Follow Barack Obama prior and during his tenure as the 44th President of the United States. Read about my personal observations along with every day facts as they happen. This blog will only submit factual information about the first black President, now in his 2nd term of office.


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U.S. Supreme Court

Friday, March 4, 2011

                  The Term at a Glance

March 2.  The court ruled unanimously that corporations have no personal privacy rights for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.
March 2. The court found that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protestsoutside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families, ruling 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.
Feb. 23. The court unanimously ruled that the family of a woman killed in a head-on collision may sue the maker of the minivan she was riding in for failing to install lap-and-shoulder belts.
Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images
Feb. 22. The court heard arguments in a case that touched on the most pressing constitutional question of the day: just how much power does Congress have to regulate matters ordinarily left up to the states? The fate of President Obama’s health care law will turn on how that question is answered.
Feb. 22. People injured by vaccines that they say were improperly designed must rely solely on a compensation system created by a 1986 law and may not sue vaccine manufacturers, the court ruledin a 6-2 decision.
Jan. 19. The court ruled in a unanimous decision that scientists and engineers who work on government space programs and other employees of government contractors must submit to intrusive background checks if they want to keep their jobs.
Jan. 18. The state secrets privilege, which enables the government to shut down litigation by invoking national security, was at the center of an argument.
The 2010-2011 term of the Supreme Court, which began Oct. 4, includes cases on some of the most contested issues of the day, including protests at military funerals, illegal immigration, support for religious schools, violent video games, DNA evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.
The term’s arguments and decisions will be scrutinized for insights into the thinking of the court’s newest member, Justice Elena Kagan, and for hints about how the court will rule when even more highly charged cases reach it, probably in a year or two, on federal health care legislation, same-sex marriage, the treatment of gay members of the armed services and the recent Arizona law giving the police there greater authority to check the immigration status of people they stop.
In her confirmation hearings, the then solicitor general said she would recuse herself “from any case in which I served as counsel of record” and “any case in which I played a substantial role.” Because she worked on both pre-emption cases while solicitor general, she has recused herself. Her old job will prevent her from participating in about half of the 54 cases on the docket so far, raising the possibility of 4-to-4 deadlocks. But her participation in the court’s work will rise as the term progresses and the aftereffects of her last job start to recede.
In early November, Justice Kagan gave some strong hints about how she would apply her recusal standard in cases concerning two major social issues. The hints came in two terse and routine orders from the court saying only that the justices would not intervene in proceedings under way in the lower courts.
One concerned the recent health care legislation. There Justice Kagan indicated that she would not recuse herself. The other was about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military. There she stepped aside.
How is this known? The order in the second case but not the first said: “Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this application.”
That is the court’s stock formula. Justices Stephen G. Breyer andSonia Sotomayor used essentially the same language in noting their own recusals from other cases in early November. There was no indication, on the other hand, that Justice Clarence Thomas had disqualified himself from the case involving the health care law. His wife, Virginia Thomas, has been affiliated with a group that opposes the law and has not disclosed its contributors. None of these justices explained why.
The following are among the most significant cases the court will be hearing in the 2010-2011 term:
In a second major First Amendment case, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, No. 08-1448, the court will decide whether states may restrict the sale of violent video games to minors. The lower courts in the case and many courts considering similar questions have uniformly said no.
The Supreme Court has never extended to violent materials the principles that allow the regulation of sexual materials. But the justices agreed to hear the video games case in April 2010, just days after striking down a federal law making it a crime to sell dogfight videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.
Protection for Prisoners

In a pair of cases involving death row inmates, the justices will consider what an inmate may do to try to establish his innocence and what legal recourse is available to exonerated prisoners.
The first question is presented in Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, an appeal from Hank Skinner, an inmate in Texas who is seeking access to DNA evidence that he says could prove his innocence. In March, the court granted a stay of execution less than an hour before Mr. Skinner was to be put to death in the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons.
Mr. Skinner seeks to test blood, fingernail scrapings and hair found at the scene of the killings. He maintains that he was sleeping on a sofa in a stupor induced by vodka and codeine when the killings took place on Dec. 31, 1993. Prosecutors say he is making his request too late, adding that testing would be pointless because “no item of evidence exists that would conclusively prove that Skinner did not commit the murder.”
