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Supreme Court takes Clean Water Act case

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The justices agreed to take up a Clean Water Act case brought by San Francisco against the Environmental Protection Agency in a scheduled list of orders on Tuesday. The case was the only addition to the justices’ docket for their 2024-25 term. And over a dissent by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the justices declined to decide whether the Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by a 12-person jury when the defendant is charged with a felony.

The justices did not act on two sets of high-profile petitions that they considered last week: a group of challenges to bans imposed by Illinois and several municipalities in that state on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as challenges to bans on gender-affirming care for minors in Tennessee and Kentucky.

The justices’ lone grant of review came in City and County of San Francisco v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which they agreed to decide whether the limitations in the permit issued to San Francisco for its discharges of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean violate the Clean Water Act because they are too vague and don’t impose specific limits, but instead impose “narrative” limitations – prohibiting discharges that “cause or contribute to a violation of any applicable water quality standard” and barring the creation of “pollution, contamination, or nuisance” as defined by a provision of state law.

The justices denied review in the case of Rodolfo Medrano, who was sentenced to death for his role in a 2003 gang robbery that led to the fatal shootings of six people. Prosecutors conceded that Medrano was not actually at the scene of the crime. Instead, they contended, he supplied the guns that his fellow gang members used to commit the crimes, and under a Texas law known as the “law of parties” he could face the same punishment that the shooters faced: death. Medrano insisted that although he had given the guns to the shooters, he believed they would only be used for a robbery.

Medrano’s conviction relied on statements that Medrano himself had made to police about his involvement in the planned robbery. Medrano had initially invoked his right to silence and asked for a lawyer, but the police officers investigating the robbery urged his wife to persuade him to talk to them, telling her that if he spoke with them he could return home to her and their baby. After speaking with his wife, who begged him to tell the police what he knew about the crimes, Medrano gave his statements to police.

As the case comes to the Supreme Court, Medrano contended that the use of his statements violated his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark 1966 decision that requires police officers to tell suspects that they have a right to remain silent and to have a lawyer with them during interrogation.

Medrano also raised a challenge to the denial by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, of his second petition for post-conviction relief. However, after repeatedly putting off their consideration of Medrano’s petition and then considering the case at two consecutive conferences, the justices denied review without comment.

On the same day that closing arguments began in the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump, who is accused of falsifying business records to hide “hush money” payments made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels, the Supreme Court declined to take up the case of Daniels’ former attorney, Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison for demanding up to $25 million from Nike in exchange for his promise not to reveal allegedly corrupt payments by Nike to the families of college basketball recruits. Avenatti was representing Gary Franklin, a youth basketball coach whose organization had received funding from Nike for nearly a decade, after Nike ended its relationship with the group. Nike has denied any wrongdoing.

Avenatti came to the Supreme Court earlier this year, asking the justices to decide whether one of the statutes under which he was convicted – barring fraud that deprives someone else of “the intangible right of honest services” – is so vague that it is unconstitutional. The justices should also weigh in, Avenatti contended, on whether an attorney can be held liable for extortion for his conduct during litigation. But the justices declined to do so.

Avenatti represented Julie Swetnick, who made allegations of sexual misconduct against Justice Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh – who has denied all of the allegations made against him – indicated on Tuesday’s order list that he did not participate in Avenatti’s case, although he did not explain the reason for his recusal.

Over a dissent by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the justices declined to decide whether the Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by a 12-person jury when the defendant is charged with a felony. The question came to the court in the case of Natoya Cunningham, who was convicted by a six-person jury and sentenced to eight years in prison.

A Florida state court upheld Cunningham’s conviction. It pointed to another recent state court decision that rejected a defendant’s challenge to the constitutionality of a six-person jury. The state court in that case explained that in 1970, in Williams v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that “six-person juries were constitutionally permissible” and that the Supreme Court “has not revisited its express holding in Williams.”

Cunningham (as well as several other Florida defendants convicted by a six-person jury) came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to take up her case and consider whether to overrule Williams. She argued that under the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, explaining that the Sixth Amendment’s right to “trial by an impartial jury” includes the rights that the term meant when the amendment was originally adopted, means a twelve-person jury in criminal cases.

After considering the case at six consecutive conferences, the justices denied review. In a three-page dissent, Gorsuch complained that “Florida does what the Constitution forbids because of us.” Calling the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williams an “embarrassing mistake” that “turned its back on the original meaning of the Constitution, centuries of historical practice, and a ‘battery of this Court’s precedents,’” he noted that the court in Williams had relied on “academic studies” that “tepidly predicted that 6-member panels would ‘probably’ deliberate just as carefully as 12-member juries.” But those studies, he stressed, turned out to be wrong.

Gorsuch expressed hope that, even if there are not currently four justices – the number needed to grant review – who want to reconsider Williams, there may be someday. But until then, he continued, “nothing prevents the people of Florida and other affected States from revising their jury practices to ensure no government in this country may send a person to prison without the unanimous assent of 12 of his peers.”

The justices will meet again for another private conference on Thursday, May 30. They will issue orders from that conference on Monday, June 3.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Supreme Court takes Clean Water Act case, SCOTUSblog (May. 28, 2024, 10:42 AM),