Magazine article State Legislatures

Mid-Term Review: Supreme Court Cases This Term Hold Less Importance to States Than in Previous Years, but They Are No Less Intriguing

Magazine article State Legislatures

Mid-Term Review: Supreme Court Cases This Term Hold Less Importance to States Than in Previous Years, but They Are No Less Intriguing

Article excerpt

The biggest cases the Supreme Court will decide this year--a challenge to the president's recess appointment power, a campaign finance case, and a challenge to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate--aren't as far-reaching as the big cases of the recent past. But even though they won't have a great impact on states, the docket is interesting.

Since the magazine previewed Supreme Court cases in the October/November 2013 issue, the Court has ruled in one case and accepted another Clean Air Act case, a public employee free speech case, and another Fourth Amendment search case.

By March 1, the court had issued just one opinion in cases affecting states. In Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs, the court ruled that a federal court should not have abstained from deciding a case challenging a decision by the Iowa Utilities Board because it was also being challenged in a state court. Sprint had contested a decision by the utility board in federal and state courts simultaneously.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, ruled proceedings such as the utility board do not "resemble ... state enforcement actions," which do warrant abstention, because they were not "akin to criminal prosecution" and were not initiated by the state. The high court also said that a previous court decision (Younger) applies to only three "exceptional circumstances." The State and Local Legal Center filed an amicus brief in this case.

Can the federal government use a treaty to prosecute an assault case?

The question relevant to states in Bond v. United States is whether the federal government can prosecute an individual under a statute implementing a treaty that it would not otherwise have the authority to enact. Upon discovering her best friend was pregnant with her husband's child, Carol Anne Bond, a biochemist, acquired toxic chemicals from her workplace and Amazon and spread them on her friend's mailbox, door and car handles a total of 24 times over half a year. Her friend repeatedly contacted the police, who did nothing about the situation. But when she mentioned to the post office that the chemicals were being spread on her mail box, postal inspectors set up video cameras and caught Ms. Bond in the act. Since a federal agency can't charge someone with attempted murder or assault, it indicted Ms. Bond for violating an international chemical weapons treaty which makes it a crime to use a toxic chemical for anything other than a peaceful purpose. While Ms. Bond concedes the treaty is valid, she argues that the indictment violates the 1 Oth Amendment because states--not the federal government--typically punish assaults.

Missouri v. Holland, decided nearly 100 years ago, however, states that Congress may implement a valid treaty even if it would otherwise be unable to enact legislation in that area. The Supreme Court may avoid the question of whether Missouri v. Holland should be limited or overruled by deciding that Ms. Bond's use of the chemicals didn't violate the federal statute. She argues the statute does not apply to "conduct that no signatory state could possibly engage in--such as using chemicals in an effort to poison a romantic rival."

Does the EPA have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources?

In 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act. The question in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA is whether the agency may regulate greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources, like power plants and factories, too.

The D.C. Circuit concluded that the EPA does have the authority, because in Massachusetts v. EPA the court determined that the Clean Air Act's overarching definition of "air pollutant" may include greenhouse gases. The EPA significantly increased the amount of greenhouse gases that will initially require permitting because otherwise millions of stationary sources would need permits. …

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