Monday, January 25, 2010

2009 Supreme Court decisions: I know what you did last year....

The Berkeley-Albany Bar Association actually had 40 lawyers show up for its monthly meeting at the La Rose bistro this month -- and why not? The speaker's topic was gonna be HOT. Yes, it's time for BABA's annual report on the doings of America's highest court in the land -- and as anyone who is not half-dead already knows, the Supreme Court has been up to all kinds of shenanigans this past year. Today's report promised to be just as good as a soap opera. Plus we had a choice between ordering the pasta, the salmon or the duck.

I'm just hoping that our speaker is going to talk about the court's new ruling that allows lobbyists to flood our congressional representatives with as much cash as their little hearts desire. This decision is one of the court's all-time hotties and will change the face of America for decades -- if not centuries -- and change it very much for the worse.

According to Brent Budowsky, a well-known Washington insider, "The Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate cash to buy unlimited political power through unlimited political spending is one of the greatest single attacks on democracy in the history of jurisprudence, and one of the single greatest demonstrations of contempt for legal precedent in the history of the United States Supreme Court."

With that HUGE amount of money flooding into Congress, there's only one thing for me to do. I'm gonna run for Congress myself! With China and Saudi Arabia and Lockheed practically pissing themselves trying to pay me off right and left, I could become a billionaire overnight! Sorry, Barbara Lee. I know you're the best Congressional Representative on Capital Hill today but I just gotta face facts and run against you. You're just not corrupt. And this could be my only chance to become immediately and obscenely rich!

"Today's lecture on Supreme Court decisions in 2009 and early 2010 is going to be serious," said our speaker. "But just remember that grinding your teeth is bad for your health. The first case we are talking about involves taxing cigarettes. The City of New York filed against someone in New Mexico under the RICO Act for selling untaxed cigarettes by mail to New Yorkers, thus costing NYC millions of dollars. The court ruled that these untaxed internet sales were legal." Chief Justice Roberts wrote the decision, which said that the revenue loss to New York was too indirect.

But before he discussed the rest of the cases, our speaker talked about a new biography of Justice Kennedy entitled "Justice Kennedy's Jurisprudence". As you may know, Kennedy is the swing vote on the court but apparently tends to vote with the neo-con justices. "The first conclusion I got from this book was that Justice Kennedy means well. And the second conclusion I got was that he tends to get lost."

Because of his swing position, Kennedy is the most powerful judge at this time. "I'm not so sure that Roberts has taken over the court -- and Kennedy -- completely." Whew! "And last year I thought that there was actually hope for Justice Alito because he was a New-Jersey-type Republican -- but now I know that there is no hope."

Justice Sotomayor seems to be a good replacement for Justice Souter -- mostly doing what he would probably have done. And apparently Kennedy has sided with the neo-con side of the court at a ratio of approximately two to one. I can't give you a direct quote on that because the waiter had served me my salad at that point and I got distracted.

"Then there was a case regarding the scope of patentability, having to do with being able to patent business methods. This is an important case." But apparently there hasn't been a ruling handed down on that one yet.

"In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the issue was whether or not a federal trial could be televised. The Supremes upheld a stay preventing the trial to be televised. One of the big issues here was what was going on at that trial." This trial had to do with the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage proposition. Dissenting Justice Breyer stated that a "likelihood of ‘irreparable harm' had not been shown".

Regarding election campaign regulations, "The dissent says that you can regulate speech only within 30 days of an election -- citing time, place and manner. I think that Kennedy may have gotten lost here in the idea that corporations should have a voice too. Kennedy is a big fan of the First Amendment."

Next case. "In NRG Power Marketing v. Maine Public Utilities Commission, the question was whether the power rates charged were reasonable. The Court said that the rate was presumed reasonable." That's weird. If the company sets a rate then that rate, whatever it is, must be presumed reasonable? Huh?

The Court also ruled that there continues to be a need for a voting rights act. But I'm not sure which voting rights act the speaker was talking about. Is there a Diebold voting rights act? And I just heard that Diebold changed its name -- because of too much (justly deserved) bad publicity, I would imagine.

Then our speaker went on to describe various criminal cases. Wellons v. Hall was about a man sentenced to death for rape and murder and the Atlanta court of appeals said that he was not entitled to new discovery even though jury members after his trial held a reunion and gave the judge in the case a present of genitalia-shaped chocolate. "The Supreme Court decided that if you are going to put someone to death, chocolate-shaped genitalia should not be involved."

In another case, a man who pleaded innocent wanted access to his own DNA in order to prove his innocence. "Scalia denied access, apparently because questions of innocence or guilt weren't involved here."

Then there was the John Ashcroft case, Ashcroft v. Iqbal. "Ashcroft had given an order to arrest Muslim men after 9-11. Iqbal was subjected to harsh conditions of confinement as a matter of policy set up by Ashcroft." Apparently Kennedy sided with Scalia et al. against Iqbal. Iqbal was toast.

Then the waiter served us duck comfit over yams. Yum!

