Supreme Court Overview

 

WATER WAR

 Florida v. Georgia

Docket No. 220142, Remanded to Special Master on June 27, 2018

Original Jurisdiction

In 2013, Florida filed a complaint against Georgia alleging that its use of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin was inequitable. In 2014, the Supreme Court granted Florida permission to file a complaint and appointed a Special Master to investigate the case, based on Florida’s claims of widespread environmental, ecological, and economic harm caused by Georgia’s use of the ACF River Basin.  Florida and Georgia further disagreed regarding the Army Corps of Engineer’s rules regarding the Corps’ water storage reserves and the flow of water from said reserves.   On February 16, 2017, the Special Master submitted his final report, recommending that the Supreme Court deny Florida’s request for relief in that any relief which Florida would receive from Georgia would be insufficient given the high degree of control that the Army Corps of Engineers exercises over the ACF River Basin. Florida has submitted exceptions to the Special Master’s findings, arguing that the Supreme Court should decline to adopt said findings as the Special Master used a heightened standard for establishing redressability; improperly concluded that after establishing injury, Florida was still required to prove redressability; improperly stated that the Army Corps of Engineers' discretion in its operations precludes redressability; failed to address how Florida’s injuries would be redressed, regardless of how the Corps exercised discretion; and a number of other flaws in the Special Master’s analysis.  On June 27, 2018, the Court determined that the Special Master had applied too strict a standard in concluding that Florida failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the Court can eventually fashion an effective equitable decree, and remanded the case to the Special Master with instructions regarding the appropriate standards to apply. On December 11, 2019, the Special Master issued a Second Report, finding that Florida had failed to show injuries caused by Georgia’s use of water, Georgia’s use of the water was reasonable, and that apportionment of the waters would likely cause more harm than the current distribution.  Florida filed its exceptions to this report on April 13, 2020, detailing eleven separate issues that Florida took with the Special Master’s report.  Georgia filed a reply on June 26, 2020.  On February 22, 2021, oral argument was heard, and on April 1, 2021, Florida’s exceptions were overruled and the case was dismissed.

 

PROCEDURAL

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

No. 17-647, cert granted March 5, 2018

Appeal of 862 F.3d 310 (3rd Cir. 2017)

On December 20, 2012, The Township of Scott enacted a local ordinance related to the maintenance of cemeteries and burial places.  Knick, the Plaintiff in the case before the District Court, raised a number of claims against the Township related to alleged harm she suffered as a result of the ordinance.  The District Court dismissed Knick’s claims as she had failed to exhaust state remedies as a property owner prior to raising federal takings claims, a requirement first addressed in Williamson County Regional Planning v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985). On appeal the 9th Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling.  The questions presented to the Supreme Court are (1) “[w]hether the Supreme Court should reconsider the portion of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank that requires property owners to exhaust state court remedies to ripen federal takings claims;” and (2) “[w]hether Williamson County’s ripeness doctrine bars review of takings claims that assert that a law causes an unconstitutional taking on its face, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 10th Circuits hold, or whether facial claims are exempt from Williamson County, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 1st, 4th and 7th Circuits hold.” Oral argument was held on October 3, 2018, and judgment was issued on July 23, 2019.  In its opinion, the Supreme Court overruled the state-litigation requirement of Williamson County, permitting property owners to bring a takings claim under §1983 in federal court, and vacating the judgment of the Third District Court of Appeals.

 

AGE DISCRIMINATION EMPLOYMENT ACT (ADEA)

The American Legion v. American Humanist Association

No. 17-1717, cert granted Nov. 2, 2018

Appeal of 874 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. 2017)

In a memorial park honoring veterans located in Bladensburg, MD, is a 40 foot tall Christian cross, which was constructed in 1918.  In 1961, the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission acquired the cross and the land, which came with the caveat that the Commission would care for and maintain the cross.  Over the years it has allocated more than $217,000 to the maintenance and repair of the cross.  The American Humanist Association and a number of non-Christian individuals have taken offense to the expenditure of government funds on the maintenance and repair of the cross and brought suit alleging violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Using the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the District Court found that the Commission did not violate the Establishment Clause because the cross had a secular purpose, it did not advance or inhibit the practice of religion, and it does not have a primary effect of endorsing religion.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision and stated that the cross endorsed religion and created excessive entanglement between the government and religion.  The questions presented to the Supreme Court are as follows:

(1) is the display and maintenance of the cross unconstitutional?

