Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Supreme Court Starts Term with First Amendment Cases

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 :: Staff infoZine

By Laura Misjak - The Supreme Court is back in session Monday with a docket of cases involving the First Amendment, criminal cases and business litigation.

Washington, D.C. - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - New Justice Sonia Sotomayor's actions will be examined to analyze her thought process in deciding cases. Most Supreme Court analysts said they can't predict her decisions but assume she will be a more active questioner than her predecessor, Justice David Souter.

The court has already heard one case, on Sept. 9, a re-argument of Citizens United v. FEC. The case examines whether corporate financing of a film attacking Hillary Clinton during election season violated federal campaign finance laws.

The court usually hears about 80 cases each year. So far, it has selected 50. The court most likely won't begin issuing decisions until early next year. Here is a preview of some of this session's most-watched cases:

First Amendment

United States v. Stevens. Argument: Oct. 6.

This case challenges whether a federal law that prohibits the sale or ownership of animal cruelty materials violates the First Amendment's free speech clause.

Robert Stevens, 68, appealed his 2005 conviction for selling videos depicting animal cruelty. A federal appeals court sided with him.

Stevens argues that his films have societal merit - they teach the history and nature of pit bulls. But one video has a 3-minute clip of dogs fighting, which Stevens says shows the "difference between dog fighting and catching stock," wild boars in this instance.

"This case is really going to be a question of low value versus high value," said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

The National Rifle Association and the Professional Outdoor Media Association, among others, have filed briefs in favor of Stevens, fearing that hunting materials could be outlawed. Five animal-rights groups filed briefs opposing Stevens' argument.

Buono v. Salazar, Secretary of the Interior. Argument: Oct. 7.

The "Cross in the Desert" case originated in the Mojave National Preserve, where a cross was erected in 1934 to honor World War I veterans.

Frank Buono, a National Park Service employee and a Roman Catholic, brought the case after park officials refused to allow a Buddhist statue on federal land.

He argued that allowing one religious symbol over another on federally owned land violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.

The district and appellate courts found in Buono's favor, and the government appealed.

During this process, Congress gave the cross national memorial status and traded an acre of land beneath the cross to a VFW chapter for some private land.

Paul M. Smith, a partner at Jenner & Block, said the court will look at two issues - whether Buono has standing to challenge the government because he is Catholic, and whether the land transfer has merit.


Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. Argument: Nov. 9.

Terrance Graham and Joe Sullivan were both sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for separate offences they committed as minors.

Graham pleaded guilty at age 16 to armed burglary and attempted armed robbery of a restaurant. Due to a probation violation, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty.

Sullivan was convicted in 1989 at age 13 of sexual battery involving a 72-year-old woman.

These cases come after the 2005 Ropert v. Florida ruling in which the court ruled 5-4 that sentencing minors to the death penalty violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Graham and Sullivan argue that sentencing juveniles to life without parole also violates the Eighth Amendment because it eradicates hope.

Fourteen friend-of-the-court briefs side with Graham and Sullivan; six support the state.

Pottawattamie County, Iowa v. McGhee. Argument: Nov. 4.

Retired police officer John Schweer was shot and killed July 21, 1977, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Two Pottawattamie County prosecutors were found to have planted evidence and withheld exculpatory evidence during the criminal trial. Suspects Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee were convicted in 1978 and released 20 years later, after that discovery. The are seeking civil damages from the county and the prosecutors, who argue they are immune to a civil suit because they were acting on behalf of the government.

"In this case, the prosecutors were acting very, very, very badly," said Lisa Kung, of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "The question is how much immunity do we give a prosecutor?"

The ruling could give blanket immunity to anything a prosecutor does if the court sides with the prosecutors.


American Needle v. National Football League. Argument: Not yet scheduled

Illinois-based business American Needle sued the NFL and Reebok International Ltd., claiming their partnership violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.

All 32 NFL teams agreed in the 2000-01 season to market their logos solely through Reebok. American Needle, another sportswear business, argues that each NFL team is a separate business and, according to the Sherman Act, they cannot enter into "contract, combination ... or conspiracy" with each other.

"The reasoning of any opinion could apply to any joint venture," said Deanne Maynard, a partner at Morrison & Foerster. "This could have implications to many business cases."

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