"And here's a case I call 'Oops the gun went off'. A man went into a bank with a loaded gun but claimed that he didn't intend to do it. The court ruled seven to two, 'Goodbye and good luck in jail'"

Next was an immigration case where someone using an alias was charged with identity theft. The Court ruled that using an alias to work illegally was not the same as deliberate identity theft.
Then some guy made a plea bargain to get a lighter sentence at his trial and then went out and committed the same crime again before the first crime's trial. The Court then ruled that the culprit's action invalidated the plea-bargain contract and the deal was off.

Next we learned about double jeopardy. "If someone goes to trial and is ruled mentally incompetent, can he then be tried again when he does become competent?" Apparently the Supremes think that this is not a case of double jeopardy.

Then there were a couple of more cases that discussed the issue of "standing" but I'm no help to you here. By that time I was too busy eating the comfit and contemplating dessert. But this stuff is important. This is the law of the land that we are talking about. "Focus, Jane!"

I LOVED the next case, wherein Justice Scalia actually ruled against Fox News. "This is another First Amendment case regarding isolated utterances of the "F" word and the "S" word. Scalia concurred against the words."

Then there was the juicy Pleasant Grove Park case. "Pleasant Grove Park had posted the Ten Commandments and the Summum religion wanted their Seven Aphorisms posted there too. The Court ruled that the Ten Commandments were 'Government Speech' and you can't regulate 'Government Speech'." The government can say anything it wants to but we can't? Huh?

Michigan v. Fisher: Jeremy Fisher was throwing things around inside his own house, bleeding and waving a very large gun. A police officer then opened Fisher's front door, got Fisher's gun aimed at him and then left. "Fisher claims that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the officer, but the Court disagreed, citing the exigencies of the situation." However, this interference by the high court probably pissed off the Michigan court of appeals who had already agreed that Fisher's rights had been violated.

"In Stafford USD v. Redding, a 13-year-old girl was taken to the gym and strip-searched. Seven justices agreed that this was a violation of her rights." Apparently they didn't even tell her what they were searching for. A photo of the Jonas Brothers perhaps?

"In Kansas v. Ventris, Ventris is in jail and the government sends an informant into his cell to talk with him about his crime. Can you do this? No, because Ventris' counsel was illegally withheld." If the government was going to interrogate Ventris, he needs to have his lawyer present even if only an informant is involved. But apparently you can still use the informant's evidence in court. That's one strange incoherent ruling if you ask me.

The next case involved a courtroom that was too small to hold everyone so the poor judge in desperation held the jury selection in the too-small courtroom. "The Supreme Court ruled that all phases of a trial need to be made public." They could always rent one of those huge jumper-tents?

Here's an interesting case regarding denial of due process. "In Caperton v. Massey Coal, a West Virginia justice in this case refused to recluse himself even though he got three million dollars in campaign contributions from one of the parties." Kennedy wrote the majority decision that the justice was in the wrong. Roberts and Scalia of course thought that the justice was Doing the Right Thing -- apparently by giving Massey Coal its money's worth.

"Roberts found a reason to say that this is an area that the Supreme Court shouldn't get into." Not get into corruption on the bench? Hmmm.

Next came Rivera v Illinois.

I only have a few more cases left to describe, honest! And besides, here comes the dessert. Handmade strawberry ice cream! So much for my New Years' resolution to give up dairy.

Anyway, Rivera was an alleged gangbanger on trial for murder and his lawyer asked to not seat one of the jurors and the judge overruled his request and seated the juror anyway. So. How would the trial have come out if the juror had not been seated. Hard to say. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was okay that the juror had not been seated properly.

In Cone v. Bell, "Evidence was withheld by the government. Was this act a denial of due process?" Apparently Cone, who had brutally murdered two little old ladies, was arguing that he was pretty much nutso and the cops had withheld evidence of that. Although the withheld evidence wouldn't have helped to prove that Cone was insane, it is not ever a good idea to withhold evidence no matter what. "Kennedy thought that hiding evidence was a serious matter." But justices Thomas and Scalia dissented.

Are we done yet? No.

"Mohawk v. Carpenter. This case is BIG." Oh, okay. Carpenter was fired, allegedly for reporting illegal company policies regarding the hiring of illegal immigrants. Carpenter then asked Mohawk for discovery materials and Mohawk replied that he couldn't have them due to attorney-client privileges. The Supreme Court ruled that Carpenter didn't have the right to appeal Mohawk's appeal of Carpenter's appeal. I think.

"Supreme Court justices have to decide many difficult things but when we see this five-to-four split in the court year after year with regard to employment issues, this changes the structure. And the term 'Activist Judge' no longer has a meaning on this court. It has become a personal battle within the minds of each of the judges."

Then I finished my de-caf, donated to BABA's Haiti relief fund and went home, now knowing more about the workings of America's Supreme Court than I ever thought I would ever want to know. But, you know, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on those judges. You never know when they might decide to sell "We the People" out.

Oops, too late!

Disclaimer: I may not have gotten all this down verbatim. I was trying to write and eat at the same time. But most of it is spot-on. And any errors are my fault (or the Supreme Court's) -- not the speaker's.

PS: I just sent away to the Federal Election Commission for my booklet on how to run for Congress. If the Supreme Court can commit treason by selling our country to the highest bidder, what's to keep the rest of us from doing the same thing? Vote for me!