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SCOTUS's Productive Weekend Leads to Four New Opinions

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 27, 2014 | Last updated on January 31, 2023
Memorial Day weekend: a time for remembrance, barbequing with family, and perhaps, for the Supreme Court to catch up on backlogged business? This morning, the Court released decisions in four pending cases, running the gamut of capital punishment for the intellectually disabled, excessive force in police chase shootings, free speech of presidential protestors, and Indian gaming and sovereignty. It's a mixed bag, and a lot of interesting reading.

Big One: Hall v. Florida

How intellectually disabled is sufficiently disabled to avoid capital punishment? It's a question that we've seen crop up repeatedly since the Court held that executing "mentally retarded" inmates amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in Atkins v. Virginia twelve years ago. That opinion mentioned IQ testing, poor performance in school, and inability to develop life skills as factors, but a few states, including Florida, have stuck to a bright-line IQ of 70 or below rule. Today, the Supreme Court held that such rules are improper when a subject's IQ falls within the "acknowledged and inherent margin of error" on such tests. If so, the defendant's attorney should be able to provide other evidence of disability, like the factors mentioned in Atkins. Another interesting note: the Court finally fixed it's terminology. In Atkins and in other cases, the Court, and lower courts, have used the term "mental retardation," which we've regrettably employed, as it was the proper legal term for the standard. Justice Kennedy's opinion employed the term "intellectual disability," a far more intelligent and sensitive descriptor.

Wood v. Moss

An impromptu decision by former President George W. Bush to stop for dinner necessitated a shift in Secret Service security measures. Specifically, anti-Bush protestors were moved from their line-of-sight perspective to a new location, blocks away, while supporters remained nearby, albeit, without a line of sight perspective on the president. The Court unanimously disagreed with the Ninth Circuit that the disparate treatment was improper, and in the process, showed continued deference to the Secret Service's judgment about what is necessary for presidential safety. As the Court stated before, in a different Secret Service case, "accommodation for reasonable error . . . is nowhere more important than when the specter of Presidential assassination is raised."

Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

Unless Indian casinos, or the sovereign immunity of tribes is of particular interest to you, this one is not nearly as exciting as the others. It is, however, interesting for two other reasons: a 5-4 split with Chief Justice Roberts joining Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in the majority, and the unusual real-world outcome. According to the Court, Michigan can't sue to block the tribe from establishing a casino on tribe-owned land off the reservation (as is the case here) but can do so when it is on the reservation. This is the case thanks to Kiowa, precedent that the dissent (and the state) wanted reversed. But, if the tribe does start a casino on tribe-owned, but off-the-reservation land, the state can enforce its own laws (deny a gaming license, apply criminal laws, etc.) to the tribe's conduct.

Plumhoff v. Rickard

Is fifteen shots too many to stop a police chase? Apparently not. A defendant took off, leading to a high-speed chase across state lines. At one point, he was boxed in but continued to try to get away. Officers fired fifteen shots at the car, while it was trapped, and then while it was successfully getting away. The driver and a passenger both died. Excessive force? Not so much, per the majority. Seven justices concurred with Alito's assessment that, "It stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended." Justices Ginsburg and Breyer declined to join that portion of the opinion, but all nine justices agreed that regardless, qualified immunity applied, since it was not clearly established that a barrage of fifteen bullets might be too many. Related Resources:

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