Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Muslim inmates suing to grow beards in Arkansas. Facebook threats and police practices, pension plans and death row executioners, voting rights and a White supremacist’s conviction. These are but a few of the estimated 200 cases out of thousands that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on when the new term opens Oct. 6.
A hand-written request by inmate Gregory Holt (aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad) asked the Court to decide if the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ grooming policy violated his religious freedom. Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs. But, Warden Ray Hobbs prohibits beards as a security risk. Even if the Department of Corrections (DOC) cannot prove beards are a security risk, and many other prisons allow them, Hobbs believes the Supreme Court should defer to DOC’s authority and deny Holt’s request.
In Philadelphia, Anthony Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in federal prison for threatening his wife on Facebook. Elonis asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his conviction because he says it violates his First Amendment right to creative expression. These lyrics, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you” posted on his Facebook page were supposedly music, and not an actual threat against his wife, who had left him, taken the children, and, upon reading his lyrics, sought an Order of Protection. His case will be heard in December.
In Georgia, a death row inmate Warren Lee Hill Jr., asked the Supreme Court to reveal the names of his executioners. Death row executioners have had their identity concealed for centuries. However, nothing in the Constitution says their identity must be a secret. The Court must weigh Lee’s request against the state’s concerns for the safety of executioners. Warren Lee is represented by the Georgia Resource Center, in Atlanta.
In North Carolina, police Officer Matt Darisse stopped a car driven by Nicholas Heien after seeing a broken brake light. The officer mistakenly believed having only one working brake light was a driving violation. He searched the car with permission from Heien. The Supreme Court must decide if cocaine found while searching the car should have been excluded from trial since stopping the car was a mistake in the first place.
Alabama’s voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, resulted in a 5-4 decision gutting the preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now, Alabama’s new re-districting plan has been denounced as discriminatory by the Alabama Democratic Conference and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus. According to Lyle Denniston, of Scotusblog.com, the Supreme Court must decide “the legality of ‘packing’ minority voters into districts where they already are in political control, reducing their chance of having influence elsewhere.” Look for this case in November.
White supremacist Samuel James Johnson, who started his own Aryan hate group in Minnesota, revealed to an undercover FBI agent that he had napalm, explosives and silencers, and wanted to attack the Mexican consulate in St. Paul. Johnson appealed his sole gun possession conviction, stating mere possession of a short-barrelled shotgun should not be treated as a violent felony. His supporters, Gun Owners of America and The Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, agree. Johnson’s case also joins those opposing mandatory minimum sentences.
Retirees will be affected by the Court’s ruling in M&G Polymers v. Hobert Tackett. Retirees who worked for the Apple Grove plant, in West Virginia, sued to maintain their health benefits after Apple Grove was sold. The new company controlling their pension plan wants retirees to contribute money toward their health plans. Tackett, and fellow retirees, asked the Supreme Court to continue benefits gained through collective bargaining, even after their company is acquired by one that does not provide them.
In Dallas, Texas, an organization called Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) won its housing discrimination suit against Texas, in 2008. Texas appealed, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that ICP must prove Texas intentionally practiced race discrimination in housing, which is a much higher standard than proving disparate or worse impact on African Americans, the legal standard used when ICP first won its case.
In Washington, D.C., guns will soon be carried in public. Major cities, like the District, have asked the Court to tell them if expanded Second Amendment gun rights means guns can be carried outside of the home. In D.C., a lower court struck down the District’s total ban on carrying handguns in public. But, that may not mean all guns can be carried outside. That court gave D.C. until Oct. 22 to pass new laws for carrying guns in public.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College (CUNY), covers the U.S. Supreme Court, United Nations and major legal issues. She is the Supreme Court correspondent for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium) and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”