Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Old (Sept 06): Preview of Supreme Court's 2006-07 Term

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006-2007 Term

By: Michael Anthony Lawrence (Professor, Michigan State University College of Law)

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s new composition now established with the addition last year of two new members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the upcoming 2006-07 Term will offer glimpses into how the Roberts Court will begin to position itself on a number of key issues.
In contrast to a year ago, when the Court heard oral arguments during the first week on one of the most important cases of the entire term, the constitutionality of Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act,” there are no similarly high-profile cases in the early weeks this year. Things begin to heat up toward the end of October and early November, though.
In Philip Morris USA v. Williams, to be argued on October 31, the Court will consider whether the sheer reprehensibility of a defendant’s action can support the award of punitive damages that would otherwise exceed constitutional standards under the due process clause. In this case, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld a jury’s punitive damages award of $79 million to the wife of a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer, reasoning that the punishment was justified by the “extreme and outrageous circumstances” of Philip Morris’s “massive, continuous, near half-century scheme to defraud the plaintiff and many others.”
Humble prediction: Look for the Court to strike down the punitive damage award in Philip Morris USA. In two other cases within the last ten years, the Court has struck down large punitive damages awards in state courts on grounds that the awards deprived the defendants of their property without due process of law, in effect because the defendants could not have been on notice that their behavior, however bad, would result in such high damages in a single case. In the most recent case, State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. v. Campbell in 2003, the Court struck down a $145 million punitive damage award against State Farm, even though according to the Court the company had repeatedly falsified and withheld evidence in claim files, systematically engaged in tactics such as “unjustly attacking the character, reputation and credibility of claimants,” and deliberately crafted policies “to prey upon … the weakest of the herd - the elderly, the poor, and other consumers who are least knowledgeable about their rights and thus most vulnerable to trickery or deceit….” (Like a good neighbor, indeed.)

In another couple important cases, the Court will hear arguments on November 8 in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood regarding the constitutionality of Congress’s Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The lower federal courts of appeals struck down the Act in both of these cases, holding that the statute, by failing to include an exception to preserve the health of the mother, violated the constitutional standards previously set out by the Court in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, and most recently, Stenberg v. Carhart in 2000.

Humble prediction: The Court will affirm the lower courts by a 5-4 vote and properly strike down the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. This is a very close call, though, and the case could easily swing the other way, depending on where Chief Justice Roberts comes down. The Court struck down a substantially similar state law by a 5-4 margin six years ago in Stenberg, so it would seem easy to predict a similar fate for this Act were it not for the uncertainty created with the addition of the two new Justices just last year. Assuming the seven remaining Justices hold their votes from Stenberg, Justice Alito very likely will replace the late Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissenting vote; and there is some reason to believe that Chief Justice Roberts, based on statements he made during his confirmation hearings, will replace Justice O’Connor’s majority vote. If he does not, however, and instead joins the Stenberg dissenters, these cases would represent a substantial step in the long-term conservative strategy, as laid out by Justice Alito in a mid-1980s memorandum, to attack Roe v. Wade with a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy rather than seeking an outright reversal.

Finally, later in November or early December the Court will hear arguments in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education whether a public school district in Louisville, Kentucky violates the Equal Protection Clause with its requirement that all schools within the district seek a black student enrollment of not less than 15% and no more than 50%.

This case is intriguing, because public schools in Louisville, like most public schools throughout the South, were historically virtually entirely segregated until the Court ordered in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that all public schools be desegregated.
Thereafter, the school district in Louisville was supervised for decades by a federal district court decree in its desegregation efforts. Fast-forward now to 2006, where, ironically, the district’s efforts to maintain desegregated schools are now themselves being challenged as violating equal protection.

Humble prediction. The Court will uphold the district’s plan in Meredith. The outcome will hinge upon whether the Court believes the means adopted by the district are sufficiently narrowly-tailored to meet a compelling government interest. Because the Court has recently held in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003 that diversity in the educational environment is a compelling government interest, and because the 15-50% target range is likely flexible enough not to constitute a forbidden “quota,” the Court likely will uphold the plan.