The case concerning a prisoner’s exoneration is Connick v. Thompson, 09-571, which arose from a $14 million jury award in favor of a former inmate who was freed after prosecutorial misconduct came to light.
The former inmate, John Thompson, sued officials in the district attorney’s office in New Orleans, saying they had not trained prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. A prosecutor there failed to give Mr. Thompson’s lawyers a report showing that blood at a crime scene was not his.
Mr. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 in solitary confinement. He once came within weeks of being executed.
Material Witnesses
The material witness law is typically used to hold people who have information about crimes committed by others when there is reason to think they would otherwise not appear at trial to give testimony. Critics say the Bush administration radically reinterpreted the law after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, using it as a preventive-detention tool.
Laws allowing the preventive detention of suspected terrorists are common in Europe. The United States does not have such a law, but the plaintiff in the case, Abdullah al-Kidd, who was born in Kansas, contends that a policy set by Mr. Ashcroft allowed federal prosecutors to use the material witness law to the same end.
Mr. Kidd, who described himself in a 2004 interview as “anti-bin Laden, anti-Taliban, anti-suicide bombing, anti-terrorism,” was never called to testify as a witness or charged with a crime. He was detained after F.B.I. agents wrongly concluded that he had bought a  one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia, where he was going to work on doctoral studies. He then spent 16 days in federal detention in three states in 2003, sometimes naked and sometimes shackled hand and foot.
The Obama administration had urged the justices to reverse a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that had allowed Mr. Kidd’s lawsuit to proceed. “If permitted to stand,” Acting Solicitor General Neal K. Katyal wrote, “the decision below would seriously limit the circumstances in which prosecutors could invoke the material witness statute without fear of personal liability.”
Compensation for a Vaccination
On Oct. 12, the Supreme Court struggled to divine the balance Congress had meant to strike in a 1986 law that established a system to compensate people injured by vaccines while barring some, but not all, lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.
Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, No. 09-152, the case before the justices, involved Hannah Bruesewitz, who received a vaccine known as D.T.P. as an infant in 1992. The vaccine, made by Wyeth, offers protection against diphtheriatetanus and pertussis, or whooping cough. Ms. Bruesewitz suffered intense seizures and has experienced developmental problems and seizure disorders ever since.
Her parents filed a petition for compensation in the vaccine court, which ruled against them, saying they had not proved that the vaccine caused their daughter’s injuries. They then sued in state court in Pennsylvania. The case was moved to federal court, where Wyeth has so far won.
The question in the case is whether the 1986 law displaced — or pre-empted, in the legal jargon — ordinary injury suits brought under state law. The Roberts court has been much engaged with the limits of the pre-emption doctrine, and it will also hear cases in the 2010-2011 term involving arbitration, immigration and seat belts that raise pre-emption questions.
Ms. Bruesewitz’s case turns on the text of the federal law, which bars ordinary lawsuits “if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.” Much of the argument concerned the meaning of the word “unavoidable.”
A Case From Death Row
On Oct. 13, in an argument about a death row inmate’s quest to testDNA evidence, the justices asked neither of the questions that people without legal training might have thought crucial: Why won’t Texas prosecutors consent to the testing? And could the results show that the inmate, Henry W. Skinner, is innocent of the triple murder that sent him to death row?
The justices focused instead on whether Mr. Skinner had located a path through a thicket of legal doctrines meant to limit postconviction challenges.
In 2009, the court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that inmates have no freestanding right under the Constitution’s due process clause to test evidence that could prove their innocence in states without laws on DNA testing. The court and Congress have, moreover, severely limited habeas corpus challenges to convictions and sentences.
Mr. Skinner chose a third route, suing under a federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 and saying a Texas law that allows DNA testing in only some circumstances violated his rights.
That position required Mr. Skinner’s lawyer, Robert C. Owen, to maintain that his client’s goal, at least for now, was not to challenge his conviction or death sentence, as such challenges would have to be brought through a habeas petition, but simply to test the evidence.
