Supreme Court 2012-13: A Banner Year for Justice

By: Maria Hibbard

It’s been a banner year for the Supreme Court, and a well-publicized cliffhanger through the end of the term. Immigration, healthcare, privacy – although the subjects vary, here are the highlights of decisions likely to impact the access-to-justice community in some way:

  • U.S. v. Jones–it’s obvious that we have less privacy in the digital age–either by choice or by convenience–but the definition of what constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment is constantly evolving to keep up with digital devices. In Jones, the Supreme Court held, 5-4, that a GPS device placed on a car for surveillance purposes does constitute a search. The good news–“Big Brother” can’t watch you quite yet without having a good reason.
  • Maples v. Thomas–Maples, a death row inmate represented by two pro bono associates at a large law firm, was barred from appealing from his conviction because the associates left the firm and missed a deadline for deciding an appeal. The court voted 7-2 that Maples had shown sufficient cause to excuse the procedural default judgment. Although this doesn’t happen often, it shows that a man’s life shouldn’t be bargained with even if representation decides to leave.
  • Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye–the court once again dealt with the effect of lawyers who caused inappropriate outcomes for their clients in this pair of cases, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel applies throughout the process of plea negotiations. In order for this there to be a valid claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, though, the defendant has a strong burden to show that the lack of or deficiency of counsel caused irreparable prejudice on the decision. In Frye, where the lawyer simply did not inform his client of the plea bargain offers before they expired (resulting in a guilty plea and a much longer sentence for the defendant), this harm the lack of communication caused is obviously clear.  We’ve posted about overloaded public defenders and the changes coming in Michigan’s indigent defense system – potentially, these rulings could help spur reevaluation of programs elsewhere.
  • Minneci v. Pollard— Although a Bivens action, or an action enabling an inmate in a government-run prison to sue for violation of his constitutional rights, has long been valid, the court held 8-1 that an inmate cannot sue employees of a privately-run prison for constitutional rights violations because the claims could be pursued under state tort law. In light of the trend of the government trend to increasingly rely on private companies and contractors to run the operation of prisons and the mass incarceration of minor drug offenders, this decision might set a strong precedent in coming years.
  • Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs–in this pair of cases, SCOTUS ruled that life without parole for juveniles violates the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” in the 8th amendment. This ruling adds another element to the complicated and ever-changing definition of what “cruel and unusual punishment” really means – SCOTUSblog has a great guide to the precedent surrounding this issue here.
  • Arizona v. U.S.–in a complicated ruling that left both sides claiming partial victory, the 5-3 decision struck down the provisions of the 2010 Arizona immigration law that made it a crime for an undocumented immigrant to be in Arizona without documentation papers, to apply for or get a job in the state, and allowed police to arrest people who had committed crimes that could lead to their deportation. The “show me your papers” provision is still left intact, but could be challenged in lower courts again. This ruling will certainly deter the development of future copycat legislation in other states, and is welcome news for undocumented immigrants in Arizona who may have lived and worked in the U.S. for years.
  • Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida–the dramatic 5-4 decision, written by Roberts, joining the left of the court, held the individual mandate constitutional under the taxing power – even though it violates the commerce clause. Plenty of ink has already and will be spilled elsewhere about the implications of the decision, but this monumental case will make affordable healthcare accessible to millions more Americans – often, the same community that civil legal aid organizations serve. Although there will always be continuing legal battles surrounding healthcare, access to affordable care may automatically eliminate some need in this area.


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