Even though SCOTUS has been unusually sluggish this term, they gave us five opinions concerning six cases this week. Let’s dive in.
The respondents in this case challenged a district-wide policy of the U.S. Marshals shackling defendants in nonjury proceedings. The case went before the Ninth Circuit, which ruled this policy unconstitutional. However, the shackling policy only had a direct effect on respondents’ criminal cases. Because those criminal cases ended before this case reached SCOTUS, SCOTUS here rules the case moot. Roberts writes: “A case that becomes moot at any point during the proceedings is … outside the jurisdiction of the federal courts.”
Respondents had also attempted to litigate the matter as a class. This, too, led to the mootness SCOTUS here declares. The respondents were defendants in criminal cases, but class action filing is a civil matter. There are no laws that allow criminal defendants to ban together as a class. The Ninth Circuit had allowed this form of class action to stand, but SCOTUS reverses that holding because courts cannot create de facto class actions at will.
Roberts addresses the precedent the respondents relied upon in this case. Though their cases had finished, hypothetically, a class action is allowed to proceed even if a named defendant’s claim is rendered moot before the class is certified. The rationale for this rule is that an individual may no longer have a claim, but the class certification based upon their claim still impacts other real and potential class members. Respondents tried to go farther and argue that they would offend again, which would lead to the shackling practice occurring again. SCOTUS does not think this argument is enough to nullify mootness, either, though. Courts cannot litigate on the basis of what someone might do in the future. Defendants are fully capable of abstaining from breaking the law in the future.
For all these reasons, SCOTUS unanimously holds that this case is moot, but all is not lost for the respondents. To cap it off, Roberts mentions that respondents in this case do have other avenues, including a civil suit, to address the shackling issue as a class.
This case concerned warrantless searches of vehicles. Specifically, rental cars driven by someone other than the signer of a rental agreement. Petitioner Byrd drove a rental car – but, crucially, was not the renter on the agreement. He locked several personal items in the car’s trunk – including dozens of bricks of heroin. Police performed a routine traffic stop, and asked to search the car. Once they found out Byrd was not on the rental agreement, they conducted the search without his consent due to probable cause. The police may not have had probable cause to conduct that search, though.
The lower courts ruled against Byrd’s motion to suppress the evidence the police found. The District Court and the Third Circuit both concluded that Byrd lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. But SCOTUS makes clear that the issue is whether Byrd had lawful possession of the rental car at the time of the search. Anyone with lawful possession would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. At argument, the Justices sparred with counsel from both sides over how to draw a line between an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights, and the rights of a rental car company. Many of the Justices pushed back against counsel for the US on their interpretation of the rental car contract.
On balance, the Justices seemed more united than usual in their analysis of judicial precedent – and common sense – as it pertains to property rights. The unanimous decision here, then, does not come as much of a surprise. Kennedy writes that even though a driver of a rental car may not be listed on the rental agreement, that individual is still entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy. Even though Byrd violated the terms of the rental agreement, this violation does not supersede his constitutional right to privacy.
“… someone in otherwise lawful possession and control of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it even if the rental agreement does not list him or her as an authorized driver.”
The Court’s decision hinges on the right to exclude. All parties acknowledge that Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement. This doesn’t change the fact that, as the sole occupant and driver of the car – an act not inherently unlawful, merely against the terms of the rental agreement – he had the same right to privacy as the named driver on the rental agreement would have had. This determination follows a similar precedent set in Jones v. US.
SCOTUS vacates and remands the lower courts. In addition, Thomas writes separately, joined by Gorsuch, to point out that the parties in this case did not demonstrate whether the rental car counted as Byrd’s property in the context of a search. Without knowing this first, the government doesn’t have much of a case. Alito also writes a separate concurrence, reminding the lower court to consider the reasons Byrd would have had for driving the car, and the standings of his Fourth Amendment claims.
In a 6-3 vote, the Court clarifies elements of the Sixth Amendment. McCoy was tried and later convicted of three murders. His counsel, English, never questioned McCoy’s guilt. Instead, English based his trial strategy on avoiding the death penalty by highlighting McCoy’s poor mental health. McCoy himself, however, wished to plea not guilty. He insisted that someone else had committed the murders.
Essentially, McCoy and English disagreed on what was most important in the case. SCOTUS granted certiorari to decide whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede guilt over a defendant’s wishes. In an opinion by Ginsburg, the Court holds that such action is unconstitutional. Ginsburg begins by pointing right to the phrase “assistance of counsel” in the Sixth Amendment. The idea of having “assistance” of counsel means exactly that. An attorney assists a client, but cannot make the most critical decisions for them. Our justice system preserves a defendant’s autonomy, which includes the right to admit guilt or maintain innocence.
English usurped control from McCoy by admitting guilt over McCoy’s objections. English did so because he assumed maintaining his client’s innocence would amount to perjury, and violate state ethics guidelines. SCOTUS disagrees with that point. English was not endorsing perjury, because McCoy truly believed he was innocent. And, “[w]ith individual liberty – and, in capital cases, life – at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense …”
The majority also addresses the Strickland test of ineffective counsel. That test does not apply here, though, because an attorney usurped a defendant’s autonomy, which does not fall under a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Alito, with Thomas and Gorsuch (Dissenting)
Ginsburg and the majority write that a defendant has the right to maintain their innocence, even if they have no chance of winning at trial. Alito takes a realist’s point of view. He begins by pointing out that English admitted his client’s guilt in order to achieve the best possible outcome. There was an overwhelming amount of evidence against McCoy, and it was virtually inevitable that the jury would find him guilty. In addition, English believed following through with McCoy’s strategy would cause a violation of state ethics rules for attorneys. This put English in a tight spot.