Prosecutors said in their briefs that Mr. Skinner was playing games with the system, dragging out his case and seeking to impose unacceptable burdens on government resources and the victims’ dignity. They added that testing would be pointless because “no item of evidence exists that would conclusively prove that Skinner did not commit the murder.”
Holding a Material Witness
The court agreed on Oct. 18 to decide whether the former United States attorney general, John Ashcroft, may be sued over a law that allows for the holding of a “material witnesses.” The plaintiff, Abdullah al-Kidd, spent more than two weeks in federal detention in three states in 2003. He was never charged. Mr. Kidd argues that the law used to detain him on suspicion of terrorist activities.
In 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco allowed Mr. Kidd’s suit to proceed, rejecting Mr. Ashcroft’s claim that he was entitled to prosecutorial immunity. 
Violent Video Games
On Nov. 2, the justices struggled to define how the First Amendment applied to the sale of violent video games to minors.
They worried about whether it made sense to extend, for the first time, principles allowing the government to regulate depictions of sex to depictions of violence. They considered conflicting studies on the effects of violent video games on young people. And they expressed doubt about whether the law at issue, from California, drew sensible distinctions among the games it covered.
The law would impose $1,000 fines on stores that sell violent video games to people under 18. It defined violent games as those “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” in a way that is “patently offensive,” appeals to minors’ “deviant or morbid interests” and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
Most of the justices seemed to agree that a ruling in favor of the California law would require a novel extension of First Amendment principles to expressions concerning violence.
Religious Schools and Tax Credits
In 2002, in a 5-to-4 ruling, the court upheld a school voucher system in Cleveland that parents used almost exclusively to pay for religious schools. Since then, four new justices have joined the court, but nothing in arguments heard on Nov 3, 2010, suggested that the issue has become any less polarizing.
The program at issue before the court gives Arizona taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit of up to $500 for donations to private “student tuition organizations.” The contributors may not designate their dependents as beneficiaries. The organizations are permitted to limit the scholarships they offer to schools of a given religion, and many do.
The program was challenged by Arizona taxpayers who said it effectively used state money to finance religious education and so violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on the official establishment of religion. The program was novel and complicated enough that the court’s decision on the merits might not be particularly consequential. But a threshold question, about whether the challengers have legal standing to sue, could give rise to an important ruling.
Working Students and Taxes
On Nov. 8 , justices heard a case — Mayo Foundation v. United States, No. 09-837 — concerning medical residents, who work long hours as part of their studies and often earn more than $50,000 a year. Under a 2005 Treasury Department regulation, they are subject to Social Security taxes, in spite of an exemption for work performed. But students who would otherwise qualify for the exemption lose it if they work more than 40 hour per week, even if they learn from what they do. 
Under a 2005 Treasury Department regulation, residents are subject to Social Security taxes, notwithstanding a statutory exemption for work performed by students who regularly attend classes, as residents do. The regulation says that students who would otherwise qualify for the exemption lose it if they work more than 40 hour per week, even if they learn from what they do. According to a brief filed by residency programs that are seeking tax refunds, there are about 100,000 residents in 8,000 programs nationwide. According to a government brief, medical residents are subject to about $700 million in Social Security taxes each year.
Theodore B. Olson, a lawyer representing the programs seeking refunds, told the justices that they are fundamentally educational, including “a rigorous core curriculum” with “hundreds of classes, conferences, lectures, laboratory research, written exams, grades and intensive, hands-on clinical patient training under the supervision of faculty members.”
But Matthew D. Roberts, a lawyer for the government, said residents were “workers who are working between 50 and 80 hours a week over many years for substantial salaries” and so “are precisely the kind of workers whose employers should be supporting the Social Security system and who should be earning credit towards disability and survivor benefits.”
The argument in the case  also included questions about Supreme Court clinics at law schools, architectural apprentices and work-study programs.
A Class-Action Suit Against AT&T Mobility
A mobile-phone contract agreed to by a couple, Vincent and Liza Concepcion, required them to resolve their disputes through the informal mechanism of arbitration and barred them from banding together with others to seek class-action treatment, whether in arbitration or in traditional litigation in court. The Concepcions sued over a $30 charge, charging fraud. Applying the California Supreme Court’s decision, federal courts in California allowed the couple's lawsuit to proceed as a class action in court.
