Constitution Daily

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Looking at the newest cases accepted by the Supreme Court

October 3, 2015 by Joshua Waimberg


As the Supreme Court starts its new term, here is a quick look at the newest batch of cases accepted by the nine Justices this past week.


640px-Inside_the_United_States_Supreme_CourtOn Thursday morning, following this past Monday’s “Long Conference,” the Supreme Court announced that they had granted certiorari to 13 new cases for the coming Term. As is always the case with the Supreme Court, a number of the Court’s newly accepted cases have the potential for significant Constitutional impact.


Williams v. Pennsylvania is a case that comes from the National Constitution Center’s own city of Philadelphia. In 1986, Terrance Williams was convicted of murder, robbery, and criminal conspiracy. He was 18 years old at the time, and was sentenced to death. Williams sought to have his conviction overturned because of problems with the original prosecution, and eventually the case made its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court reinstated the death penalty for Williams.


The issue before the Court now is whether, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made that decision, they were violating Williams’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. One of the problems is that Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille (retired) of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was the same Philadelphia prosecutor who originally authorized the decision to seek the death sentence for Williams. Williams’ attorneys sought to have the Chief Justice disqualified, but the recusal motion was denied. The Court must now decide if the Chief Justice’s participation in the Pennsylvania court’s decision violated Williams’ constitutional rights, even though he did not cast the deciding vote.


The government of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico has brought a case to the Court that brings up the question of the island’s sovereignty. In Puerto Rico v. Valle, the Court is facing the issue of whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Federal Government of the United States are separate sovereigns for the purpose of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution. The Double Jeopardy Clause, located in the Fifth Amendment, promises citizens that they will not be retried for the same crime following their acquittal or conviction. However, this does not protect a citizen from prosecution in both the State and Federal systems for the same action.


This brings up the question of whether Puerto Rico is a separate sovereign from the United States federal government. Although Congress gave Puerto Rico self-governing powers in 1950, including the power to pass its own laws like any state in the country, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court concluded that Puerto Rico was part of the same sovereignty as the United States. Therefore, it decided, it would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause for a person to be tried by both federal and Puerto Rico prosecutors. The Court must now decide the scope of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty and how it will affect the Double Jeopardy issue.


Bank Markazi v. Peterson deals with the claims of more than 1,300 Americans who are currently seeking access to about $1.75 billion in financial assets that they say belong to Iran’s central bank. The Americans are all victims or family members of victims of terrorist attacks. They are seeking this money to satisfy judgments against Iran on the basis that that the Iranian government sponsored the terrorist acts.


The issue for the Court in the case is the separation of powers doctrine. Under Article III of the Constitution, as clarified by the Court in the 1872 case of United States v. Klein, Congress cannot direct a federal court on how a pending case should be decided. Bank Markazi claims that Congress did just this in 2012, when it passed a new law that declared that the victims were entitled to the bank’s assets. The Court must now decide if this act of Congress was directing the outcome of the case, and therefore if it is in violation of Klein and Article III.


The Court also decided to take on the Fourth Amendment in Utah v. Streiff, where the Court will face a wrinkle in the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure doctrine and the accompanying exclusionary rule. The case arises from a 2006 incident where police received an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold out of a Salt Lake City house. While the police were observing the house, they stopped Edward Streiff, Jr. to question him. During that stop, the police discovered that Streiff had an outstanding warrant for his arrest, so they arrested and searched him. The police found methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia during the search incident to his arrest.


Streiff challenged his arrest and search, claiming that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him, and therefore that the evidence taken from the search should be suppressed. The Utah Supreme Court agreed with him, finding that Streiff’s incident did not fall within the attenuation exception to the fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine. This exception allows for the use of evidence found through unlawful government action if the connection between the misconduct and the discovery of the evidence is weak. The Court must now decide whether, if police learn about an outstanding arrest warrant during a stop that turns out to be illegal, the Fourth Amendment bars the use of the evidence obtained from the search incident to arrest.


Heffernan v. Paterson, N.J. involves the First Amendment rights of a local government employee. In this case, a Paterson, New Jersey police officer was observed obtaining a campaign sign for a candidate who was running against the incumbent mayor of Paterson. Heffernan, the police officer, was demoted because of his involvement in political activities, even though he claimed that he was getting the sign for his mother and that he was not actually politically involved. Heffernan sued the city, arguing that they violated his First Amendment rights of free speech and free association. The Third Circuit found that his rights were not violated, as he was not actually attempting to convey a political message nor was he affiliated with the campaign. The Court must now determine if the First Amendment is violated and actionable when a government employee is perceived to be supporting a political candidate, even if the employee is not actually a supporter.


Joshua Waimberg is a legal fellow at the National Constitution Center.


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