The facts of the case make it a rarity that could only repeat with a similarly irrational defendant in a capital case. By derailing a competent attorney’s strategy to achieve the best possible outcome for their client, the majority decision in this case creates ambiguity for defense attorneys going forward.
SCOTUS reverses and remands the Lousiana courts’ decision. McCoy will receive a new trial. Perhaps the reason Alito could not peel other members of the Court away from the majority is because of the wider possible ramifications of this decision. McCoy will receive a new trial, yet will likely not prevail. That isn’t the point, though. As with many SCOTUS opinions, the decision here may not make much difference for the parties to this case, but could potentially have great impact on similar cases in the future.
Petitioners moved to suppress evidence gained from a wiretap because the issuing judge lacked territorial jurisdiction. These wiretap orders authorized interception of communications at listening posts outside a judge’s territory in Kansas. The Dahdas claim this is facially insufficient by the terms of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.
One wiretap was successfully suppressed (and the evidence from it not used at trial), because both the tapped phone and the listening post were located outside of Kansas. The Dahdas tried to claim that other wiretaps should be suppressed as well, because of a sentence in the authorization that allowed interception of communications outside Kansas. The Tenth Circuit held that the other wiretaps were conducted properly, despite apparently ambiguous language in the wiretap orders.
SCOTUS affirms the Tenth, though not with the exact same reasoning. They begin by holding that the unsuppressed wiretap orders were not deficient or lacking in any meaningful way. They hold, in fact, that the sentence in the order that authorized interception outside Kansas is surplus. “Absent the challenged language, every wiretap that produced evidence introduced at the Dahdas’ trial was properly authorized under the statute.”
The reason the Crowd got this one wrong is not hard to see. In the unanimous opinion here, Breyer notes that the Justices disagree with the Tenth Circuit’s application of precedent. They arrive at affirmance of the Tenth by other means. Namely, they reject petitioners’ argument that any defect in an order is enough to render it insufficient. Without the sentence in question, the wiretap orders still properly authorize a listening post within Kansas to intercept communications.
(This case was consolidated with New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Inc. v. NCAA)
The main event this week. Sports gambling. How illegal is it?
The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) prohibits state authorization of sports gambling schemes. PASPA also makes it illegal for individuals to do the same. Importantly, PASPA does not make sports gambling itself a crime. Rather, PASPA “allows the Attorney General, as well as professional and amateur sports organizations, to bring civil actions to enjoin violations.”
New Jersey enacted a law that repealed other state-law provisions prohibiting sports gambling. The dispute in this case arose over whether this repeal is tantamount to “authorizing” sports gambling, thus triggering PASPA violation. SCOTUS holds, 7-2, that a repeal of a state ban on sports gambling is tantamount to authorizing that gambling. However, such a repeal does not violate PASPA, because PASPA unconstitutionally infringes the anti-commandeering principle. “Anti-commandeering” is the principle enshrined in the Tenth Amendment that the federal government cannot issue direct orders for States to enact legislation, nor prohibit States from enacting new laws.
Both the District Court and the Third Circuit held that PASPA did not violate the anti-commandeering principle. They could not clearly define what a constitutionally reasonable interpretation of PASPA would look like, though. SCOTUS reverses. Alito writes that the Justices favor the petitioners’ interpretation: namely, that repealing a law prohibiting gambling – as New Jersey did – is the same as authorizing. This interpretation of “authorize” makes it impossible to square PASPA’s language with the Tenth Amendment. As well, under the Supremacy Clause, PASPA can only pre-empt State law if it exercises power conferred on Congress by the Constitution. PASPA (and other legislation like it) can regulate individuals, but never States. Thus, PASPA does not conform with the two prongs of the Supremacy Clause, and so is unconstitutional on that ground as well. Respondents had petitioned SCOTUS to sever the section of PASPA concerning State enaction from the section concerning enaction for private individuals. SCOTUS declines to sever the two sections, however, in order to avoid logical inconsistencies.
Thomas writes a brief concurrence, mainly taking issue with SCOTUS’ severability precedents. Though he concurs with the invalidation of PASPA, he disputes the severability doctrine and its reliance on the hypothetical motivations of legislators over the text those legislators ultimately enact into law.
Breyer (Concurring in part, Dissenting in part)
Breyer sides with Ginsburg that the two sections of PASPA are severable. The invalidation of the first section (State regulation) does not render the second section (individual regulation) unworkable. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate the actions of individuals, just not the States.
Ginsburg, with Sotomayor and Breyer in part (Dissenting)
Ginsburg elaborates on the severability of the PASPA sections. In her view, PASPA still contains plenty of useful, intact legislation, despite the majority’s interpretation. Often, she writes, the Court merely invalidates portions of laws that are unconstitutional, and salvages the remains of the law, rather than throwing out the entire law. They could easily have done so here, as the Court has done multiple times in the past.
The Crowd only had one miss this week. And even in Dahda, as discussed above, SCOTUS did disagree with the lower courts’ reasoning. While SCOTUS ultimately drew the same conclusion, our astute observers in the Crowd can be forgiven for favoring a reversal.
Meanwhile, in the sports gambling case, the Crowd only missed with one Justice, Kagan. Little surprise here, too. Even though Kagan nearly always aligns with the Court’s liberal wing, she frequently flexes her perspective as a former SG, and as a Scalia-esque stickler for strict constitutional interpretation.
Next week, we’ll have a whole new crop of opinions. There’s a lot of time left to cast your predictions, and a whole lot of sharp writing to come from SCOTUS. Stay tuned.