The phone company, At&T Mobility, appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the effect of the class-action ruling was to discriminate against arbitrations in violation of the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally overrides state laws unfavorable to arbitration and requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements unless a given state law limitation applies to all kinds of contracts.
At the court hearing on Nov. 9, 2010, the Concepcions' lawyer said a ruling for the company would spell the end of class actions in all sorts of cases. AT&T's lawyer said a ruling against his client would sound a different sort of death knell, this one for the arbitration provisions that were common in many standard-form contracts.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have generally favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements and have been wary of aspects of class-action litigations. But it was hardly clear at the arguments on Nov. 10 that those two trends would continue in the latest case.
That was because it included a third, confounding element. To rule for the company, the justices would have to reject a decision of the California Supreme Court. That court said that class-action waivers in standard-form contracts, whether applicable to arbitration or litigation, were unconscionable under state law.
Much of the argument before the bench revolved around a semantic point: Is a state law prohibiting class-action waivers one that applies to all contracts or one that specially disfavors arbitration contracts?
California's Prison Conditions
Hearing arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, No. 09-1233 on Nov. 30, most of the justices appeared to believe that conditions in California's prisons were unconstitutional. But they did not seem poised to endorse a lower court order that would remedy the problem.
The order by a special three-judge federal court in California would require state officials to reduce the prison population by as many as 45,000 inmates over two years, to address what it called longstanding constitutional violations in medical and mental health treatment.
Justice Breyer said the conditions documented papers were horrendous. He referred, for instance, to a passage in one brief describing prisoners “found hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights locked in small cages.”
But Justice Kennedy, whose vote may determine the case, said the special court’s math seemed arbitrary, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he feared a rise in crime should large numbers of prisoners be released.
The court heard 80 minutes of arguments in the case, rather than the usual hour.
A Disability Bungles a Deadline
In December, the justices heard arguments in Henderson v. Shinseki, No.09-1036, which sparred over whether a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit meant to bar the courthouse door to David L. Henderson, who served on the front lines in the Korean War and was discharged after receiving a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. That disability, his lawyers said, caused him to bungle a deadline.
The appeals court said its ruling was required by a 2007 decision of the Supreme Court that said deadlines for filing appeals must be applied strictly. But the ruling in the Henderson case, according to a dissent from three of its judges, created “a Kafkaesque adjudicatory process in which those veterans who are most deserving of service-connected benefits will frequently be those least likely to obtain them.”
Mr. Henderson, who died while his Supreme Court case was pending, had sought additional government help for his condition in 2001. He was turned down in 2004. A federal law gave him 120 days to appeal that determination to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, but it took him 135 days.
But the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, Bowles v. Russell, said that deadlines for filing appeals were “jurisdictional,” meaning they are not subject to exceptions or excuses. The Bowles case concerned an inmate who missed a deadline because he had been given erroneous instructions by a federal judge.
At the Dec. 6 hearing, Justice Ginsburg, one of three justices who signed a dissent on Bowles, said the Bowles decision was “a substantial hurdle to contend with.” Justice Antonin Scalia went further, saying approvingly that “Bowles was a nice, clear case.”
Stiff Fines for Hiring Illegal Aliens
The questioning on Dec. 8 suggested that challengers to an Arizona law imposing imposes harsh penalties on businesses that hire illegal immigrants face an uphill battle in trying to capture the five votes they need to prevail. Justice Kagan, who had worked on the case as United States solicitor general, had recused herself, and so only eight justices heard the case.
A coalition of business and civil liberties groups, supported by the Obama administration, has said that the law should be struck down because it conflicts with federal immigration policy. 
The argument was simultaneously a policy debate and an extended exegesis of a crucial phrase in a 1986 federal law that regulates the hiring procedures. The question in the case was whether Arizona was entitled to supplement the penalties in the 1986 law with much tougher ones.
