Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions

Fireburn, puppycide, and the DOJ beggars belief.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Please enjoy the latest edition of Short Circuit, a weekly feature from the Institute for Justice.

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Espinoza v. Montana Dep't of Revenue, an IJ school choice case. Click here for an account of the hearing from IJ's Nick Sibilla. Or click here to ponder along with Anthony Sanders, the director of IJ's Center for Judicial Engagement, what it means to have the gov't on both sides of the case. Or click here for an IJ podcast that notes, among other things, that the U.S. stands nearly alone among the world's democracies in providing so few educational options—pedagogical, secular, religious, private, public—to families.

  • Zeta drug cartel assassins attack two American agents in Mexico, killing one and injuring the other. After extradition to the U.S., they are convicted of, among other things, killing an officer or employee of the United States and using a firearm while committing a crime of violence. Wait a minute! Do these laws even apply outside the U.S.? D.C. Circuit (creating a circuit split): We generally presume laws don't apply extraterritorially unless there's evidence Congress intended that. There is such evidence for the law about using a firearm but not for the other law. Remanded for resentencing.
  • Operating a website with the intent to promote or encourage the prostitution of another person is a federal felony punishable by 10 years in prison (25 years in some circumstances). A coalition of sex-worker advocacy groups and others worried about running afoul of the law sue, alleging it violates the First and Fifth Amendments. D.C. Circuit: And at least two of them—the founder of a website that allows sex workers to share information about products and services they use and a massage therapist who can no longer advertise on Craigslist—have standing. Concurrence: But the law doesn't reach the sort of pure issue advocacy the other plaintiffs engage in.
  • Federal law bans people from obtaining firearms if they have been convicted of a "serious" crime that carries a potential punishment of over a year in prison. Does that violate the Second Amendment rights of a man who was convicted of DUI in 2005? Third Circuit: The conviction carried a maximum sentence of five years, so no gun for him. Dissent: We all agree that DUIs are serious, but his exact crime would lead to a federal prohibition on gun possession in only 8 of 51 jurisdictions.
  • In 1878, workers in then-Danish colony of St. Croix, Virgin Islands set fire to 50 sugarcane plantations and burn much of the town of Frederiksted to the ground. (Among their grievances: a law that allowed them to change jobs only once a year—on one particular day of the year.) Starting in 2009, a St. Croix legislator obtains $90k in public funds to research the revolt—locally known as Fireburn—for a movie. Yikes! The legislator (who is also the author of a three-volume etiquette guide for young men) spends most of the money on other stuff. Third Circuit: Conviction affirmed.
  • While visiting an inmate in a Virginia prison (who was suspected of running drugs in the prison), woman is observed adjusting her clothes in ways officers deem suspicious. They interrupt the visit to tell her that she must consent to a strip search if she ever wants to visit again. The crying woman is subjected to a full strip search, during which she is required to undress, remove her tampon, squat and cough, and expose her anus. (No contraband is discovered.) Was the search supported by reasonable suspicion? Fourth Circuit (over a dissent): Hey, she admits she touched her clothes; what else do they need to form a suspicion?
  • Allegation: Augusta County, Va. police officer arrives outside woman's home, encounters woman's dog (a German Shepherd named Jax), and shoots the dog in the head. Woman sues. Officer: I reasonably felt threatened by the 150-pound Jax, who was advancing toward me and barking. Woman: Jax was tied to a zip lead, and it was obvious he couldn't have reached the officer. District court: Qualified immunity.  Fourth Circuit: The case must proceed. A reasonable officer would have known that shooting the restrained Jax was unreasonable.
  • "At worst, the officers heard reports that a man fitting Jones's rough description was eating out of a dumpster." So no qualified immunity, holds the Sixth Circuit, for the Elyria, Ohio officers who allegedly frisked, tackled, and tased a compliant Jones.
  • Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder receives a voicemail saying, "former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, I am going to murder you." Sixth Circuit: Which is indeed a true threat. Conviction upheld.
  • Under Indiana law, if a woman in an opposite-sex marriage gives birth, her husband is presumed to be the child's biological father and is listed on the birth certificate. If a woman in a same-sex marriage gives birth, only the birth mother will be listed on the birth certificate, even if the wife donated the egg. The only way to have both mothers listed on the birth certificate is to go through the adoption process. An equal protection violation? Clearly so, says the Seventh Circuit, though the district court's injunction went a bit too far.
  • An Illinois inmate with a year of miserable rectal pain will get a trial, holds the Seventh Circuit. His evidence—that a prison doctor insisted on treating anal warts rather than the fissure causing the pain—gets him past summary judgment.
  • Seventh Circuit: In which Frank Easterbrook is having none of the DOJ's bull@#$%.
  • Allegation: While jogging through a St. Louis park, man stops to watch police officer conducting traffic stops. Concerned that a "suspicious person" is following her, the officer radios for assistance. When the jogger refuses to disclose his Social Security number to one of the dispatched officers, the officer frisks, cuffs, and detains him for 20 minutes before a supervisor orders the jogger released. Eighth Circuit (over a dissent): Any reasonable officer would know that you can't detain someone just for quietly watching police at work. No qualified immunity; remanded to sort out factual disputes.
  • After years in prison for murder, four Fairbanks, Alaska men enter into a settlement with the state under which their convictions are vacated. (For the backstory, take a look at this informative article about "the Fairbanks Four.") Upon their release, they sue the city and four police officers for all manner of constitutional violations associated with their convictions. District court: No dice; your lawsuit would call into question the original convictions, which is not permitted. Ninth Circuit (over a dissent): Yes dice; the original convictions were vacated, so the case may proceed.
  • Venerable legal news service sues Ventura County, Calif. court over its policy of prohibiting media access to newly filed complaints until after those complaints have been processed, which can take several days. After years of litigation, the court adopts a new policy, under which complaints received before 3:00 p.m. are immediately scanned and made publicly available, while complaints received after 3:00 p.m. are processed the following day. Unsatisfied, the news service challenges the new procedure. Ninth Circuit: The old procedure violated the First Amendment right of access, but the new one is fine.
  • Environmental activists: The gov't has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change. That violates the right to a "climate system capable of sustaining human life," per the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. We demand a court order requiring the gov't to develop a plan to "phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2." Ninth Circuit: We're scared, too, but that isn't something a federal court can do. Dissent: If courts can oversee desegregation orders, they can oversee this. Otherwise, "[w]hen the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?"
  • Property owners decline $56k offer for easement allowing pipeline to bisect their 40-acre Lake County, Fla. property. The pipeline company employs eminent domain, and the pipeline goes in anyway. Yikes! A jury awards the property owners over $300k in just compensation. New trial? Eleventh Circuit: Nope. Pay up.

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