The Supreme Court had a momentous year in 2017 as it added a new Justice and ruled on several significant cases. Here’s a quick review of the major decisions handed down by the Justices.
Neil Gorsuch joined the bench in April 2017 and he was only able to hear cases later in the Court’s 2016 term. So most of the opinions indicate a majority of eight Justices deciding the cases in question.
Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (decided, February 22, 2017)
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the parents of a girl born with cerebral palsy can sue for damages after public school officials barred her service dog from her classroom.
The Napoleon Community school district in Michigan said that it had already provided a one-on-one support person to help the child at school, and the dog wasn’t needed. The family then sued on the child’s behalf in federal court to recover damages for the period when the dog was barred from the school, on the theory the child suffered emotional and social harm. A district court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the family needed to find an administrative solution with the school under another act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA).
In her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said that the lawsuit could proceed without the administrative solution required under IDEA, but the lower courts had unsettled issues to consider.
Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections (decided, March 1, 2017)
With just three years to go before state legislatures begin to face a new task of redrafting election district maps after a new Census, the Supreme Court moved to further clarify when lawmakers may use the race of voters as a decisive factor.
Under the ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy with the full support of five other Justices, state legislatures generally will not be able to use race as the main redistricting factor even if a new map does not violate any traditional rules for districting – such as avoiding bizarre shapes and breaking up communities of interest, such as counties, towns or economic identities.
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (decided, March 22, 2017)
A 15-year-old Littleton, Colo., student, identified only as Endrew F. (his parents call him “Drew”), challenged a federal appeals court ruling. The youth is autistic and has attention deficit disorder, compromising his verbal and non-verbal communications skills. When his parents and school officials couldn’t agree on a plan for him in public schools, he was placed in a private school. The family then sued to recover the private school tuition, contending that the school district was obliged to pay because it failed to provide Drew with an adequate educational opportunity.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a unanimous Court, which vacated a lower court decision and ruled that a school must offer an “individualized education program” reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.
Cooper v. Harris (decided, May 22, 2017)
State legislatures may not move more black voters into an election district to give them a majority if they already make alliances with white voters that allow them to get their preferred candidates elected, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously. The federal Voting Rights Act does not require a “racial gerrymander” of that kind, and the Constitution forbids it, the court declared in this important North Carolina congressional redistricting case.
The court split 5-to-3 in ruling separately in the same case that a state legislature will have a difficult time if it tries to justify an explicit reliance on race in creating a black-majority district by claiming that politics, not race, was its goal.
Matal v. Tam (decided, June 19)
Matal v. Tam (originally Lee v. Tam) involves an appeal by the federal Patent and Trademark Office, seeking to have the Supreme Court revive a disparagement law. It has been struck down by a federal appeals court, in a case involving a rock music band that wanted to register its name, the SLANTS, for protection as a trademark. The denial of that registration, the appeals court said, stifled the band’s free speech rights.
A unanimous Supreme Court said that the federal government’s power to ban all trademark protections for names it deems to be offensive violates the Constitution’s First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito in the main opinion in the case sided with the band. “The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech,” Alito said.
“Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration (such as copyright) could easily be characterized in the same way,” Alito concluded.
Murr v. Wisconsin (decided, June 23)
The Supreme Court looked back at one of its big decisions from the 1970s when it considered a dispute involving four family members and the state of Wisconsin. In 1978, Justice William Brennan wrote for a 6-3 majority in the Penn Central v. New York City case that redefined property rights under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.
In Murr v. Wisconsin, the Murr family has owned two riverfront lots since the 1960s; one of the lots contained a vacation cottage; the other lot wasn’t developed. The parents bought the two lots originally, and they were conveyed to four of their children in 1994 and 1995. In 2004, when the children began to explore selling the empty lot to pay for improvements in the cottage, they found out that a zoning law established in 1975 barred the children from selling the empty lot separate from the cottage. The zoning law also prohibited the development of the empty lot because it didn’t meet minimum size requirements for an independent lot.
The family’s lawyers cited another Supreme Court decision, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992), which said that the denial of all economic use of a property by a government regulation was a taking under the Fifth Amendment and required just compensation. The state government argued that the properties should be considered as a “whole” in the takings analysis, citing the Penn Central decision.
In a 5-3 majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy and the court's four liberal Justices sided with the state of Wisconsin, saying the Penn Central test was correctly used in the appeals court decision.
Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States (decided, June 22)
These two cases are related to a gruesome murder in the nation’s capital more than three decades ago, when all but one of those found guilty were teenagers. Their two appeals, combined in a single ruling, could clarify the constitutional duty of prosecutors to hand over to defense lawyers items of evidence that could help gain a not-guilty verdict.
At issue is the constitutional duty that the Supreme Court imposed on prosecutors in a 1963 decision, Brady v. Maryland. Although that duty has been binding now for more than a half-century, the new appeals argued that lower courts remain uncertain about how to weigh the significance of evidence that prosecutors had withheld. In order to prove a violation of the Brady decision, a suspect’s defense lawyer must show that the withheld evidence was likely to have altered the outcome of the trial if it had been brought out there. In technical terms, the evidence must be shown to be “material” to the outcome.
In their appeals, one by six of those convicted and another by a seventh, their lawyers protested that a series of findings that turned up in the years after the 1985 trial was over had been withheld by prosecutors. Rather than limiting review to those specific claims, the Court said it would look at their cases as a whole, to see if their convictions should be overturned.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court said that it reached the same opinion as the DC Appeals Court, that the withheld evidence wasn't material. “In the context of this trial, with respect to these witnesses, the cumulative effect of the withheld evidence is insufficient to undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (arguments heard, April 19 )
The Supreme Court sought to answer the question of whether religiously affiliated schools can be constitutionally denied equal access to a government benefit, even if the benefit has nothing to do with matters of faith.
At issue is a program in Missouri that provides rubberized material for school playgrounds, made out of old tires. Missouri’s constitution bars parochial schools from such public benefits, explicitly because of the Missouri constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” first adopted in 1875. The amendment still reads in part: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination or religion”
The church appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that “no public benefit could be further removed from the state’s anti-establishment concerns than a grant for safe rubber playground surfaces that serve no religious function or purpose.”
A divided 7-2 Supreme Court said Trinity Lutheran had a right to receive a public grant for rubber playground materials, but it stopped short of determining if the state’s Blaine Amendment was unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts said that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated the church’s rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by denying it “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status.”