Walker v Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.

Sons sought to have a specialty license plate including the Confederate battle flag as part of the design approved for use. The Texas government denied their request. The 5th Circuit ultimately held that the denial was viewpoint discrimination. The Court, 5-4 reversed. The majority held that just as monuments in a public park are government speech, the license plates are government speech noting the historical practice of government messages on plates and the government’s role in adopting or rejecting messages. As states can choose what to say in government speech arenas, the rejection here did not implicate first Amendment concerns. Alito, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Kennedy dissented arguing that license plates are not historically places where the private messages of specialty plate holders are government speech, the program is not selective in its receptivity and there are hundreds of specialty plate designs and thus no space limitations as there are in parks. Thus, Texas created a limited public forum in the areas of license plates which do not convey government information, viewpoint neutrality is required and the rejection here is improper viewpoint discrimination.McFadden v United States

McFadden appealed his convictions for dealing controlled substances that were analogues of listed controlled substances arguing the jury instructions did not properly convey the knowledge requirement. The 4th Circuit rejected his appeal under circuit precedent that intent that the substances be consumed by humans was enough. The Court, with one justice concurring in part and in judgment, reversed and remanded. It held that under 21 USC 841(a)(1), the accused must know either that the substance involved is listed somewhere on the schedules of controlled substances or that the analogue substance is chemically analogous to a listed substance. As the instruction here did not use this explanation of the element, the case was remanded for harmless error analysis. Roberts concurred in part and in judgment arguing that knowledge that a substance is controlled is an element of the charged crimes here and lack of knowledge is a defense to charges under 841.

Ohio v Clark

Clark appealed his convictions for child abuse arguing allowing statements by a three year old victim as to the identity of his abuser violated the Confrontation clause. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed and reversed his conviction. The Court, with three justices concurring in judgment, reversed. The majority held that the statements by the three year old to his preschool teachers were aimed at the ongoing emergency of his abuse and were not elicited in an effort to build a case against Clark. It also reasoned that young children do not understand the concept of criminal prosecution, that the fact the teachers no law enforcement took the statements was indicative here that the statements were not testimonial and there is evidence that stamen by young victims were allowed at common law and thus do not implicate the Confrontation Clause. Scalia joined by Ginsberg concurred in judgment arguing the majority opinion is hostile to the controlling precedent here and fears the dicta in the opinion presages a return to the previous, prosecution friendly regime. Thomas concurred in judgment arguing that the statements did not have sufficient indicia of solemnity to be testimonial as they were made to his teachers and he was three.

Brumfield v Cain

Brumfield sought and obtained a hearing on his intellectual disability at federal habeas review after not receiving a hearing in state court. The 5th Circuit held the state court rejection of a hearing was not unreasonable and reversed. The Court, 5-4, reversed. The majority held that the state court made tow unreasonable findings of fact namely that an IQ of 75 definitively disproves disability and there was no evidence of adaptive impairment as there was evidence in the record that Brumfield was placed in special education classes, was committed to a mental facility, received drugs to treat mental conditions and as found to have problems processing information which created the possibility of reasonable doubt about his impairment and thus a hearing at federal district court was proper. The case was remanded for further proceedings. Thomas, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Alito except as to the facts about the victim’s football player son (which Alito and Roberts argued in a separate dissent were not relevant to the issues at hand), dissented arguing that the record developed at the sentencing hearing at the original trial supported the state court findings about mental disability and adaptive skills and accused the majority of recasting these factual findings as legal conclusions and wrongly applied state law then got the stat law analysis wrong,  He also argued that there was no binding Supreme Court authority which required a state court hearing here nor required state funding to pursue the disability claim and thus no relief was available in the federal habeas proceeding.

Davis v Ayala 

Ayla sought habeas relief from his death sentence arguing that the trial court erred in allowing the prosecutor to present his arguments about Ayala’s Batson claims ex parte. The 9th circuit ultimately granted relief. The court, 5-4 reversed. It held that on habeas review, Ayala must meet the standard of creating a grave doubt about the outcome of the Batson claims and meet the normal requirements of the antiterrorism and effective death Penalty act. The majority reviewed all the preemptory strikes and held the state court fined of harmless error was correct as reasonable jurists could conclude the prosecution arguments based on inability to impose death penalty, being a dissenter in a previous jury trial and subjective impressions of hostility toward the prosecution case or loosely following a case with allegations of police misconduct, there was no grave doubt and thus no relief for Ayala. Kennedy added a concurrence expressing concern that Ayala has been in solitary confinement and discussed his concern that solitary confinement is detrimental to the mental and physical health of prisoners. Thomas added a concurrence noting Ayala had more space than his victims and has lived longer. Sotomayor, joined by Ginsberg, Breyer and Kagan, dissented arguing that grave doubt exist here because a properly contested proceeding could have resulted in a finding that the preemptory challenge to one juror for lacking the ability to impose the death penalty was racially motivated as a white juror gave materially indistinguishable responses.

Reed v Town of Gilbert, Arizona

Reed challenged town’s sign code which limited the size of the signs he used to announce church meetings and the time it could be displayed. The 9th circuit held the code was constitutional. The Court, with three justices concurring in judgment reversed. The majority held the code was content based on its face as it treated sign differently based on the message the sign contained. It held that the restriction on signs announcing temporary events were underinclusive as to the allegedly compelling interests of aesthetics and traffic safety as bigger signs area allowed if they are ideological or support political candidates and those signs can be placed in unlimited numbers and there was no evidence this any way supported or advanced the alleged interests. Alito joined by Kennedy and Sotomayor added a concurrence noting many ways that a municipality could regulate signs without running afoul of the First Amendment. Breyer concurred in judgment arguing that amore holistic approach of weighing the harm against First Amendment interests against the regulatory objectives of the government is needed to avoid the judicial micromanaging of ordinary administrative activity. Kagan, joined by Ginsberg and Breyer, concurred in judgment arguing that the sign ordinance here fails to provide any plausible explanation for how it treats the signs reed wants to use in the way it does and argued the majority approach will now imperil thousands of sign ordinances for no good reason given the complete lack of threat to the marketplace of ideas.