Five Observations About Today's Five Supreme Court Rulings

Forget about Anthony Weiner for a second to consider the day's news about the 10th Amendment, sentencing, and more


Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The United States Supreme Court Thursday issued five opinions that almost certainly will be under-reported here, there, and everywhere on account of the day's unfolding Weiner-rama, Weiner-drama. The justices didn't unload any blockbusters on an unsuspecting world -- those are still to come before the end of the month -- but their day's work merits a closer look. If nothing else, you can impress your friends and bar-mates this weekend when you change the subject from "What's up with those scandalous New York lawmakers?" to "What do you make of Justice Anthony's 10th Amendment opinion?"

First, the Court unanimously resolved Smith v. Bayer Corp, a case about class-action litigation. Justice Elena Kagan declared that a federal judge who had tossed out a class-action certification had no authority to bar a similar state-court class action from proceeding toward trial. "... [T]his case does not strike us as close," Justice Kagan candidly wrote. Which means it has very little at all to do with the other class-action case of the Term, the big one, Dukes v. Walmart, over which the justices still are noodling. I'd be surprised if that one isn't a 5-4 or 6-3 split one way or the other.

Next, the Court unanimously resolved Tapia v. United States, a case about sentencing and rehabilitation. Once again, Justice Kagan delivered a unanimous opinion. And once again the Court reversed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The justices ruled that a sentencing judge may not increase a defendant's sentence in order to allow the inmate to complete a prison rehabilitation program. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only member of the current Court who was once a trial court judge, wrote separately to say that she wasn't at all sure that the trial judge had messed up.

Speaking of Justice Sotomayor, she wrote the day's third opinion for the Court and here's where things started to get interesting. And by interesting I mean "conflict-ridden." By a 5-4 vote, in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Court ruled that a suspect's age (the defendant was 13) is relevant in determining whether law enforcement officials have complied with their obligations under United States v. MirandaJustice Sotomayor wrote: "It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave." This prompted a dissent from Justice Samuel Alito, who warned that the majority ruling would muddy the Miranda field.

Speaking of Justice Alito, he wrote the Court's fourth opinion of the day. In Davis v United States, the Court ruled 7-2 against a man whose car was searched after he was placed in handcuffs at a routine traffic stop. The cops found a gun and the suspect ultimately was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The legal precedent which supported the search was later overturned but it was too late for the defendant. For the majority, which included Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, Justice Alito wrote that there was no valid reason to undo what the police had done in good faith observance of then-existing law. Justice Stephen Breyer, in dissent, wrote that he feared the majority opinion would undermine the 4th Amendment's "exclusionary rule."

Which brings us to the fifth and final Court ruling. The justices saved their best for last! In Bond v. United States, the Court unanimously sided with Carole Anne Bond, a woman who allegedly tried to poison her former best friend after discovering the woman was pregnant with Bond's husband's love child. I wrote in detail about the case here when it came up for argument. On Thursday, Justice Anthony Kennedy and company ruled that Bond could challenge the federal case against her by arguing that the 10th Amendment limited federal authority over the crime. The Court remanded the case to the lower courts -- it will be years before it's resolved -- but you can be sure that Tenth Amendmentistas all over the country will be rejoicing at this procedural "victory."