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SCOTUS Update, Week of February 27th 2017

While the rest of the media booms and crashes about the future of the Supreme Court, the Justices themselves continue their march through the docket. Here is a look at the cases that will be argued this week.

Arguments This Week

– The first case the Supreme Court will hear on February 27th is Packingham v. North Carolina. The petitioner was convicted of breaking a law that regulates the online behavior of registered sex offenders. Under this law, someone on the sex offender registry is not permitted to access sites like Facebook and YouTube, where it is possible to initiate contact with minors. The petitioner was convicted based on a Facebook post he made. The Supreme Court will decide whether or not the law under which the petitioner was convicted is a violation of the First Amendment.

– Later on Monday the 27th, the Court will hear argument in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions. This case involves both criminal law and immigration law – so-called “crimmigration” cases that have been a frequent focus of the Court this term. The petitioner was a lawful permanent resident of the US when he had sexual relations with his girlfriend, who was a minor at the time. Esquivel-Quintana was 21 years old at the time. Many states, as well as D.C., have relaxed provisions concerning 21-year-olds having sex with an individual who is nearly 18 years old. California, where Esquivel-Quintana lived at the time, is not one of these states. Esquivel-Quintana was charged with “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor”. Under federal statutes, this means he must be removed from the US. The Supreme Court will decide whether the circumstances of this case merit the petitioner’s removal.

Dean v. United States deals with sentencing guidelines and judicial discretion. The original case involved a bank robber – petitioner Dean – who accidentally discharged his firearm during a robbery. Under current statutes, the firing of a weapon during a robbery carries a mandatory sentence. Dean and his counsel argue that the sentencing guidelines are not so strict. The Eighth Circuit, in previous precedent, established the rigidity of the sentencing guidelines and the courts’ level of discretion therein. The Supreme Court will weigh in on how much wiggle room there should be.

Coventry Health Care of Missouri v. Nevils is yet another case concerning whether a federal law pre-empts conflicting laws at the state level. In this case, petitioner Nevils had health insurance under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act (FEHBA). He was insured, and Coventry – his insurance provider – covered his costs through the FEHBA plan. After Nevils won a case against the person responsible for his injuries, Coventry asked for reimbursement. A Missouri state law prohibited such reimbursement. Some provisions of FEHBA pre-empt state laws, but Nevils argues that in this case, state law still applies. The Supreme Court will hear argument on exactly when and how the FEHBA supersedes state law.

Certiorari Granted

In its conference last Friday, SCOTUS granted certiorari to Class v. US. In this case, petitioner Class, a veteran, was found with legal weapons in his car and prosecuted. It is illegal to possess weapons in the Capitol, where he was at the time. Class entered a guilty plea, but argues that a plea does not waive the constitutional right to challenge a conviction.

Other News

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a lengthy, impassioned dissent on a death penalty case, Arthur v. Dunn. Death penalty issues and attendant Eighth Amendment concerns have been an ongoing theme in this Supreme Court term. Justice Sotomayor vociferously defended the efforts of petitioner Arthur, who amassed significant evidence to show that current lethal injection methods in Alabama violate the Eighth Amendment. She lays out a compelling case for revisiting lethal injection procedures in light of the decreased availability of drugs necessary to produce a “humane execution”. Her argument also concerns the Eighth Amendment’s supremacy over various state laws that may inhibit its exercise. It is unclear what effect Justice Sotomayor’s dissent will have on future death penalty cases.