Category Archives: 4-3

Murray v. United States

487 U. S. 533

June 27, 1988

Police entered a warehouse without a warrant and saw several suspicious looking bales in plain view. Not mentioning any of this in their request, these officers got a warrant, and seized the bales, which contained marijuana. An earlier case called Segura allowed for evidence seized with a warrant to stand, even if the police had earlier made an illegal entry, provided that the warrant was not based on any evidence gained from the previous entry. The question was whether the Segura doctrine applied in this case, where apparent evidence had been in plain view.

The Court ruled 4-3 that such evidence need not be suppressed (Brennan and Kennedy did not participate). As long as the warrant was in no way based on evidence from the previous entry, it made no difference whether the evidence ultimately seized had been previously visible or not. He found support for the conclusion in the inevitable discovery doctrine, which allowed for even illegally seized evidence to come in if it would have inevitably been found by legal means. Scalia did not think this rule would encourage bad police behavior, but did remand to determine whether the policemen would have applied for a warrant without seeing the bales.

Marshall, joined by Stevens and O’Connor, dissented. He thought it almost certain that the police only applied for a warrant because they saw the bales. He thought this extension of the Segura rule would positively encourage bad conduct by the police. Just do an illegal search, and don’t bother getting a warrant unless you see evidence of wrongdoing. The potential for abuse was simply too high, and greater deterrence was needed. Stevens, in his own dissent, registered his continuing belief that Segura itself was wrongly decided and should be overruled.

City of Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

486 U. S. 750

June 17, 1988

Lakewood passed an ordinance that required the mayor to annually approve any placement of newsracks on public property. Because no limits were placed on the mayor’s discretion to disapprove of a newsrack, a newspaper argued that the ordinance facially violated the First Amendment. Lakewood responded that the mayor could be trusted, and that an as-applied challenge could issue if the mayor ever seemed to be squelching the freedom of the press.

The Court ruled 4-3 that a facial challenge was warranted, and that the ordinance failed under a facial challenge (Rehnquist and Kennedy did not participate). Brennan said that regulations aimed at the press, like the one at issue, are particularly suited for facial challenges, because of the dangers of self-censorship in its absence. He admitted that newsracks could be banned altogether, but this power did not give the state unlimited discretion once it made the choice to allow some. Many precedents were cited for this fact. Turning to the merits, Brennan found that there was no guiding principle in the ordinance to limit the mayor’s discretion. Should the mayor ban a newsrack, as-applied relief would come to late, because in the meantime the opportunity to report years worth of news may be lost.

White, joined by Stevens and O’Connor, dissented. He did not think an imagined right to permanently occupy city property for the dissemination of news was enough of a First Amendment concern to bring about a facial challenge. White disputed the majority’s conclusion that a state cannot regulate, with some discretion, action that it could ban. Indeed, the majority’s mode of analysis might induce localities to effective regulate the press by passing more generally worded and applicable ordinances. White further noted that Lakewood had subsequently passed a much more press-friendly ordinance, and that newspapers were sold all over Lakewood on property not belonging to the government; given all this, there was realistically little at stake. White concluded by arguing that some other features of the ordinance not addressed by the majority were Constitutional.

Both the majority and dissent expended way more effort than necessary. I left out a few points, and over-summarized others, but you’re not missing much. This was a trivial case, and both sides ended up losing perspective. White’s impassioned dissent reflects his decades long hatred of newspapers, which was nurtured by their shoddy coverage of him as a college football star.

Brennan’s impassioned majority opinion reflects his love of juicy First Amendment cases, and his aching desire to get just a couple additional soaring opinions on that topic in United States Reports before retirement. I will say this about Brennan: no one is as good as him at arguing that a case is totally controlled by this or that precedent. Regardless of whether the precedent really controls, he is unfailingly good at making it sound convincing.

Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw

486 U. S. 71

May 16, 1988

After Lloyd Crenshaw lost a leg, his insurance company denied him a payout on some BS reasoning. Crenshaw prevailed in court, and was awarded punitive damages. The insurance company appealed and lost. Under Mississippi law, appellants who lost had to pay an additional 15% over the total value of money at issue. This law was made to discourage frivolous appeals. The insurance company appealed to the Supreme Court on two grounds: first, that Mississippi could not allow for unlimited punitive damages, and second, that the 15% law violated the Due Process clause.

Unanimously, the Court dismissed the punitive damages argument (Kennedy and Stevens did not participate). Marshall said that it really wasn’t properly raised below, and prudential concerns counseled against the Supreme Court dealing with the issue now. On the 15% law argument, the Court ruled 6-1 that the law comported with Due Process. Marshall said that the discouragement of frivolous appeals was a rational reason for the law. In a previous case, the Court had struck down a law requiring renters to post a bond of twice the rent before appealing, but that precedent was easily distinguished. It applied only to renters, instead of all appellants, and required that the extra money be paid before the appeal rather than after.

White concurred in judgment on the punitive damages portion. To him, it wasn’t just prudential to pass over that issue, but jurisdiction laws actively required the Court to pass over it since it hadn’t properly been raised below. O’Connor and Scalia also concurred in judgment on the punitive damages portion (they both also refused to assent to one trivial footnote). O’Connor largely agreed with Marshall’s reasoning, but noted that the punitive damages issue was certainly worth of decision in another case. Scalia both agreed with White that jurisdiction law barred consideration, and with O’Connor that the issue ought to be decided some time in the future.

Blackmun dissented from the holding about the 15% law. It violated Due Process because a great many appeals that it punished were not actually frivolous. Worse yet, the law had an exception for plaintiffs who lost in the first instance, and then appealed. Blackmun could not tolerate that kind of discrimination, since the law could only ever punish the original defendant.

These kinds of cases always leave me torn. On the one hand, the insurance company was being a jerk, and deserved some extra punitive damages. On the other hand, there very often are meritorious appeals where the appeals court simply gets it wrong, and I hate seeing a party being punished just because the court failed to rule correctly. So, it’s a dilemma.

Traynor v. Turnage

485 U. S. 535

April 20, 1988

The GI bill helped veterans go to school for 10 years after honorable discharge. This 10 year period could be extended if they missed school due to disabilities not caused by “willful misconduct.” Two veterans were denied this extension when their alcoholism was ruled “willful misconduct.” They sued under the Rehabilitation Act, which denied any discrimination against the handicapped. There was a standing challenge because normally determination about veterans benefits did not get judicial review.

The Court unanimously found standing, since the dispute was over the Rehabilitation Act, and not veterans administration itself. Then the Court held 4-3 that the extension could be denied for alcoholism (Scalia and Kennedy did not participate). White said the same Congress that passed the Rehabilitation Act also intimated that it was fine with alcoholism being deemed “willful misconduct.” White concluded that there was no discrimination against the handicapped – just those who had committed misconduct. In light of the ambiguity about the Rehabilitation Act’s reach, and alcoholism’s status as a ‘disease,’ the Court had no trouble deferring to the veteran’s administration.

Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He told sob stories about the veterans getting into drinking as little children, and how they had no choice in the development of their addiction. Blackmun also cited literature showing how hard it is to beat alcoholism. He thought they deserved to at least argue that they had committed no “willful misconduct,” and that the Rehabilitation Act gave them that right. Legislative history showed that the Rehabilitation Act was intended to cover alcoholism, and the Congressional acquiescence to the “willful misconduct” standard wasn’t entirely explicit.

This is a very interesting case about accountability. Is it fair to hold a full grown man accountable for a habit he developed at age 8? Maybe no, but this is also a case about entitlements. These men were given 10 whole years of free government assistance, and they still demanded more! Government aid is a generous privilege, not some natural right, and I do get tired of Brennan and friends pretending otherwise so often.