Supreme Court rulings on making laws, housing bias, and violent crime

Supreme Court
by Mary Reichard
Posted 7/06/15, 02:15 pm

While most of the attention at the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of last month focused on two or three high-profile cases, the justices did hand down some other important rulings.

On the contentious issue of drawing legislative maps, the justices found fresh meanings for common words, as they did in several other cases this term.

“Give me one provision of the Constitution that uses the term ‘legislature’ that clearly was not meant to apply to the body that—of representatives of the people—that makes the law … All I want is one provision of the Constitution that clearly has your meaning. And I looked through them all. I can’t find a single one,” Justice Antonin Scalia said to the lawyer for an Arizona commission that draws up voting district maps.

The Constitution’s elections clause gives the task of drawing up voting maps to the state legislature. But in 2000, Arizonans voted to make a politically appointed commission in charge of the map-making, and the court agreed to it. 

Nevertheless, technically Scalia was right. The Constitution contains no provision that says what the majority justices ruled: that the word “legislature” means “the process of passing laws” NOT the body of elected officials who pass them.

But five justices interpreted it their way,  stripping power from the state legislature. The idea is to remove gerrymandering—political favoritism—from the process.

Another split ruling, involved housing discrimination. 

The notion of disparate impact—a legal concept that a law’s effect harms minorities—has been around for decades. It’s been used in employment discrimination claims. But never in housing discrimination claims. Until now. 

The court’s ruling allows use of disparate-impact analysis and adverse rulings even if the discrimination alleged is unintentional, a notion Scalia scoffed at.

“Racial disparity is not racial discrimination,” he said. “The fact that the NFL is ­­largely black players is not discrimination. Discrimination requires intentionally excluding people of a certain race.”

In this case, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs doled out dollars for housing developments in the state from federal tax credits. Developers who build low-income housing receive that money. A group called Inclusive Communities Project sued, claiming a disproportionate share of tax credits went to buildings within minority neighborhoods, instead of white neighborhoods. 

The ruling means state and local governments can be sued over housing policies that someone alleges perpetuates segregation.

In another ruling, the court dealt with a law that adds penalties for career criminals. 

The Armed Career Criminal Act says if you have three violent felonies, the fourth conviction gets you an extra five years in prison. 

But what counts as a violent felony? In this case, Samuel Johnson got five extra years for merely possessing a sawed-off shotgun. He argued that just owning a gun wasn’t in itself violent, so he shouldn’t get extra time for it. And the court agreed—8 to 1—that the law violated the Constitution. Six justices found the law too vague; two others that possession by itself shouldn’t count as a violent crime.

The ruling forces Congress to fix the law, perhaps with better definitions of what counts as a violent felony. Thousands of prisoners can now apply for reduced sentences if their punishments added time in the same way.

Listen to “Legal Docket” with Mary Reichard on The World and Everything in It.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

The Supreme Court’s nine justices seemed much more combative toward each other this term as ideological differences bubbled up in landmark cases. 

They handed down a total of 69 opinions on the merits. Eight opinions reversed lower court rulings.

But the liberal side has more to celebrate, according to SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein.

Of the 26 cases that were closely decided—5 to 4 or 6 to 3—the liberals prevailed in 19. And conservative justices swung left more often than liberal justices voted with the conservatives. 

The four consistently liberal justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan—stuck together and persuaded conservative justices to their side more often. And conservative justices were more splintered, issuing separate dissents more far more often than the liberal justices. 

The result is one of the most liberal courts since the 1960s, according to The New York Times.

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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