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This Week at the Court: In Plain English

December is here, and by this time of year, we are starting to see the Court multitask, so to speak – issuing opinions in cases heard over the past two months, hearing arguments in cases granted several months ago, and granting cert. in new cases.  Earlier this week, the Court decided a controversial case unanimously, and it heard arguments in several others.  Let’s discuss – in Plain English.

A key concept for Court watchers to understand is the difference between finding facts and applying law.  Federal district courts are fact finders; they decide what happened and who did what in a legal dispute.  Like other appellate courts, the Supreme Court relies on the facts that have already been established – a factual “record” – and decides how the law properly applies to those facts.  In some cases, when the law is unclear or is still developing, the Court must articulate new legal standards.  Then it is up to the lower courts to apply those standards in future cases. 

Take Los Angeles County v. Humphries, decided unanimously earlier this week.  In this case, the Court considered a couple who had been improperly placed on a government list of child abusers, a situation that the lower court called “every parent’s nightmare.”   Among the implications?  Being listed could prevent the innocent parents from engaging in their teaching jobs and volunteer activities, both of which required background checks.   But when they sought to have their names removed, the county refused, saying that there was no proper mechanism for doing so, because the list was maintained by the state, not the county.

Reading the facts, many people might think, “Wow, that’s really wrong.  Those facts are terrible.  The parents should be able to sue.”

But the Court disagreed, holding unanimously that under a case called Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, the parents could not sue unless the county had a policy or custom of depriving people of their constitutional rights.

This case is a perfect example of the fundamental Supreme Court role I just described.  The Court does not decide cases based on the nature of the facts, but rather on how the law governs the factual situation at hand.  In other words, the Court considers legal principles in making its decisions, even if applying those principles to the facts means that people who have suffered in situations even more difficult than in the Humphries case cannot get relief. 

Why would that be?  Well, it is because the U.S. justice system is predicated upon the concept that the law should be applied consistently and predictably.  The benefit of consistent application of the law is that all people and entities, no matter who they are,  are treated the same way in the same circumstances, and they are on notice as to what the law requires. 

The result?  A functional legal rule in most situations means that a factual situation will be resolved in a way that resonates with those who have been wronged.  But occasionally, it means that the party who wins will be the one who has been harmed by inconsistent application of legal principles, not by the factual situation.  Here, the county won because it didn’t have a policy of depriving people like the Humphries of their constitutional rights.  Craig and Wendy Humphries lost because, while no one doubted that they had been wronged, they could not show that the county wronged them through application of a legally prohibited policy.

On to the biggest story of the week:  Tuesday’s oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, a case dealing with unconstitutionally poor prison conditions in California.  In this case, prisoners joined together to protest (among other things) severe overcrowding and poor medical care in the state’s prisons.  According to prior Supreme Court holdings, prison conditions that are not humane are unconstitutional .  The prisoners filed suit in federal court, seeking an order that would require the state to fix the problems, and the lower court agreed, ordering California to do so within two years.

But California took its case to the Supreme Court, arguing that relieving overcrowding would require it to release tens of thousands of convicted criminals, creating a public safety issue.  It asserted that it needed more time, not federal court intervention, to resolve the problems endemic to prisons everywhere (as evidenced by the fact that eighteen other states supported California). 

Like in Humphries, the Court will not decide the facts of this case (here, whether or not prison conditions are bad) – a point Justice Kagan that made explicitly to Carter Phillips, who appears frequently at the Court and who argued on behalf of the state in Plata.  The lower court has already decided that conditions are appalling.  Rather, just as in Humphries, the Court’s job is to decide what to do about a system that does not work as it should.  Should the Justices uphold the lower federal court’s order to reduce the prison population and rectify the unconstitutional conditions within two years?  Or should they defer to California in running its own prison system?  Many commentators concluded that the Justices seemed split on how appropriately to handle the situation, even as they agreed that prisons in California are overcrowded and unhealthy.  In a case of this magnitude, we may not see an opinion for several months.

This week’s grants were particularly newsworthy, as the Court agreed to hear two cases out of Arizona concerning campaign spending.  The Court’s decision last Term in Citizens United v. FEC made a big splash with its holding that, under the First Amendment, corporations could spend freely to support candidates for public office.  The new cases, Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett, are challenges to an Arizona law that tries to even the political playing field by giving candidates with small war chests public funds to help them compete against candidates with access to large amounts of cash.  First Amendment protections are again at issue as the Court considers whether such aid violates the free speech rights of others who raise their own funds.

The end of the year means that the holiday season is upon us, and that is just as true at the Supreme Court as it is everywhere else.  And those around the Court make merry, just as the rest of us do.  While the world outside the Court tends to view the Court as ideologically divided (and that may be true when it comes to the cases it hears), many do not realize that those who work inside the Court building are unusually collegial, with many employees (including the Justices themselves) working there for ten, twenty, or even thirty years.  A big event at the Court?  The annual Christmas Recess party (yes, although some have objected over the years, the “Christmas” moniker remains) at which Court employees and their families eat, drink, and sing along with the Chief Justice.  The Court collects Toys for Tots, and several  Marines come in their dress reds and accept the gifts on behalf of the Marine Corps. 

But before the big event, the Court still has a lot of work to do.  Up next week?  Another Carter Phillips argument (two in two weeks is unusual, even for those advocates with many Supreme Court arguments under their belts), plus orders from the Justices’ December 3 Conference.  I’ll explain it all in Plain English.

Recommended Citation: Lisa Tucker, This Week at the Court: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 3, 2010, 7:27 AM),