Justia Writers’ Round Up – Supreme Court Opinions Issued June 25, 2013

The Supreme Court issued three opinions today. Read more about the decisions below.

Shelby County v. Eric H. Holder, Jr. 
Docket: 12-96
Date: June 25, 2012

Read commentary and review lower court decisions related to Shelby County decision here.

vote signJustia Opinion Summary:  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. 1973(a), was enacted to address racial discrimination in voting. Section 2 bans any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen … to vote on account of race or color,” applies nationwide, and is permanent. Other sections apply to some parts of the country. Section 4 defines “covered jurisdictions” as states or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting and had low voter registration or turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. Section 5 provides that no change in voting procedures can take effect in covered jurisdictions until approved by federal authorities (preclearance). The coverage formula and preclearance requirement were to expire after five years, but the Act was reauthorized. In 2006, the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years, but coverage still turned on whether a jurisdiction had a voting test and low registration or turnout almost 50 years ago. Shelby County, in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, sought a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional. The district court upheld the Act. The D. C. Circuit affirmed. A 5-4 Supreme Court reversed, finding Section 4 unconstitutional. Its formula may not be used to require preclearance. States have broad autonomy in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives; the Tenth Amendment reserves to states “the power to regulate elections.” There is a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the states. The Voting Rights Act departs from those principles by requiring states to request federal permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute. The Act applies to only nine states (and additional counties). In 1966, the departures were justified by racial discrimination that had “infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century” so that the coverage formula was rational in practice and theory. Nearly 50 years later, “things have changed dramatically.” Voter turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions approach parity; blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. Minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. Congress, if it is to continue to divide the states, must identify jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense under current conditions. Data compiled by Congress before reauthorizing the Act did not show anything like the pervasive, rampant discrimination found in covered jurisdictions in 1965. Congress reenacted the formula based on 40-year-old facts with no logical relation to the present day.

Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl
Docket: 12-399
Date: June 25, 2013
Merit & Amicus Briefs
Lower Court Opinion (South Carolina Supreme Court)

Justia Opinion Summary:  The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) establishes federal standards for state-court custody proceedings involving Indian children. It bars involuntary termination of parental rights absent a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian child is likely to result from the parent’s “continued custody” of the child, 25 U.S.C. 1912(f); conditions involuntary termination of parental rights on showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the “breakup of the Indian family,” (1912(d)); and provides preferences for adoption of Indian children to extended family, members of the tribe, and other Indian families, (1915(a)). Before Baby Girl’s birth, Biological Father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, agreed to relinquish his parental rights. Birth Mother put Baby Girl up for adoption through a private agency and selected non-Indian adoptive parents. During the pregnancy and the first four months of Baby Girl’s life, Biological Father provided no financial assistance. Four months after the birth, Adoptive Couple served Biological Father with notice of the pending adoption. Biological Father sought custody and stated that he did not consent to the adoption. South Carolina Family Court denied the adoption petition and awarded Biological Father custody. At the age of 27 months, Baby Girl was given to Biological Father, whom she had never met. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, stating that, assuming that Biological Father is a “parent” under the ICWA, that law does not bar termination of his parental rights. “Continued custody” refers to custody that a parent already has or at least has had; section 1912(f) does not apply where the Indian parent never had custody. Section 1912(d) conditions involuntary termination of parental rights on a showing of efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family; the section applies only when the “breakup” would be precipitated by terminating parental rights. When an Indian parent abandons an Indian child before birth and that child has never been in that parent’s custody, the “breakup of the Indian family” has long since occurred, and section 1912(d) is inapplicable. Section 1915(a)’s placement preferences are inapplicable if no alternative party has formally sought to adopt the child. Biological Father did not seek to adopt, but only argued that his parental rights should not be terminated.

Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District 
Docket: 11-1447
Date: June 25, 2013
Merit & Amicus Briefs
Lower Court Opinion (Florida Supreme Court)

Justia Opinion Summary:  In 1972 Koontz bought 14.9 undeveloped acres. Florida subsequently enacted the 1972 Water Resources Act, requiring a permit with conditions to ensure that construction will not be harm water resources and the 1984 Henderson Wetlands Protection Act, making it illegal to “dredge or fill in, on, or over surface waters” without a wetlands permit. The District with jurisdiction over the Koontz land requires that applicants wishing to build on wetlands offset environmental damage by creating, enhancing, or preserving wetlands elsewhere. Koontz decided to develop 3.7-acres. In 1994 he proposed to raise a section of his land to make it suitable for building and installing a stormwater pond. To mitigate environmental effects, Koontz offered to foreclose development of 11 acres by deeding to the District a conservation easement. The District rejected Koontz’s proposal and indicated that it would approve construction only if he reduced the size of his development and deeded a conservation easement on the larger remaining property or hired contractors to improve District wetlands miles away. Koontz sued under a state law that provides damages for agency action that constitutes a taking without just compensation. The trial court found the District’s actions unlawful under the requirements of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, that the government may not condition permit approval on the owner’s relinquishment of a portion of his property unless there is a nexus and rough proportionality between the demand and the effects of the proposed use. The court of appeal affirmed, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that a governmental demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit. The Nollan/Dolan standard reflects the danger of governmental coercion in the land-use permitting context while accommodating the legitimate need to offset public costs of development through land use exactions. It makes no difference that the Koontz property was not actually taken. It does not matter that the District might have been able to deny Koontz’s application outright without giving him the option of securing a permit by agreeing to spend money improving public lands. Even a demand for money from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements; there is a direct link between the demand and a specific parcel of real property. The Court rejected arguments that applying Nollan/Dolan scrutiny to money exactions will leave no principled way of distinguishing impermissible land-use exactions from property taxes, stating that its holding “will not work a revolution in land use law or unduly limit the discretion of local authorities to implement sensible land use regulations.”