Supreme Court Opens Term with Docket Marked by Civil Rights and Environmental Issues

By Otero, Juan | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Opens Term with Docket Marked by Civil Rights and Environmental Issues


Otero, Juan, Nation's Cities Weekly


The new Supreme Court term, which opened last week, has no high-profile cases to match last session's tangles over hot-button cultural issues. The high court's docket does include cases that, depending on their outcome, could significantly bolster or weaken environmental protection, federal civil rights, and the Fourth Amendment's shield against unreasonable searches and seizures.

About half of the court's docket is yet to be decided, making any characterization of the complete term premature, but there are several cases that the court has agreed to review that cities should watch.

More Federalism Issues

A prime battleground will be the constitutional allocation of power - between the federal government and the states. Arguably, the most important federalism case this session is Solid Waste Agency vs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (No. 99-1178).

The case emerged after the Army Corps of Engineers denied permits to create a landfill outside Chicago. In this challenge, brought by a consortium of more than twenty municipalities, the high court will revisit the scope of Congress' lawmaking authority under the Constitution's commerce clause. The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County wanted to build a landfill on a former strip mine where pools of water collect after heavy rains--pools where migratory birds, including the rare blue heron, now flock each year.

The Corps blocked the landfill project, saying that the Clean Water Act gives it the authority to protect migratory bird habitats. In siding with the Corps, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that although the destruction of each isolated pond had no discernible effect on interstate commerce - a source of Congress' power to legislate - "the aggregate effect is clear" and that effect has a substantial impact in interstate commerce. The Court of Appeals noted that bird watchers and hunters spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, often traveling across state lines, to pursue their hobbies.

At the center of the case is the court's evolving commerce-clause jurisprudence, a developing constitutional standard that seeks to limit congressional and federal regulatory jurisdiction to only those activities that are primarily economic and that substantially affect interstate commerce.

Lawyers representing the municipal interests in the case say the Corps of Engineers is empowered to regulate navigable waters of the US, not isolated ponds and lakes. Government lawyers argue that federal regulation is appropriate because migratory birds travel from state to state and that hunters and bird-watchers spend considerable money (a form of economic activity) watching and hunting those birds.

It is important to note that while the Supreme Court has addressed a series of commerce clause decisions in the past few years, this case may have the largest practical scope. How the nine justices resolve the federalism-environmental collision will go a long way toward answering basic questions about the scope of federal regulatory power and whether environmental protection will continue to be pursued as a national mandate or on a more gradual basis as the responsibility of individual states.

Fourth Amendment Limitations

The Supreme Court will attempt to delineate further the balance between police powers and an individual's right to privacy. As long as the high court shows no signs of abandoning judicial regulation of criminal procedures, the justices will be forced to define the parameters of Fourth Amendment protections.

In Atwater vs. City of Lago Vista, (99-1408) the court will decide whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits a custodial arrest for a fine-only traffic offense committed in the presence of the arresting officer. In this case Atwater was stopped for driving without a seat belt and for allowing her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to ride in the front seat of her vehicle without seat belts, all of which are misdemeanors under Texas law. …

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