An interesting split and another loss for Sixth Circuit among today’s SCOTUS decisions

May 27

The Supreme Court released four decisions today, but not any of the blockbusters for which many are waiting.  If you’re one of those waiting for Hobby Lobby, BondUARG (the greenhouse gas case), or McCullen v. Coakley, this is not your day.  The rest of you can read on.

In Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, the question of the extent to which tribal sovereign immunity protects tribal activities off of Indian lands under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act divided the Court 5-4, but not along traditional ideological lines.  Justice Kagan wrote for the Court, siding with the tribe, joined by the Chief Justice, and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg and Alito.  Justices Scalia and Ginsburg also wrote separate dissents, and Justice Sotomayor wrote a separate concurring opinion.  The opinions are here.

For those keeping score, Bay Mills was one of two decisions coming out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today.  In Bay Mills, the Supreme Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit.  In Plumhoff v. Rickarda qualified immunity case in which the Sixth had sided against the police officers – the Sixth Circuit was reversed in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Alito.  As longtime readers know, the Sixth Circuit has been reversed quite frequently in recent years.  The lion’s share of the reversals have involved criminal procedure, and most often in cases in which the Court concluded the Sixth Circuit was too solicitous of criminal defendants or habeas petitioners.  Plumhoff would seem to fit that pattern.  The opinion is here.

In another qualified immunity opinion, the Court also ruled unanimously for the officers in Wood v. Moss.  In this case members of the U.S. Secret Service were sued for allegedly engaging in viewpoint discrimination when forcing anti-Bush protesters to move farther away from where the President was. Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

Saving the most controversial for last, the Court split 5-4 along more traditional ideological lines over a Florida law imposing a threshold on mental retardation claims by capital defendants in Hall v. Florida.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy, joined by the Court’s four liberal justices, held that Florida’s law unconstitutionally limits the ability of capital defendants to demonstrate that they are mentally impaired under Atkins v. Virginia.  According to Kennedy, Florida’s rule violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court’s four conservatives dissented.  The opinion is here.  [Note: While Hall was almost certainly the most controversial case decided today, it was not released last for this reason.  Opinions are announced in reverse order of the authoring justice's seniority.] [UPDATE: Sam Bagenstos notes that Justice Kennedy's opinion uses the phrase "intellectual disability" instead of "mental retardation," as is now preferred.  This is interesting because Court is usually slow to update its terminology.]

Finally, the Supreme Court also issued a per curiam decision today in Martinez v. Illinois.  This decision summarily reversed the Supreme Court of Illinois for refusing to recognize that Martinez had been subject to double jeopardy.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Jonathan H. Adler | May 27