Article: Precedent in Unprecedented Times

by Cadence Ciesielski. Originally published in the December 2020 edition of Live Ideas. Find it here.

Supreme Court precedent is an extensive collection of Supreme Court decisions that dictate how our laws are interpreted, how our justice system operates, and how our lives are lived. These decisions are passed down through our national Supreme Court and state Supreme Courts. This concept shapes our common law system. Our laws are constantly changing and evolving. One constant in our judicial system, however, is the doctrine of Stare Decisis. This translates to “let the decision stand.” Given that most justices follow this principle and adhere to previous decisions, this keeps our laws consistent, stable, and predictable. 2020, however, was anything but consistent, stable, and predictable. 

Under normal circumstances, the Supreme Court hears cases that they have selected between the months of October and April. The Court can release their decisions to the public and create precedent any time after they hear a case as long as they rule before the end of the judicial session. This means that a lot of decisions are typically handed down during June and July. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, however, operations halted. Eventually, the Supreme Court heard arguments via conference call starting in early May. Once they were able to resume operations, they also began releasing some decisions (US Courts 2020).  

This paper will explain Supreme Court precedent, examine ten Supreme Court rulings during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, and discuss the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. 

Let’s now consider the legal issues, court opinions, and common law impacts of ten Supreme Court decisions that set precedent in unprecedented times: 

In Kahler v. Kansas, decided on March 23, 2020, Kahler appealed his conviction and sentence as he argued that it is unconstitutional for a state to abolish the insanity defense according to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In this case, Kahler was convicted of capital murder but initially wanted to make an insanity defense. In the state of Kansas, there are limits as to what a jury can consider about an insanity defense. With these restrictions, Kahler was found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty. In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Kahler argued that a limited capacity for an insanity defense violates the rights of due process as established by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. In this case, the Supreme Court held that “Due process does not require Kansas to adopt an insanity test that turns on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong” (Kagan 2020a). Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed Kahler’s conviction and sentence, upholding the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision. While the Court’s decision denied Kahler’s appeal, it acknowledged that the insanity defense and the science of mental health with regards to culpability is ever-changing. This language could signal that the Court is open to new interpretations of an insanity defense under due process should the science support it. 

In Kansas v. Glover, decided on April 6, 2020, the Court evaluated whether it is reasonable to assume that the owner of a vehicle is the person driving it, withholding contrary evidence. In this case, an officer made an investigative traffic stop of Glover because the officer realized that the owner of the vehicle’s license had been revoked. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the stop was unconstitutional claiming that the officer had no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and thus, violated the Fourth Amendment. The State of Kansas then appealed arguing that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the registered owner was the person operating the vehicle. After hearing arguments, the US Supreme Court agreed with the State: “When the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle, an investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment” (Thomas 2020). This case set a precedent that will allow officers to make investigative traffic stops on any vehicle owned by someone with a revoked driver’s license as they can cite this as a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the Court noted that this ruling should be interpreted narrowly; an officer must have no contrary evidence that the driver is the vehicle owner in order to proceed with a traffic stop. 

In Ramos v. Louisiana, decided on April 20, 2020, the court ruled on non-unanimous jury verdicts under the Sixth Amendment. In traditional jurisprudence, or history of law on this issue, the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous ruling to convict someone, meaning that all jurors must agree that the defendant is guilty. In Louisiana, Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and found guilty by ten out of twelve jurors. With its non-unanimous jury verdict in place, Ramos was found guilty and sentenced by the court. Ramos then appealed claiming that the non-unanimous jury verdict law, on the books in Louisiana and Oregon, violates the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court ruled with Ramos in this case claiming that the Sixth Amendment requires “that a jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict” (Gorsuch 2020a). The Court also considered two other precedents on this issue, but ultimately rule in an 8-1 opinion that the non-unanimous jury verdict is unconstitutional. This precedent will require that Louisiana and Oregon strike the law and only convict defendants when there is a unanimous jury verdict.  

In an opinion decided on June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court historically ruled on Altitude Express, Inc. v. ZardaBostock v. Clayton County, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionEach of these cases concerned the employment discrimination of people based on sexual orientation and whether this discrimination is prohibited by Title XII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, Zarda claims that he was terminated because of his sexual orientation. In Bostock v. Clayton County, Bostock similarly claims that Clayton County terminated him for “conduct unbecoming of its employees” which stemmed from his sexual orientation. Finally, in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Aimee Stephens alleges that the funeral home terminated her shortly after she announced that she would be transitioning from male to female. In each of these cases, the Supreme Court ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII” (Gorsuch 2020b). This precedent will protect gay, transgender, and other LGBTQ+ employees from unlawful discrimination in the workplace. 

In Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of Californiadecided on June 18, 2020, the court ruled on the lawfulness of the Department of Homeland Security’s recension of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. DACA provides temporary protected status to individuals that immigrated to the US under the age of 16. DACA allowed recipients to work in the US, be given social security numbers, and pay taxes. In 2017, DHS began to phase out the DACA program. This was then contested as the Regents allege that DACA’s rescission violated the Administrative Procedure Act as it was “arbitrary and capricious” (Roberts 2020a). After the oral arguments, the Court ruled that the Regents were correct, and the Court overturned the rescission of DACA. However, in this opinion, Roberts conveyed that DHS can still rescind DACA; but for a lawful termination, they must follow a different procedure. The future of DACA will most likely be determined by the next presidential administration. 

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, decided on June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court examined a “no-aid” provision in Montana that prohibited the allocation of tuition assistance for students to a religious school. This case arose when the Montana Department of Revenue created a provision in a tax-credit scholarship program that prohibited scholarship recipients from using that scholarship at a religious school; in this case, it was the Stillwater Christian School. Espinoza and other parents filed a lawsuit challenging the provision as a violation of the Religion Clauses or the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. When this reached the Supreme Court, five justices agreed. The Court ruled that “the application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution” (Roberts 2020b). This precedent will permit the use of those scholarships at religious institutions in Montana and other states with similar programs. 

In Chiafalo v. Washingtondecided on July 6, 2020, the Court ruled on faithless electors, also known as presidential electors who choose not to support their party’s nominee or for whom they have pledged to vote. In the state of Washington, there is a law that requires electors to pledge to vote for their party nominee. If they do not vote for that party nominee, they face a $1,000 fine. In 2016, Chiafalo and other electors pledged to vote for the Clinton/Kaine campaign, but instead voted for Colin Powell. They were subsequently fined $1,000. The electors challenged the law claiming that it is a suppression of their First Amendment right. In their analysis of the issue, the Court unanimously found that “a State may enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President” (Kagan 2020b). This precedent will allow states to penalize faithless electors. 

In McGirt v. Oklahoma, decided on July 9, 2020, the Court ruled on the State’s jurisdiction on crimes committed on grounds belonging to Indigenous Peoples. McGirt, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was convicted of a crime that took place within the Nation’s boundaries. McGirt argued that he should not have been prosecuted by the State because the Indian Major Crimes Act dictates that crimes committed in Native American territory are subject to federal jurisdiction, meaning that he should have been prosecuted by the US government. The dispute here was whether the Creek Nation territory was “Indian country” per the Major Crimes Act. The Court found that “For MCA purposes, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country’” (Gorsuch 2020c). Under this precedent, members of the Muscogee Creek Nation in the Oklahoma Creek Nation territory will be subject to federal jurisdiction. 

Each of these ten cases set a unique precedent that will shape federal and state laws in the US. Even during unprecedented times, like the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is important for the US Supreme Court to hear cases, interpret the law, and make decisions about legal issues in our country. 

Just before the end of the 2019-2020 judicial term, the US saw the unfortunate passing of long-standing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg, as the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, was a strong advocate for women’s rights, combating gender discrimination, and upholding voting rights. Shortly after Ginsburg’s passing, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was nominated and confirmed to the US Supreme Court as the fifth woman to sit on the bench. Barrett’s nomination was highly contested by Senate Democrats as they advocated for a delay in the nomination until a new president had been elected. Despite this pressure, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 26, 2020, eight days before the 2020 Presidential Election. 

References 

Gorsuch, N. 2020a. “Ramos v. Louisiana.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-5924_n6io.pdf. 

———. 2020b. “Bostock v. Clayton County.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf. 

———. 2020c. “McGirt v. Oklahoma.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-9526_9okb.pdf. 

Kagan, E. 2020a. “Kahler v. Kansas.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-6135_j4ek.pdf. 

———. 2020b. “Chiafalo v. Washington.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19-465_i425.pdf. 

Liptak, Adam. 2020. “Virus Pushes a Staid Supreme Court Into Revolutionary Changes.” The New York Times, May 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/us/politics/supreme-court-coronavirus.html. 

Roberts, J. 2020a. “Dept. of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-587_5ifl.pdf. 

———. 2020b. “Espinoza v. Montant Dept. of Revenue.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-1195_g314.pdf. 

Sprunt, Barbara. 2020. “Amy Coney Barrett Confirmed To Supreme Court, Takes Constitutional Oath.” NPR.Org. October 26, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/26/927640619/senate-confirms-amy-coney-barrett-to-the-supreme-court. 

Thomas, C. 2020. “Kansas v. Glover.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-556_e1pf.pdf. 

US Courts. 2020. “Supreme Court Procedures.” United States Courts. 2020. https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1#:~:text=should%20be%20decided.-,Oral%20Arguments,the%20first%20Monday%20in%20October. 

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