will also hear a case challenging a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.  Section 5 of the law says that certain states with a history of voter discrimination must clear any changes to their election laws with federal officials in Washington.  

Lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., are challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.  The case, called Shelby County v. Holder, will be argued on Feb. 27.

The day before, the court will hear arguments in Maryland v. King, a case about whether Maryland officials can collect DNA from someone who has been arrested but not convicted of a crime.

The justices are already working behind the scenes writing and reviewing draft opinions for cases they heard this fall.

Fisher v. University of Texas is a case that could further limit the use of race-conscious admissions policies at public universities. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who sued the University in 2008, claiming she had been denied admission based on her race.  Justice Elena Kagan is recused from this case, presumably because she dealt with it in her previous job as solicitor general.

The justices are also considering a case closely watched by human rights groups and big business that addresses whether corporations can be held liable for alleged violations of international law under a federal law called the Alien Tort Statute.  At oral arguments, a skeptical Justice Samuel Alito questioned why the case was in the U.S. courts in the first place.

“Why does this case belong in the courts of the United States when it has nothing to do with the United States other than the fact that a subsidiary of the defendant has a big operation here?” he asked.

Several human rights groups want to challenge the constitutionality of a 2008 federal statute that expanded the authority of federal officials to conduct secret electronic surveillance of foreign citizens who are in other countries.  The Court is also reviewing a case that considers whether the sniff of a police dog on the front porch of a person’s home constitutes a search and requires a warrant.

Off the bench, all eyes will be on Chief Justice John Roberts when he administers the oath of office to President Obama.  The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced last week that the president will be officially sworn in on Jan. 20, which falls on a Sunday, and then again on Monday, Jan. 21, for a ceremonial swearing in.

Roberts slightly flubbed the oath in 2009 and had to re-administer it at the White House.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will swear in Vice President Joe Biden.  She becomes the first Hispanic to administer an inaugural oath.  In a statement, the vice president said that “one of the greatest pleasures of my career” was to be involved in Sotomayor’s selection to the court.

“From the first time I met her, I was impressed by Justice Sotomayor’s commitment to justice and opportunity for all Americans, and she continues to exemplify those values today,” he said.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


US Supreme Court to Hear Same-Sex Marriage Cases

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court Friday decided to take up two major cases regarding gay marriage, one of which could ultimately lead the court to decide whether there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.

The justices announced that the court would hear a challenge to Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative that passed in 2008 that restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples, as well as a challenge to a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Check Out Same-Sex Marriage Status in the U.S. State By State

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down "Prop 8" in February, ruling that it "serves no purpose , and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California and to officially reclassify their relationship and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples."

It was a narrow ruling, specific to California and its history with Prop 8. The court did not reach the broader question of whether there was a fundamental right to gay marriage.

Supporters of Prop 8 are asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of that ruling. Gay marriages have been put on hold in California until the Supreme Court decides the issue. The cases will likely be argued in March.

Opponents of Prop 8 are represented by David Boies and Theodore Olson, two lawyers who argued on opposite sides in the historic Bush v. Gore case that resulted in Bush's election as president.

They contend in court briefs that the question about whether the states might discriminate against gay men and lesbians in the provision of marriage licenses could be the "defining civil rights issue of our time."

The court will also hear a challenge to a key section of a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. At issue in this case is not whether there is a fundamental right to gay marriage, because the same-sex couples are legally married in states that allow gay marriage, but that the gay couples alone are denied federal benefits such as the Social Security survivor assistance.

Recent ABC News-Washington Post polls say that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, which is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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