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.
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.
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.
485 U. S. 680
April 27, 1988
A postman named Edward Hyde was fired for unlawfully delaying mail delivery. According to a collective bargaining agreement, postmen could only be fired for “just cause,” and an arbitrator unaccountably ruled that failing to deliver mail on time was not “just cause.” A District Court tried to set aside the arbitrator’s ruling as contrary to public policy, but the Court of Appeals said that no clearly defined public policy had been violated.
By a per curiam order, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted. While the Court of Appeals was probably technically correct, the facts of the case are utterly appalling. If failing to deliver mail isn’t “just cause” for a mailman being fired, then what the h3ll is?
485 U. S. 617
April 25, 1988
The Court was going to decide a discrimination case in the near future. In advance, the Court asked the parties to brief and argue whether the 1976 decision of Runyon v. McCrary should be overruled. Runyon v. McCrary said that even private organizations could not practice racial discrimination according to an old civil rights law. The Court noted that it specifically asks parties to reassess previous decisions from time to time, and that there’s no bar to the Court abandoning a prior interpretation of statutory law.
This order was per curiam, and 5-4. Blackmun and Stevens wrote dissents, and each had it joined by Brennan, Marshall, and the other. Blackmun said that the Runyon ruling had been relied on repeatedly, and was pretty well established and unquestioned. Those sorts of rulings are not supposed to be reexamined willy-nilly. Stevens observed that the parties had not asked for Runyon to be reconsidered, and argued that reconsidering it would prove unsettling to racial minorities who had put their trust in the ruling.
This is it: the very first decision ever that was Rehnquist-White-O’Connor-Scalia-Kennedy against Brennan-Marshall-Blackmun-Stevens. We will see this again many times from 1988 to 1990. As for the decision itself, it was a good one. If a previous ruling was wrong, it should be overruled, end of story. With some very limited exceptions, I have no patience for stare decisis or judicial restraint objections to reconsidering old rulings. Better to get it right belatedly than to boldly stand by error.
485 U. S. 409
April 4, 1988
Federal employers do not need to negotiate with unions over any matter where the employer is just following regulations – unless the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) determines that there is no “compelling need” for the regulation. There was a dispute at an army base about Black Friday being a day off. The army stood behind a regulation, but the union began an unfair labor practice proceeding anyway. The FLRA backed the union, without first determining that there was no “compelling need” for the regulation.
In an unanimous per curiam, the Supreme Court stopped these FLRA shenanigans. The statutory text, legislative history, and purposes of the law were all in agreement. The FLRA simply could not rule for a union in an unfair labor practice proceeding without first deciding that there wasn’t a compelling need for the regulation. Open and shut plain language case. There’s been quite a few of those lately. It’s really a shame that courts have to waste so much time with litigation involving blatant failures to abide by simple statutory text.
485 U. S. 395
March 29, 1988
In Arkansas, the Social Security and veteran’s benefits of a prisoner could be seized by the state to pay for the costs of that prisoner’s incarceration. Clever, huh? Unfortunately for Arkansas, federal law flatly prohibited any seizing of Social Security or veteran’s benefits. Arkansas claimed that there was an “implied exception” to this prohibition when the state paid for all of a person’s financial costs.
In a unanimous per curiam ruling, the Supreme Court curtly disagreed. When the federal law said that benefits were not to be touched, they were not to be touched! It was an open and shut case, and the “implied exception” business was just nonsense. Initially, I was inclined to think of the Arkansas legal community as complete idiots. But then I remembered Wells Fargo, where “all taxation” didn’t actually mean all taxation – and I had just a tiny bit of sympathy for Arkansas.
485 U. S. 388
March 28, 1988
A year earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that New Mexico had cheated Texas out of some water, and needed to repay it. Whether this repayment would be through money or specific performance was left undetermined, and the Court said a River Master would be appointed to help settle everything. Now, a year later, a new decree was ready to be entered. This new decree chose specific performance as the remedy required of New Mexico. It also appointed Neil S. Grigg (a water expert) to be River Master, and defined his duties with some detail. Stevens did not participate in the formulation of this decree.
485 U. S. 386
March 23, 1988
The State of California submitted a Medicaid plan amendment to the Secretary of Health and Human Services for approval. The HHS Secretary did not approve it, arguably in violation of a statutory duty to do so. A suit was filed, but in the meantime Congress stepped in and demanded that the Secretary approve the amendment. The Secretary did so, which made the lawsuit moot. In a per curiam announcement, the Supreme Court stated all this (Kennedy did not participate).
485 U. S. 265
March 21, 1988
A widow and her child sued a cargo ships company (Stanships) for her husband’s wrongful death. She lost, but appealed. Shortly afterward, the ship company successfully filed a motion to be awarded court costs. When the widow did not subsequently renew her request for appeal, Stanships tried to get the case dismissed because the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure required re-filing when a court amends its final judgment.
The Supreme Court slapped down Stanships in an 8-1 per curiam decision. The aforementioned rule only applied when the judgment on the legal merits was altered or amended, not when the totally separate issue of costs was re-examined. A careful parsing of the Federal Rules related to court costs bolstered this conclusion. Thus, the widow could go ahead with her appeal without needing to re-file. Marshall, as always, dissented, and opined that the Court should have heard oral argument before reaching a verdict.
Usually, the Supreme Court is a cold and callous organization which does not care about establishing justice. But on very rare occasions, like in Rose, it will remember the Bible’s warning: “cursed [is] anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19). And so, on that beautiful day in March of 1988, eight Justices protected Mercilyn Buchanan against the abusive ship company, just as they had protected Carrie Rose sixteen months earlier. Obedience to God must not be so vanishingly rare, but I suppose a tiny amount of obedience is better than none.