- Alan Gura, Gura & Possessky PLLC
- Professor Kurt Lash, Illinois Law
On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. In 2012, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission redrew the map for the state legislative districts based on the results of the 2010 census. Wesley Harris and other individual voters sued the Commission and alleged that the newly redrawn districts were underpopulated in Democratic-leaning districts and over-populated in Republican-leaning ones and that the Commission had, therefore, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Commission countered that the population deviations were the result of attempts to comply with the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge district court ruled in favor of the Commission.
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court by a vote of 8-0. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, which held that the federal district court did not err in upholding Arizona's redistricting plan. The challengers failed to demonstrate, the Court explained, that illegitimate considerations more likely than not were the predominant motivation for the plan's population deviations.
To discuss the case, we have Mark F. “Thor” Hearne, II, who is Partner at Arent Fox LLP.
On June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin. This is the second time the case has come before the high court. Abigail Fisher, a white female, applied for admission to the University of Texas at Austin (the University) but was denied. Fisher sued the University and argued that the use of race as a consideration in the admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that the University’s admissions process was constitutional, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The case went to the Supreme Court (Fisher I), which held that the appellate court erred in how it applied the strict scrutiny standard, improperly deferring to the University’s good faith in its use of racial classifications. On remand the Fifth Circuit again ruled in favor of the University, deeming its use of race in the admissions process narrowly tailored to a legitimate interest in achieving “the rich diversity that contributes to its academic mission.”
On its second trip to the Supreme Court, the question was whether the Fifth Circuit’s re-endorsement of the University’s use of racial preferences could be sustained under the Equal Protection Clause. By a vote of 4-3, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, which held that the race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of Fisher’s application was narrowly tailored and lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Roger B. Clegg, who is President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity.
On June 9, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Williams v. Pennsylvania. Terrance Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed Williams’ conviction and sentence, and his initial attempts to obtain state postconviction relief failed. His subsequent petition for federal habeas relief also failed. He again sought post-conviction penalty-related relief in state court and prevailed in the Court of Common Pleas on a claim of unlawful evidence suppression. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the grant of relief and lifted the stay of execution (though a temporary reprieve was later granted by the governor for other reasons). The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, who had joined the opinion reversing the grant of relief to Williams, had also been the District Attorney for Philadelphia during Williams’ trial, sentencing, and appeal. In that capacity, Castille had authorized his office to seek the death penalty for Williams. Williams had moved to have Chief Justice Castille recuse himself from hearing the appeal of post-conviction relief, but Castille declined to do so.
The central question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether Justice Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and remanded the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that under the Due Process Clause, where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Cassandra Burke Robertson, who is Professor of Law, Laura B. Chisolm Distinguished Research Scholar, and Director, Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.