Seven rulings from the Supreme Court


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 3rd of March, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, the Supreme Court handed down seven opinions last week, and today we summarize them. 

But first, last week the court decided to hear a case next term crucial to children and religious freedom. A decision in that case will clarify what role faith-based agencies may have in the foster care and adoption system. The City of Philadelphia in 2018 wouldn’t permit children to be placed into foster families arranged by Catholic Social Services, unless it abandoned its belief that marriage is one man, one woman.

EICHER: On to the seven decisions handed down last week.

First, the two split opinions, with the five conservative justices in the majority each time.

Case one: a majority ruled against a Mexican family who wanted to sue in U.S. federal court. A U.S. Border Patrol agent had shot and killed the family’s teenage son. What made the case legally difficult is the agent was on the American side of the border and the young boy on the Mexican side.

The legal question was whether the family could sue in American courts under a so-called “Bivens action.” That’s a right to sue a federal agent for violating constitutional rights in some situations. 

The majority justices wrote that the separation of powers guides its decision, and that if Congress wants to expand the right to sue, then that’s what Congress ought to do, not the courts.

REICHARD: A second split decision came in a death penalty case. Here, a jury sentenced a man to death 20 years ago, and that man is not entitled to a re-sentencing that takes into account his post traumatic stress. An appeals court considered James McKinney’s circumstances, and the court said that’s good enough. You can hear the eventual ruling in this comment during oral argument from Justice Brett Kavanaugh:

KAVANAUGH: You are requiring a new jury sentencing 28 years after the murders and after the victims’ families have been through this for three decades…. Why go back to a jury re-sentencing 28 years later?

EICHER: The next five decisions are unanimous ones. 

A child custody dispute between an Italian father and an American mother ended with victory for the father. The mother said she fled Italy with their child when her husband became abusive. He sued under the Hague Convention, which forbids removing a child from her “habitual residence” in custody battles. All nine justices found the specific facts of this case showed the child’s habitual residence is in Italy, where she has lived for the past three years.

REICHARD: Next, the court clarified that it’s not necessary for a criminal defendant formally to object to his sentence in order to preserve his appeal for a shorter one. Here, a man’s lawyer failed to object to the prison sentence when it came in, and procedural rules blocked him from raising it later. That obstacle is now gone.

EICHER: The third decision has to do with the Armed Career Criminal Act, ACCA. The court, again unanimously, ruled it’s not necessary that state and federal drug offenses align to trigger ACCA’s longer sentences. 

A Florida convict racked up multiple convictions for cocaine sale and possession, but the state court didn’t require a finding that he had a “guilty mind” in doing it. The federal crime does require such a finding. But the Supreme Court said, none of that matters. You do the crime, you do the time.

REICHARD: Next: the question of who gets the tax refund when affiliated corporations file consolidated tax returns? The justices sent this one back to lower court to figure out who owns the refund under state law. This one is really complicated but essentially the Supreme Court told the lower courts don’t make up rules that the Constitution doesn’t allow.  Another way of looking at it is, whoever is the rightful owner of that $4 million refund is going to have to wait a little longer to receive it.

EICHER: Finally, a win for the man who doesn’t read his mail. 

Christopher Sulyma worked for Intel. He sued the fiduciaries of his retirement plan for what he saw as mismanagement.  But Intel’s argument was, we mailed him information about those investments, as the law requires. Not our fault he didn’t read them. 

But the justices’ sympathies seemed to be with Sulyma. You could clearly pick that up during oral argument. Here’s Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

GINSBURG: And…there are many people who don’t read these mailings. I must say I don’t read all the mailings that I get about my investments.  [Laughter]

EICHER: The law is ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The legal issue was whether he had “actual knowledge” that fraud happened in this case. If he did have it, he’d have less time to bring a lawsuit. The justices ruled “actual knowledge” here cannot be presumed. 

The opinion was clear Intel is going to have to show evidence of “willful blindness.” But the company will have to do it in another proceeding.


Attorney Cristobal Galindo, second from left, speaks accompanied by Jesus Hernandez, left, and Maria Guereca, and attorney Marion Reilly in front of the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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