Supreme Court clearing docket with rulings on police, guns, and money

Supreme Court
by Mary Reichard
Posted 5/26/15, 10:38 am

Use of force.The U.S. Supreme Court handed down six rulings last week—four unanimous, one a 5-4 split, and another 6-2.

In the last ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself because his brother, also a judge, had earlier dismissed the case. In that ruling, the justices handed victory to law enforcement in San Francisco, where police shot a mentally ill woman living in a group home after she threatened them with a knife. The woman survived and sued, claiming she was the victim of excessive force. She also claimed police have an obligation to provide special accommodations to those who suffer mental illness.

The court’s majority gave police the benefit of the doubt, ruling officers have limited immunity from being sued in this situation. When the incident happened seven years ago, it wasn’t clear whether the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure prohibition required police to accommodate the mental illness of people they encounter. And if the law is unclear, the justices won’t hold people liable under it.

The two officers involved still face the prospect that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That part of the case will return to a lower court. But with this ruling, police received limited immunity from the claim of Fourth Amendment constitutional violations by using force when faced with threats.

Gun rights. In 2007, police arrested Tony Henderson for marijuana distribution. Because federal law says felons cannot possess firearms, Henderson handed over his guns to the FBI. After he was convicted, he tried to sell his guns or transfer ownership to his wife. Lower courts had denied felons the right to dispose of property they owned but could no longer possess by law. But the Supreme Court ruled possession is not the same as ownership, and a felon can ask the government to transfer his guns to a third party so he gets the economic value of them. The law ensures the felon doesn’t retain control over the use of the guns.

Money matters. Good news for those with retirement plans. The Supreme Court answered the question of whether the duties of retirement plan fiduciaries, those who oversee pension investments, extend to monitoring investments over time.

“New investments come out, the fee structures change, the investment manager changes,” said Mary Ellen Signorelli, senior counsel with AARP, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case. “All of those things are things the fiduciary should be looking at to determine whether or not these are still the appropriate investment options for the people in their plan.” The justices agreed, 9-0. The case came to the court on a more technical question of how long customers have to sue over investment decisions. The court took the opportunity to clarify that trustees of pension plans have a duty to use prudence, skill, care, and diligence throughout the life of the pension.

No double taxation. The Supreme Court also ruled 5-4 that part of Maryland’s tax law is unconstitutional. The court said Maryland should give residents a full tax credit for taxes paid on income earned in other states. Some of the state’s taxpayers could receive refunds, and the change could cost Maryland as much as $42 million per year in revenue moving forward. This case produced some odd alliances: Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Antonin Scalia, and Elena Kagan joined Clarence Thomas in the minority.

Day in court. The court issued two more rulings last week, both unanimous. One involved a federal law that bars inmates from filing a fourth lawsuit over prison conditions if the three prior ones failed. But what if one of those lawsuits is dismissed and the inmate appealed that dismissal? The court said that still counts as one of the “three strikes and you’re out.”

The last ruling was a win for people in bankruptcy who switch the kind of bankruptcy plan they use midstream, allowing them to keep certain income. 

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Mary Reichard

Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.

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