Thornton v. United States (03-5165), Nelson v. Campbell (03-6821) and order list

May 25, 2004 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!
Only two opinions yesterday, but several interesting grants for next Term. I'll begin with the opinions.
First, in Thornton v. United States (03-5165), the Court officially expanded the scope of the car-search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. In New York v. Belton (1981), the Court held that when an officer makes a lawful arrest of an automobile occupant, he may search the vehicle's passenger compartment as an incident to that arrest. Now, that exception to the warrant requirement applies even when the officer does not make contact until the person arrested has already left the vehicle. (Thornton had argued that the Belton exception only applied when the officer initiated contact with the arrestee while he was still an occupant of the car.) This is an opinion by the Chief (for himself, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer), so the rationale is pretty simple: The police and the public need a bright line rule for car searches, and Belton provided such a rule. This case is in all relevant respects identical to Belton (safety of officer, potential for destruction of evidence), so the same bright line rule should apply. Really. That's the sum total of the analysis. O'Connor, who joined the Chief's opinion except to the extent it responded to Scalia, concurred in part. She noted that this case was a logical extension of Belton, but that she agrees with Scalia's assessment that this area of the law needs rethinking. Scalia (joined by Ginsburg), concurred in the judgment. He thinks that the Belton rule has effectively authorized routine exploratory car searches, with no mooring in the Constitution. He would limit Belton searches to cases where it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found. Stevens (joined by Souter) dissented. He does not think that Belton needs to extend to this case, and so would not do so.
Next, in Nelson v. Campbell (03-6821), a unanimous Court (opinion by O'Connor) held that Nelson, an Alabama death row inmate, could pursue his challenge to Alabama's execution procedure through a Section 1983 suit. Nelson abused drugs for many years, and so has "compromised peripheral veins." I'm not really sure what that means except that the usual methods for inserting an IV don't work on him. Therefore, to execute Nelson by lethal injection, Alabama proposed to use a procedure called a "cut-down" to access his veins. When he learned of Alabama's plans, Nelson objected to this procedure, arguing that there were other, less painful methods to accomplish the same goal. He raised his objections in a 1983 suit, and included a request for an injunction to stop his execution. The big question in this case was whether the 1983 suit was proper, or whether Nelson should have filed his claim in a habeas petition. Claims challenging the fact of a conviction or the duration of a sentence must be raised in a habeas petition, while constitutional claims that challenge the conditions of confinement may be brought in a 1983 suit. A claim seeking to enjoin the use of a particular method of execution doesn't fall neatly into either category however. Thankfully for the Court, they didn't have to resolve the larger question of how to categorize method-of-execution claims generally. In this case, the State conceded that a prisoner could challenge the use of the cut-down procedure in a 1983 suit if he were not facing execution (i.e., if the procedure were being used to provide medical treatment), and there is no reason to treat this case any differently just because Nelson is condemned to die. Nelson conceded that there were acceptable alternatives to the cut-down procedure and so he was not trying to call into question the death sentence itself. The only remaining question was whether Nelson's request for stay of execution transformed his conditions-of-confinement claim into a challenge to the validity of the sentence. The issue is effectively moot in this case because the execution warrant has now expired, but on remand, the district court should be careful to review any request for injunctive relief to determine whether Nelson is asking to enjoin the execution or merely an allegedly unnecessary medical procedure that is a precursor to the execution.
Finally, the Court granted cert in 6 cases, but because of consolidations, they only really decided to resolve three issues:
1. Goughnour v. Payton (03-1039). This is a habeas case in which the Ninth Circuit held that the California Supreme Court's decision was objectively unreasonable. (That's about all you need to know to guess that the Court is going to reverse here.) In this case, the California Supreme Court held that Boyde v. California (1990), which upheld a jury instruction that directed the jury to consider any other mitigation evidence in the context of a case where the mitigation evidence was "pre-crime" evidence, also applies when the mitigation evidence is "post-crime."
2. The wine cases: Granholm v. Heald (03-1116), Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Assn v. Heald (03-1120), and Swedenburg v. Kelly (03-1274): Several states prohibit out-of-state wineries from shipping wine directly to their residents, while not imposing the same restriction on in-state wineries. Challenges to these provisions have been popping up all over the country, and now the Court will decide the following question from these three cases: Does a State's regulatory scheme that permits in-state wineries directly to ship alcohol to consumers but restricts the ability of out-of-state wineries to do so violate the dormant Commerce Clause in light of Sect. 2 of the 21st Amendment?
3. Veneman v. Livestock Marketing (03-1164) and Nebraska Cattlemen v. Livestock Marketing (03-1165): These suits challenge the constitutionality of the 1985 Beef Promotion and Research Act, which requires cattle producers to pay assessments to fund generic advertising. ("Beef. It's what's for dinner.").
That's all for now. The Court is scheduled to hand down opinions again next Tuesday. Until then, have a great Memorial Day Weekend!

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