(2) Under what test should the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism be assessed?

(3) Does the expenditure of funds to maintain the cross amount to the government’s excessive entanglement with religion?

Oral argument was heard on February 27, 2019 and the Court issued its opinion on June 20, 2019. In its opinion, the Court held that the Bladensburg cross is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. Specifically, the Court found that the cross, while admittedly a Christian symbol, had come to represent much more in a historical context and continued to commemorate the soldiers who gave their live both in World War I and in later conflicts.  In so finding, the Court noted that other monuments included religious symbols, but nevertheless failed to offend the Constitution, in that their purpose extended beyond religious bounds.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the findings of the Fourth District Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further consideration.

 

EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION

Bostock v. Clayton County

No. 17-1618, cert granted April 22, 2019

Appeal of 874 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. 2017)

Gary Bostock began his employment with Clayton County in 2003. In 2013, he began participating in a gay recreational softball league, and shortly thereafter began receiving criticism for his sexual orientation, and was terminated shortly thereafter for “conduct unbecoming a public officer.”  Following his termination, he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  In 2016, Bostock filed suit for discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII.  The Northern District of Georgia dismissed the case shortly thereafter, citing precedence that sexual orientation is not the basis for a Title VII suit of sex discrimination, a decision later affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Bostock persisted in pursuing this case and appealed to the Supreme Court with a single question “Does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits against employment discrimination “because of . . . sex” encompass discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation?” Oral argument was held on October 8, 2019, and the Court issued its opinion on June 15, 2020.  In a 6-3 majority opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was a violation of Title VII, noting that an employee was being treated differently on the basis of their biological sex, i.e. they would not terminate a woman for having romantic relationships with men.  This decision was criticized by Justice Alito, Justice Thomas, and Justice Kavanaugh, who all argued that the plain language of Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

 

MANDATORY DISCLOSURES

Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta

No. 19-251, cert granted April 22, 2019

Appeal of 874 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. 2017)

Rob Bonta, Attorney General for the State of California, had a policy requiring charities to disclose the names of their donors, purportedly to protect consumers.  The Attorney General requested a list of donors from Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Prosperity filed suit, alleging that the California Attorney General violated the First Amendment by requiring this kind of disclosure.  The Central District of California determined that the Attorney General had violated the First Amendment. Specifically, the Central District of California applied a strict scrutiny analysis to determine that the required submission of these lists was not the “least restrictive means” to achieve California’s goals.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that a “exacting scrutiny standard” was more appropriate requiring only that California show a compelling government interest and a narrowly tailored statute to meet that purpose.  On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court was asked the question “Does the policy of the California attorney general’s office requiring charities to disclose the names and addresses of their major donors violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?”  Oral argument was heard on April 26, 2021, and the Court issued its opinion on July 1, 2021.  In the Court’s opinion, the Supreme Court clarified that “exacting scrutiny” was the correct standard to apply, but that California failed to meet that burden, in that the disclosure requirement was not narrowly tailored in that it imposed a “unjustifiable burden on associational rights.”

 

Houston Community College System v. Wilson

No.20-804, cert granted April 26, 2021

Appeal of 955 F.3d 490 (5th Cir. 2020)

David Wilson was a trustee of the Houston Community College System (HCC) who disagreed with the majority of the HCC Board’s decisions regarding funding.  He publicly criticized the other members of the Board through automated calls, a website, and through local radio.  Additionally, he hired a private investigator to surveil the Board and another Board member at her residence.  The Board in turn censured Wilson for this behavior as a violation of their bylaws, including one requirement to respect the collective decision making process.  Wilson filed suit, alleging that the Board’s actions violated the First Amendment and that he suffered “mental anguish” due to the Board’s actions. The Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, relying on Phelan v. Laramie County Community College Board to support the contention that no First Amendment violation had occurred due to the censure as it did not interfere with Wilson’s ability to speak or perform his duties.  The Fifth Circuit reversed this decision, noting that Wilson had alleged a specific harm, “mental anguish”.  The question posed to the Supreme Court on appeal is “Does the First Amendment restrict the authority of an elected body to issue a censure resolution in response to a member’s speech?”  Oral argument has not yet been scheduled for this case.