It was a bit of a sleepy day at the Supreme Court on Monday. We got a ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which had the potential to be a major affirmative action case, but which actually ended up just getting sent back to the district court:
While the Court punted on Fisher, it also didn't rule on Proposition 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the Voting Rights Act, pushing back those decisions until tomorrow or the one decision day yet to be scheduled.
However, we did get two important rulings dealing with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In Vance v. Ball State University et al., the court ruled against Maetta Vance, a black catering assistant at Ball State who alleged that Saundra Davis, a white catering specialist, created a racially hostile work environment. The ruling was written by Samuel Alito for a 5-4 court, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by court liberals Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer, dissenting. Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurrence. Alito ruled that because "Davis did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline Vance," she did not count as Vance's supervisor, and therefore Ball State could only be held liable if it were negligent in defending Vance against Davis's harassment.
The other Title VII case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, involved the claims of Naiel Nassar, a Muslim doctor of Egyptian origin who was on the faculty of UT, that Beth Levine, another UT faculty member, harassed him because of his race and religion, and called Middle Easterners lazy. Nassar further claimed that the attempts of Gregory Fitz, Levine's supervisor, to prevent Nassar from being hired at UT's affiliate hospital without still serving on the faculty, counted as retaliation against him for lodging the discrimination complaints.
Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 court, ruled against Nassar, saying that complainants must show that the alleged retaliatory actions would not have occurred "but for" their complaint. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously held that Nassar need only show that his complaint was a "motivating factor" behind Fitz's action, not that Fitz wouldn't have taken them "but for" Nassar's complaint. Ginsburg dissented, joined by Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer:
Another case decided Monday, United States v. Kebodeaux, involved the failure of Anthony Kebodeaux — who, ironically, everyone now knows is a sex offender — to update his registration as such. While in the Air Force in 1999, Kebodeaux, then 21, had consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl, and was subsequently court-martialed and convicted of statutory rape. After serving three months imprisonment and receiving a bad conduct discharge, he moved to Texas and registered as a sex offender.
In 2006, Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which requires requires federal sex offenders to register in the states where they live, work and study. When Kebodeaux moved within Texas and failed to update his registration, he was convicted of violating SORNA. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he had served his sentence and had been unconditionally released before SORNA's enactment and thus could not be subject to its requirements.
Stephen Breyer, writing for a 7-2 court, ruled that, on the contrary, Kebodeaux was still subject to federal laws regarding sex offenders when SORNA was passed because of the pre-existing Wetterling Act, and so SORNA's changes to registration laws applied to him. Kennedy, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor joined Breyer's decision, while John Roberts and Samuel Alito filed concurrences. Antonin Scalia and Thomas filed dissents, with Scalia joining Thomas's dissent:
In Mutual Pharmaceutical Co., Inc., v. Bartlett, the court ruled in favor of a drug company and against the woman whose skin fell off after using their drug. As Alito recounts in his opinion:
In December 2004, respondent Karen L. Bartlett was prescribed Clinoril for shoulder pain. Her pharmacist dispensed a generic form of sulindac, which was manufactured by petitioner Mutual Pharmaceutical. Respondent soon developed an acute case of toxic epidermal necrolysis. The results were horrific. Sixty to sixty-five percent of the surface of respondent’s body deteriorated, was burned off, or turned into an open wound. She spent months in a medically induced coma, underwent 12 eye surgeries, and was tube-fed for a year. She is now severely disfigured, has a number of physical disabilities, and is nearly blind.
So Bartlett sued Mutual Pharmaceutical, on account of their drug blinding her, putting her in a coma, and making most of her skin burn or fall off. A court awarded her $21 million on the grounds that the drug did not include sufficient warnings of potential side effects. But the Supreme Court in this case ruled that the state law upon which her suit was based was preempted by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which requires generic drugs to include the same composition and labeling as their brand-name equivalent. Avoiding liability under the New Hampshire law, the court ruled, would have required changing either its composition or labeling, both of which would have violated federal law. A third option, embraced by the dissenter, would have required Mutual to stop selling the product, but the majority, for which Alito was joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas, ruled that this would violate preemption precedents. Breyer filed a dissent, joined by Kagan, and Sotomayor filed a dissent, joined by Ginsburg. Sotomayor concludes, "the Court has left a seriously injured consumer without any remedy despite Congress’ explicit efforts to preserve state common-law liability."
Finally, the court ruled per curiam (that is, unanimously and without a named opinion author) in Charles Ryan, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections, v. Edward Harold Schad. Schad is on death row for strangling a 74-year-old man to death in 1978. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had stayed Schad's execution, despite the Supreme Court having previously declined to hear an appeal from Schad. On Monday, the Supreme Court overruled the stay, and called it an "abuse of discretion" on the Ninth Circuit's part.