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The Supreme Court's 2007-08 Term
Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (6-3 Decision): In this case, the majority tossed out a challenge to Indiana’s voter ID law, saying that the state had a legitimate interest in requiring a valid, unexpired, in-state ID, even though it presented no evidence of voter fraud. In two separate dissents, Justice Souter, joined by Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer argued that the ID law was an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, given the evidence that it would thwart legitimate voters without correcting an existing problem with fraud.
Davis v. Federal Election Commission (5-4 Decision): The Court struck down the so-called “Millionaire’s Amendment” from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. The amendment provided that once a Congressional candidate declared her intention to spend more than $350,000 of his own money on his campaign, his opponent would be allowed to accept contributions of three times the usual limit. Rather than limiting the amount a self-financed candidate could spend, the amendment represented Congress’s attempt to level the playing field and to counter the perception that Congressional seats are available for purchase by the highest bidder. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, nevertheless concluded that Congress’s interest in reducing the influence of personal wealth on elections did not constitute a legitimate government interest and thus could not justify a restriction on a candidate’s First Amendment rights. Justice Alito misconstrued prior precedent to announce that the only government interest that can justify campaign finance regulation is the elimination of corruption or the appearance of corruption – even though the Court just five years earlier recognized the “untoward consequences” of wealth in the political process. In retrospect, Davis was just the Roberts Court’s first step in undoing a century of precedent on its way to unleashing a torrent of money into the political process.
District of Columbia v. Heller (5-4 Decision): The Court struck down the District of Columbia’s gun restrictions, which for over 30 years played an integral role in the city’s fight against urban violence. Concluding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, Justice Scalia failed to provide legislatures with guidelines on firearm restrictions, thereby ignoring dozens of his own opinions in which he criticizes other decisions he dislikes as “opening the floodgates of litigation.”
Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (5-3 Decision): The Court held that punitive damages cannot exceed compensatory damages in maritime cases, creating a new “1:1 ratio,” and leaving tens of thousands of people affected by the oil spill with only a tenth of what the jury had awarded them. Dissenting in part, Justice Stevens wrote that “Congress, rather than this Court, should make the empirical judgments” expressed in the majority’s opinion, rather than “embarking on a new lawmaking venture.” Justice Stevens maintained that evidence that Congress had affirmatively chosen not to restrict the punitive damages in this kind of case “favors adherence to a policy of judicial restraint,” but the majority failed to offer any justification for deviating from that policy and “ignore[d] the particular features of maritime law that may counsel against imposing the sort of limitation the Court announces today.” Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion dissenting in part, echoing Justice Stevens’s comment on the “venturesome character of the Court’s decision.” She also raised several questions prompted by what she described as the Court’s “lawmaking,” including a question that resonates in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: “In the end, is the Court holding only that the 1:1 is the maritime-law ceiling, or is it also signaling that any ratio higher than 1:1 will be held to exceed ‘the constitutional outer limit?’”
Medellin v. Texas (6-3 Decision): In this case, the majority dismissed a treaty and a decision by the International Court of Justice as unenforceable, writing that even an order from the President instructing states to follow international law cannot make Texas do so. In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Souter, wrote that the Constitution makes treaties a part of the law of the land, which Texas must follow.
Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. (8-1 Decision): Charles Riegel suffered serious injury when a balloon catheter burst during an angioplasty procedure, and he sued the catheter’s manufacturer, Medtronic, Inc., for damages. Medtronic moved to dismiss the lawsuit by arguing that patients cannot bring state-law damage actions if they were injured by medical devices that received premarket approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The Supreme Court held that the state law claims were preempted by federal law. Now, if the FDA gives a medical device its stamp of approval, no state can supplement it with tougher regulations and no jury can assess damages against a corporation in the event that the device is faulty. The Bush administration supported Medtronic and inserted into more than 60 health and safety regulations the new legal theory that federal permission to market a device preempts unsafe product lawsuits in state courts. Lower court judges have since thrown out lawsuits filed on behalf of thousands of Americans who are endangered by faulty medical devices – even in a case where Medtronic, which also manufactured a faulty heart-defibrillator that can deliver potentially fatal shocks, admitted that patients have died and others have been seriously harmed by its product.
Stoneridge Investment Partners, LLC v. Scientific-Atlanta, Inc. (5-3 Decision): In Stoneridge, investors brought a securities fraud class action, alleging that they had been harmed by a fraudulent accounting scheme perpetrated by Charter, the company that had issued the shares, along with Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta, which had sold equipment to Charter in a manner that helped it to cook the books. The issue in the case was whether §10b-5 of the Securities Act of 1934 allowed the investors to sue not only Charter, but also Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta, which allegedly knew that they were participating in Charter’s fraudulent scheme. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, found that §10b-5 did not provide a private cause of action against Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta because their alleged participation in the scheme was “too remote to satisfy the requirement of reliance.” In dissent, Justice Stevens wrote that the Court’s reliance analysis was incorrect because reliance is a method of showing causation and the acts of Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta “had the forseeable effect of causing [Charter] to engage in the relevant securities transactions.”