The debate, primarily between Justices Scalia and Breyer, concerned dueling conceptions of the role that federal and state governments should play in enforcing immigration laws. Justice Scalia said the state law was a necessary response to federal inaction. Justice Breyer, on the other hand, said the federal law had struck a careful balance between enforcing immigration laws and avoiding employment discrimination, a balance the Arizona law could undermine.
Justice Kennedy's vote would most likely have been decisive had nine justices heard the case. With an eight-member court, his vote seemed necessary but not sufficient for a victory for the challengers, and it was in any event hard to tell which way he was leaning.
Reports of a Loss of Smell
On Jan. 10, 2011, the justices heard arguments in Matrixx Initiatives v. Siracusano, No. 09-1156, a class action against Matrixx Initiatives. The Arizona company is accused of committing securities fraud by failing to tell investors of reports that its main product, a nasal spray and gel called Zicam, might have caused some users to lose their sense of smell. The condition is known asanosmia.
Justice Scalia approached it from a novel angle, asking the government lawyer, “What do you think about Satan?”
Satan came into the case by way of analogy. Matrixx contended that it should not have been required to disclose small numbers of unreliable reports of adverse effects, which were all it said were available in 2004. A link between Zicam and anosmia was reported on “Good Morning America” in 2004, and the company’s stock dropped 24 percent.
“For years many consumers would not purchase products fromProcter & Gamble because of a ridiculous rumor that the company was Satanic,” Matrixx said in a recent brief.
The Supreme Court has said that companies may be sued under the securities law for making statements that omit material information, and it has defined material information as the sort of thing that reasonable investors would believe significantly alters the “total mix” of available information.
Much of the argument revolved around whether reasonable investors would want to know about false and outlandish assertions like the one about Satanism so long as the assertions might affect the price of securities.
How Police May Search Homes
More than 60 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the police were not entitled to enter a residence without a warrant merely because they smelled burning opium. On Jan. 12, 2011, at theargument of a case about what the police were entitled to do on smelling marijuana outside a Kentucky apartment, two justices voiced concerns that the court may be poised to eviscerate the older ruling.
The old ruling, Johnson v. United States in 1948, involved the search of a hotel room in Seattle. The smell of drugs could provide probable cause for a warrant, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote for the majority, but it did not entitle the police to enter without one.
In the new case, police officers in Kentucky were looking for a suspect who had sold cocaine to an informant. They smelled burning marijuana coming from an apartment, knocked loudly and announced themselves. Then they heard sounds from inside the apartment that they said made them fear evidence was being destroyed. They kicked the door in and found marijuana and cocaine but not the original suspect, who was in a different apartment.
The Kentucky Supreme Court suppressed the evidence, saying that any risk of drugs’ being destroyed was the result of the decision by the police to knock and announce themselves rather than to obtain a warrant.
Lawyers for Kentucky and the federal government told the justices on Jan. 12 that the lower court had erred. There had been no violation of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches, they said, because the police had acted lawfully every step of the way.
Justice Kagan expressed doubts about that approach. A standard that looks only at the lawfulness of police behavior, she said, “is going to enable the police to penetrate the home, to search the home, without a warrant, without going to see a magistrate, in a very wide variety of cases.”
A Kentucky assistant attorney general said that nothing the police had done in this case had violated the Fourth Amendment. Police could theoretically break in to a residence if they smelled drugs outside, he said.
Other justices appeared untroubled by the standard the government lawyers proposed.
“There are a lot of constraints on law enforcement,” Justice Scaliasaid, “and the one thing that it has going for it is that criminals are stupid.”
State Secrets Privilege
Almost 60 years have passed since the court last had a hard look at the state secrets privilege, which can allow the government to shut down litigation by invoking national security. The privilege was at the center of an argument at the court on Jan. 18, but the justices did not seem inclined to use the opportunity to give the lower courts guidance about its contours.
The case arose from a 1988 contract between the Navy and two companies, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas, to develop a stealth aircraft called the A-12 Avenger. Three years later, dissatisfied with the contractors’ progress, the Navy declared them in default and demanded the return of $1.35 billion.
The contractors sued, asking to keep the money and seeking $1.2 billion more. They said their work had been frustrated by the government’s failure to share classified technology. The government disputed that, but would not explain why, invoking the state secrets privilege.
