Category Archives: 1988-1989

Lockhart v. Nelson

488 U. S. 33

November 14, 1988

Criminals could be sentenced to extra time if they could be proved ‘habitual offenders’ by the introduction of four prior convictions. Four prior convictions were offered for burglar Johnny Lee Nelson, but it was later discovered that one of those convictions had been pardoned by Governor Orval Faubus. Nelson argued that he could not be retried because of the Double Jeopardy clause. A case called Burks v. United States held that Double Jeopardy applied when a sentence was overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence. The government argued that introducing the pardoned conviction was a simple trial error, and that the rule against Double Jeopardy for insufficient evidence did not apply.

The Court held 6-3 that introducing the pardoned conviction was a trial error, and that a new trial was possible. Rehnquist stated that Burks was about protecting suspects when the government had totally failed to prove its case in the original trial. Here, a seemingly valid conviction had been introduced at trial, and Nelson’s sentence was later overturned because that conviction’s admission was in error. Rehnquist said that simple errors in admission of evidence were not the same as a simple lack of evidence, erroneous or not. He thus allowed the government to retry Nelson, and introduce four valid prior convictions.

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blackmun, dissented. Marshall stressed that pardons totally expunge the conviction. Thus, the admission of that conviction into evidence was effectively like admitting a blank piece of paper into evidence. That, he contended, would certainly be a simple instance of insufficient evidence. The government needed to produce four prior convictions, and they produced only three. Marshall also complained that the majority was hasty and conclusory in its opinion, quite in contrast to the careful consideration usually found in the Court’s other Double Jeopardy cases.

Shell Oil Co. v. Iowa Dept. of Revenue

488 U. S. 19

November 8, 1988

Shell extracted much of its oil from the outer continental shelf, which is all the land beneath the first three miles of coastal waters. Iowa imposed an income tax on Shell for the business it did in Iowa, but Shell contended that it was partially immune from the tax due to the oil it sold there from the continental shelf. Shell said that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) exempted all oil and gas extracted from state taxation laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Iowa’s tax was not preempted by OCSLA. Marshall said that when the text of OCSLA is carefully parsed, it only bans taxation by states adjacent to the continental shelf itself. Marshall showed that this was the correct interpretation through recourse to legislative history. While a state like California could not tax the business activity of extracting oil just off its coast, all states remained free to tax the refined oil and gas that was eventually sold within state lines. Thus, Iowa’s income tax on all the oil and gas sold by Shell within the state was just fine.

While this ruling was pretty trivial, the day it was announced was momentous. That evening, Bush slaughtered Dukakis in the Electoral College. Reportedly, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun watched stonily as the election results rolled in. They had all stubbornly stayed on the Court throughout the eight Reagan years, but now they faced either four or eight years from the Bush-Quayle team. The future of the liberal bloc looked grim indeed.

Huntington v. Huntington Branch, NAACP

488 U. S. 15

November 7, 1988

A town zoning law allowed the construction of multifamily housing projects only in the town’s urban core. Nearly all the town’s black population lived in the urban core, and the outlying areas were all almost entirely white. The local NAACP asked the town to amend their zoning code to allow for multifamily housing projects to be built in the non-urban white areas. The town refused, and the NAACP charged that this refusal perpetuated housing segregation, and violated the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

In a 6-3 per curiam ruling, the Court held that the town had indeed violated the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The Court offered no analysis of its own, but gave its imprimatur to the broad findings of the lower court that the disparate impact standard would be used to decide the case, and that the town’s justification for not amending the zoning code was insufficient. White, Marshall, and Stevens, without opinion, noted that the case should have received oral argument.

Pennsylvania v. Bruder

488 U. S. 9

October 31, 1988

A police officer stopped a car that was driving erratically and ran a red light. During the stop, the police officer observed signs of intoxication, and asked if the driver had been drinking. He answered in the affirmative, and subsequently failed a sobriety test. The driver was then arrested and given the Miranda warning. The issue was whether the officer’s question about drinking before the arrest was unconstitutional without a prior Miranda warning.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the officer’s question was Constitutionally sound. In a per curiam opinion, the Court said that the facts of the case were almost identical to those in Berkemer v. McCarty. In Berkemer, the Court had ruled that questioning during a traffic stop was not custodial investigation, and did not require prior administration of the Miranda warning. The same principle applied in the case at hand.

Marshall filed his customary dissent against any and all summary judgments by the Court. Stevens, joined by Marshall, whined that certiorari should not have been granted, because the case involved absolutely no novel question of law. In his view, the Court should never take a case without a doctrinal aim in mind, and should never reverse a judgment merely because it’s erroneous.

Justice Stevens is colossally and staggering wrong. The Court’s mandate is not to resolve interesting doctrinal puzzles, but impartially administer justice. Real people are affected by lawless lower court rulings, and the Supreme Court is often their only hope of vindication. Telling them that their cases aren’t doctrinally interesting enough to reverse is the height of banally unjust cruelty.

Rhodes v. Stewart

488 U. S. 1

October 17, 1988

Two prisoners sued to get magazines in prison. By the time the suit was decided, one prisoner was dead and the other had been paroled. Nonetheless, the living plaintiff sought to get attorneys fees under section 1988 as the prevailing party. The government argued that he could not be the prevailing party since the case was effectively moot and he had obtained effectively no relief.

The Supreme Court agreed that no 1988 fees could be awarded in a 6-3 per curiam decision. With reference to Hewitt v. Helms, the Court stated that declaratory judgment does not make you a prevailing party if you obtain no actual relief regarding your original complaint. As the plaintiff was out of prison, he got nothing by winning his court case. Marshall dissented because of his steadfast belief that the Court should never make summary judgment rulings. Blackmun, joined by Brennan, disagreed with the majority’s reading of Hewitt. Blackmun said that the ex-prisoner was still literally a prevailing party, even if he obtained no real relief for winning.