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Notable Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, 2004–2005 Term

  • Court Declares Sentencing Guidelines Unconstitutional (Jan. 12, 2005): In the first part of a two-part ruling in United States v. Booker, Court rules, 5–4, that federal sentencing guidelines in criminal cases violate the Sixth Amendment's right to a trial by jury because the guidelines allow judges to make factual findings that could increase a sentence beyond the maximum permitted by a jury. In the second part of the ruling, the Court resolves the issue, ruling, 5–4, that a defendant's rights would be protected by making the guidelines discretionary instead of mandatory.
  • Court Rules Against Execution of Juveniles (March 1, 2005): In Roper v. Simmons, Court decides, 5–4, that executing people who commit crimes before they turn 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy points out that since the United States is the only country in the world that officially allows the execution of juveniles, it should be considered unusual punishment.
  • Justices Expand Protection under Title IX (March 29, 2005): Voting 5–4 in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Court rules that the federal law, known as Title IX, that forbids sex discrimination in schools and colleges also protects third-party “whistleblowers” who file such complaints. “The statute is broadly worded: it does not require that the victim of the retaliation must also be the victim of the discrimination that is the subject of the original complaint,” writes Justice O'Connor.
  • Ruling Broadens Criteria for Age Discrimination Suits (March 30, 2005): Court rules, 5–3, in Smith v. City of Jackson, that employees who sue for age discrimination do not have to prove that the discrimination was intentional, only that it negatively affected older workers.
  • Court Ends Ban on Wine Shipments (May 16, 2005): Votes, 5–4, to allow wineries to ship wine directly to out-of-state customers if state law allows in-state wineries to do so. Ruling in Granholm v. Heald invalidates state laws in New York and Michigan that the majority says violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
  • Justices Overturn Verdict in Enron Scandal (May 31, 2005): Justices unanimously reject criminal conviction of auditing firm Arthur Andersen, saying the jury received improper instructions from the judge in the case. The company was convicted of shredding documents related to the Enron scandal. Chief Justice Rehnquist writes in the Court's opinion in Arthur Andersen v. United States that the jury was not instructed to prove that the company's auditors knew such acts were wrong.
  • Court Rules in Favor of Religion in Prisons (May 31, 2005): In a unanimous decision in Cutter v. Wilkinson, the justices say the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that requires prison officials to accommodate inmates' religious requirements, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  • Congress Can Ban Use of Medical Marijuana (June 6, 2005): In a 6–3 decision in Gonzales v. Raich, the Court upholds the right of Congress to prohibit the use of medical marijuana and to prosecute those who violate the law even in the 11 states that have passed initiatives legalizing it for medical purposes.
  • Disabilities Act Applies to Cruise Ships (June 6, 2005): Court rules, 6–3, that passengers of cruise ships that are operated by foreign companies but stop at American ports are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decision in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., however, says that the ships are not required to make structural changes if they can't accommodate the disabled.
  • Justices Reverse Murder Conviction (June 13, 2005): Court, 6–3, invalidates 1986 conviction of Thomas Miller-El, a black man from Texas, ruling that the jury selection in his trial was racially biased because the prosecution used peremptory strikes to exclude 10 out of 11 potential black jurors. The decision in Miller-El v. Dretke is the Court's second in Miller-El's favor.
  • Court Overturns Death Sentence (June 20, 2005): Justices vote, 5–4, in Rompilla v. Beard, to overturn the death sentence of Ronald Rompilla, a Pennsylvania man convicted of murder, saying that his lawyers failed to provide him with a defense that met minimum constitutional standards.
  • Justices Uphold Government's Use of Eminent Domain (June 23, 2005): In one of the most controversial cases of the session, the Court rules, 5–4, in Kelo v. City of New London, that a government can take possession of private property against the owner's will and transfer it to private developers when the result will promote economic development. The Fifth Amendment allows the government to take private property for public use. In writing the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens says “public use” also means “public purpose.” “Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government,” he says. “Clearly, there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose.”
  • Court Hands Down Divergent Rulings on Displays of Religious Symbols (June 27, 2005): In Van Orden v. Perry, Court rules, 5–4, that taken in historical context, the 6-foot-tall monument of the Ten Commandments on display on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin does not violate the Establishment Clause. The monument, which has been up for about 40 years without causing controversy, is one of 17 in the 22-acre park. “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause,” says Chief Justice Rehnquist. In the second decision, McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, however, the justices, 5–4, find that the framed copies of the Ten Commandments on display inside two county courthouses in Kentucky are unconstitutional because officials in the counties sought to promote religion. The framed copies were originally displayed by themselves, but officials hung historical documents beside them once litigation began in an attempt to put them in historical context. Justice Souter calls the counties' claims that they were secular displays “an apparent sham.” He also writes, “Reasonable observers have reasonable memories.”
  • Justices Reinstate Copyright-Infringement Suit (June 27, 2005): Court unanimously rules that companies that produce file-sharing services and software that allow—and encourage—users to illegally download music should be liable for copyright infringement. The companies “acted with a purpose to cause copyright violations by use of software suitable for illegal use,” says Justice Souter. The decision, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v. Grokster, Ltd., sends the case back to a lower court.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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