Justice Scalia proposed to resolve the case based on what he called “the ‘go away’ principle of our jurisprudence.” That principle means, he explained, that the courts should do nothing when they cannot determine which side is right because of the state-secrets privilege.
“So to say ‘go away’ means everybody keeps the money he has,” Justice Scalia said.
But Justice Kagan expressed doubts about having multibillion-dollar disputes turn on the happenstance of which side was holding the other’s money.
Weighing the Power of Congress
On Feb. 23, the court heard arguments in a case touching on whether the Congress could regulate matters usually left up to the states. The outcome of the recent health care law may hang in the balance. But based on the justices’ comments, the lurid facts of the case and the odd posture in which it reached the court, the eventual decision will probably offer only limited guidance on the health care law’s prospects.
The case heard, Bond v. United States, No. 09-1227, arose from a domestic dispute. Carol A. Bond, a Pennsylvania woman, did not take it well when she learned that her husband was the father of her best friend’s child. She promised to make her former friend’s life “a living hell,” and she drew on her skills as a microbiologist to do so. Ms. Bond spread harmful chemicals on her friend’s car, mailbox and doorknob. The friend suffered only a minor injury.
Federal prosecutors charged Ms. Bond with using unconventional weapons in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, a treaty concerned with terrorists and rogue states. 
In her appeal to the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, Ms. Bond argued that Congress did not have the constitutional power to use a chemical weapons treaty to address a matter of a sort routinely handled by state authorities. She cited the 10th Amendment, which says that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
The appeals court ruled that Ms. Bond did not have standing to raise a 10th Amendment defense. Only states, it said, can invoke the amendment.
Federal prosecutors initially embraced that line of argument, but the Justice Department abandoned it in the Supreme Court, saying that Ms. Bond was free to try to mount a defense based on the amendment. Since Ms. Bond and her nominal adversary agreed on the central issue in the case, the court appointed a lawyer, Stephen R. McAllister, to argue for the position the government had disowned. The outcome of the case on the standing point did not seem in much doubt at the hearing.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., for instance, said it would be “pretty harsh” to forbid Ms. Bond from challenging her conviction on the ground that the law under which she was convicted exceeded Congressional authority.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
On Nov. 12, in an unsigned, two-paragraph order, the justicesdenied a request by the Log Cabin Republicans, the group trying to overturn the law, to reinstate an order by a federal district judge in California, Virginia A. Phillips, that prohibited enforcement during the appeal. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled, however, that the military could continue enforcement during the appeal, and  the Supreme Court agreed. The decision did not address the merits of the case.
The Mandatory Minimum
In its first signed decision of the term, the court ruled on Nov. 15, 2010, that people convicted of possessing a gun while selling drugsare subject to five-year mandatory minimum sentences on top of most of other sentences. The decision was unanimous. But Justice Kagan did not participate, having disqualified herself in light of her work as United States solicitor general.
The decision involved two defendants whose cases had been consolidated. One of them, Kevin Abbott of Philadelphia, was convicted of drug trafficking, of a related gun charge with the 5-year minimum and under a law requiring a 15-year minimum sentence for career criminals. Only the latter two charges figured in his sentence, and the trial judge added them together for a total of 20 years.
The second defendant, Carlos R. Gould of Wichita Falls, Tex., pleaded guilty to a drug charge involving cocaine with a 10-year minimum sentence and the related gun charge with a five-year minimum. The trial court gave him a little more than the minimum on the drug charge — 11 years and five months — and then added five years for the gun charge.
The question in the case was what Congress meant when it revised a 1968 federal gun control law in 1998 by, among other things, adding a new preface saying the five-year minimum for having or using guns while selling drugs applied “except to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided.” Mr. Abbott argued that his 15-year-sentence for being a career criminal was such a greater minimum sentence and that it should cancel out the additional five years for the gun charge. Mr. Gould said the same about his 10-year sentence.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said it was implausible to think Congress had altered the law in 1998 in the direction of leniency. All Congress meant to say in 1998 was that defendants subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of more than five years for a particular crime — that of having or using a gun in connection with a drug crime — need only serve the longer sentence.
