Racial justice tops the opening of the Supreme Court’s new term. When Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead in Feb. conservative Republicans vowed to stall President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. The eight-member Court is limping forward with race questions involving the death penalty, voting districts, jury deliberations, and the name of the Washington Football Team.
It was life or death for Duane Buck. Then, Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychology expert, testified Buck was dangerous because he was Black and male. So dangerous, in fact, Buck should receive a death sentence in the murder of his girlfriend. And, he did. That expert had been called to testify by Buck’s very own attorney. Because this defense attorney knowingly called an expert witness to testify against his client, Buck brought his case to the high Court seeking to re-open it based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
The Supreme Court will hear a First Amendment challenge over the government’s refusal to register offensive trademarks in a case that could affect the Washington Football Team. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
In a case in Texas a judge determined a mentally incompetent man, Bobby Moore, was fit for execution using a fictional farmhand character in the stageplay “Of Mice and Men.” Now, the Supreme Court will review this legal standard created by Judge Cathy Cochran who ruled Moore, who cannot tell time, add or subtract, and has an average IQ of 70 should die for the murder of a 70 year-old store clerk. Under Cochran’s Lennie-standard Moore knew what he was doing and is therefore competent enough to be executed. Executing an incompetent person violates the cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Voter suppression cases add more controversy to this Presidential election. In North Carolina, Governor Patrick McCrory was sued by David Harris and Christine Bowser who argued Blacks there were crammed into two racially gerrymandered voting districts to reduce Black political influence in other districts. In McCrory v. Harris, the Supreme Court must decide if North Carolina’s redistricting plan was politically or racially motivated and a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. A split-decision favors Harris because it means the lower court’s decision stands. McCrory lost in the lower court.
In Virginia the Board of Elections was sued over allegations of racial gerrymandering in a redistricting plan. But, is it necessary to prove race was the main motivating factor to win a racial gerrymandering case under the Voting Rights Act. Last term, the Court unanimously overturned the corruption conviction of former Va. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. A few months ago, current Va. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed thousands of petitions restoring the voting rights of formerly convicted felons. Virginia has a long history of intentionally depriving voting rights to African-Americans, along with many other States.
The fate of the name Washington Redskins may be decided by a case involving The Slants, an Asian band. When the Federal government denied a trademark to The Slants the band appealed to the Supreme Court. Under the Lanham Act, the Federal trademark office can refuse to give a trademark protection to any name that disparages persons, institutions, beliefs, national symbols or bring them into contempt or disrepute.
In Lee v. Tam, Michelle Lee, the first woman and Asian-American director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, denied a trademark to Simon Tam, lead singer of The Slants. Tam argued that denying his trademark due to an offensive name violated his freedom of speech. Trademarks are granted to identify and distinguish names and goods. The band intentionally uses the ethnic slur slants to take on stereotypes about Asians. A decision in this case may decide if the name Washington Redskins is a violation of federal law or freedom of speech.
Biased lending practices are a reminder of the tactics brought to light during The Great Recession. Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America are attempting to evade punishment for their racially discriminatory lending schemes in Miami, FL. The banks are challenging whether the Fair Housing Act was meant to cover their biased practices.
Immigration reform eludes President Barack Obama, again. The Court refused his recent request for a re-hearing of the U.S. v. Texas case. The Supreme Court was tied in that case where President Obama used his Executive Power to create a pathway to citizenship for children brought into America illegally. A 4-4 split means the lower court’s decision against the measure stands.
Religion is on the docket again in this Missouri case about denying a church access to a State program giving recycled tires to cover playground.
The Court’s 2016 term, which began Oct. 3, will end in June.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium), an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College (CUNY), and author of the new book “The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice.”