Supreme Court Update

In this update we’ve got musings about free speech rights for public high school students, product liability claims and the healthcare sector, the invalidation of Maine’s nanny state law regarding tobacco sales to minors, old-fashioned Constitutional criminal procedure, and pension laws.

Court Upholds Ruling Protecting Student’s Free Speech

The Supreme Court on Tuesday left intact a ruling that said a Novato, California school district violated a student’s freedom of speech when it confiscated a high school newspaper because of an editorial the student wrote attacking illegal immigrants.

Ah, yes, the Smith v. Novato School Dist. case.

It so happens yours truly was a court-appointed mediator for that dispute (technically a settlement conference judge pro tempore). I distinctly remember urging the school district to settle. Perhaps they should have listened.


The lower court ruling, issued last May by an intermediate state appeals court in San Francisco, relied on a California law that protects freedom of speech and of the press in public schools more strongly than federal First Amendment rights guaranteed under Supreme Court precedents.

Ah, yes, California’s state 1st amendment law for public school students. Grass roots democracy in action.

Here’s a link to a surprisingly-objective and non-biased article by the S.F. Chronicle.

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Court Severely Limits Product Liability Lawsuits Over Medical Devices

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled 8-1 that state product liability lawsuits cannot be filed for injuries caused by medical devices if said devices were approved for sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

That’s good news for medical device manufacturers and distributors. Which over the long term will be very good news for consumers and the economy at large. Reduced potential legal liability for the medical device industry means lower overall healthcare costs.

Here’s a link to the AP’s version of events.

Incidentally, young students and inherited-wealth professors might be inclined here to begin reflexively projecting their leftism in connection with that ruling under the guise of states’ rights. Unfortunately for that approach, the doctrines of preemption, supremacy and the dormant commerce clause have been on the books for long periods of time. Furthermore no actual and legitimate states’ rights activist would sufficiently be vapid or banal to argue that states should be permitted to enact laws affecting interstate commerce that *directly conflict* with federal laws. I mean, come on, let’s get real.

Speaking of which:

Maine’s Regulatory Scheme Against Tobacco Transporters Struck Down

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Wednesday that Maine cannot impose a regulatory scheme on transportation companies delivering tobacco products directly to consumers. Maine had enacted the law to ensure state tax collections and to keep cigarettes from being sold to minors. The High Court determined, however, that federal transportation laws block states from regulating transport companies in that manner.

Here’s a link to the AP’s report.

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States Are Permitted Retroactively to Apply New Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled 7-2 that state courts err if they categorically refuse to consider the retroactive application of new Supreme Court pronoucements on criminal procedure in connection with state habeas corpus filings. Although state courts are not required retroactively to apply new federal Constitutional rules to state post-conviction proceedings, they are not prohibited under federal law from doing so.

Is that cryptic enough for you?

In other words, let’s suppose at John Doe’s state court trial a videotaped statement from his accuser was introduced into evidence. Doe gets convicted. A few years later, after Doe has exhausted his state court appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court determines in a different but analogous case that a videotaped statement from the accuser improperly was admitted into evidence and that doing so violated the accused’s federal Constitutional right of effective cross-examination. The Supreme Court’s ruling is “new,” in that it announces a precedent not already on the books. Doe then files a state habeas corpus petition and argues that new rule of criminal procedure means his own finalized conviction is not valid and he requests a new trial.

A state court is not required to give him a new trial. By the same token, however, it cannot categorically refuse to do so without considering whether or not state law dictates the new federal rule should retroactively be applied.

Here’s a link to the actual text of the opinion. Here’s a link to the AP’s uneducated report.

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Employees and Former Employees Can Sue 401(k) Plan Administrators For Botching Their Investments

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Wednesday that individual participants in 401(k) plans can sue their plan administrators for failing to follow their instructions regarding the makeup of their investment holdings.

That means a lot more 401(k) lawsuits. Fortunately for the money management industry, however, the legal rules which apply to such lawsuits — the ERISA pension law and its regulations — are so strict and so favorable to plan administrators that explosions of defense costs and judgments simply are not going to happen.

Here’s a link to the AP’s report.

GOP Veeps -- Part II
"Quid Pro Quo, Clarice"