Congress did not mean to say, Justice Ginsburg went on, that any longer minimum sentence for unrelated crimes also canceled out the five-year gun sentence.
Medical Students and Taxes
The court ruled on Jan. 11, 2011, that medical residents must paySocial Security taxes. The case concerning medical residents considered a federal law that exempts students from paying such taxes. Allowing residents to take the exemption would cost the federal government $700 million a year, the Justice Department said.
In announcing the decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the question it presented boiled down to whether residents were “workers who study or students who work.”
Residents often work 50 to 80 hours a week, the chief justice wrote. They can make $50,000, and they often receive health insurance and paid vacations. But they work under the supervision of more senior doctors who also instruct them, and they attend lectures and take exams.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a unanimous eight-member court, said the law itself did not clearly answer whether residents were mainly workers or students. But he said a 2004 Treasury Department regulation had drawn a reasonable line.
A Ruling on Debtors
In a second decision on Jan. 11, this one featuring the first opinion from Justice Kagan, the court ruled that some bankrupt debtorswho own their cars outright are not entitled to shield a standard monthly amount for the “ownership costs” of their vehicles.
Like the decision involving Social Security taxes, the dispute in that case also concerned the meaning of a federal law, this one allowing some debtors a standard monthly allowance for car-ownership costs.
Jason M. Ransom, a Nevada man, claimed the applicable $471 allowance for a 2004 Toyota he owned outright. A credit card company seeking repayment objected, saying that only people making loan or lease payments should qualify for the deduction.
Over the course of his five-year repayment plan, the deduction would have allowed Mr. Ransom to shield $28,000 from creditors.
Justice Kagan, writing for the eight-justice majority, said “a debtor who does not make loan or lease payments may not take the car-ownership deduction.”
She acknowledged that the ruling could give rise to occasional curious outcomes. For instance, a debtor with only a single loan payment remaining would be entitled to the entire deduction.
Background Checks Upheld
Federal employees have long been required to submit to background checks. In 2004, following a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, the requirement was extended to employees of government contractors.
Twenty-eight employees of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASAcenter operated by the California Institute of Technology, sued, saying the checks would violate their constitutional right to “informational privacy.” The employees worked on civilian space missions and research.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit provisionally agreed in 2008, ordering parts of the background checks halted while the employees' case went forward. The court said that two kinds of questions in the government forms raised constitutional concerns. The employees were asked about drug use and counseling, and they were required to sign a form authorizing the government to collect information from schools, landlords, employers and others.
In an opinion for six justices, Justice Alito said he assumed for purposes of the decision that a constitutional right to avoid disclosing personal information exists, but he did not say what part of the Constitution it was grounded in or what kinds of information it covered. He did say that the information sought here did not violate whatever such right may exist. 
Justice Scalia, writing a dissenting opinion for himself and Justice Thomas, aimed harsh criticism at the majority, returning to a theme he pressed in 2009 — that the court is violating its duty and harming its reputation in issuing vague decisions.
Justice Kagan did not participate in the case.
Suit Faulting a Vaccine Rejected
In February 2011, the court ruled that people harmed by vaccines that they argued were wrongly designed must rely solely on a compensation system devised by a 1986 law and may not sue themakers of the vaccine. The vote was 6 to 2, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself because of her work on the case as United States solicitor general. 
The issue in the case was whether the compensation system created by the 1986 law displaced, or pre-empted, ordinary injury suits brought under state law. The Roberts court has been hearing many pre-emption cases under other laws, and decisions on ones concerning immigration, arbitration and seat belts are expected this term.
The case before the court, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, No. 09-152, was brought by the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz, who received a vaccine known as D.T.P. as an infant in 1992. The vaccine offers protection against diphtheriatetanus and pertussis, or whooping cough. She suffered seizures and has had developmental problems and seizure disorders since.
Justice Sotomayor, who was joined by Justice Ginsburg in dissent, said the majority opinion “disturbs the careful balance Congress struck between compensating vaccine-injured children and stabilizing the childhood vaccine market.”
First Amendement and Funerals
The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. JusticeSamuel Alito dissented.
Justice Roberts said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church. Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where his funeral was to be held.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.


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