Notable Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, 2002–2003 Term

Updated June 18, 2019 | Infoplease Staff
  • Court Upholds Copyright Extension (January 15, 2003): Justices, 7–2, rule that Congress acted with constitutional authority when it extended by 20 years all existing and future copyrights. Under 1998's Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, works for hire (such as television scripts) that are owned by companies have a 95-year copyright, and works owned by their authors or estates are protected for the life of the creator, plus an additional 50 years.
  • Three-Strikes Law Validated (March 5, 2003): In two separate decisions, the court, 5–4, upholds California's “three strikes and you're out” law that calls for long sentences when a person is convicted of a third offense. One defendant was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for shoplifting golf clubs. The other was sentenced to 50 years without parole for stealing videos valued at $150. The court rejected the argument that such harsh sentences violated the Eighth Amendment's protection from cruel and unusual punishment. The 1994 law mandated sentences of 25 years to life in prison for a third felony conviction. Under the law, crimes that are otherwise considered misdemeanors can be treated as felonies for the third offense. Twenty-five other states have three-strikes laws, but California's is the most stringent.
  • Railway Workers Can Sue When Vulnerable to Illness (March 10, 2003): Justices, 5–4, rule that railway workers who were exposed to asbestos on the job and have developed asbestosis, a disease that makes them susceptible to cancer, can receive damages from their employers when they prove the risk of getting cancer is “genuine and serious.”
  • HMOs Must Accept All Qualified Doctors (April 2, 2003): Court unanimously upholds Kentucky's 1994 “any willing provider” law that requires health maintenance organizations to open their networks to all doctors and hospitals that are willing to abide by the HMO's payment rates and policies. The ruling is expected to expand options for patients.
  • Justices Set Guidelines on Punitive Damages (April 7, 2003): The court, 6–3, overturns a jury award of $145 million in punitive damages, saying the amount was far too high. Instead, the court rules that $1 million in compensatory damages, as set by a trial judge, was appropriate in a suit against State Farm insurance company brought by a client. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy said the ratio of 145:1 was “irrational and arbitrary,” and that the Utah high court was wrong to attempt to punish State Farm for conduct outside the case at issue.
  • Court Gives States Authority to Ban Cross-Burning (April 7, 2003): Court, 6–3, rules that states can ban cross-burning provided that the law as written places the burden on prosecutors to prove that the action was intended to intimidate and threaten, and not simply a form of expression. In an overlapping ruling, seven justices declare unconstitutional a part of a Virginia law that asserts any instance of cross-burning is a form of intimidation.
  • U.S. Can Imprison Immigrants Set for Deportation (April 29, 2003): Justices, 5–4, uphold mandatory-detention provisions of 1996's immigration law, allowing the government to hold legal immigrants it seeks to deport without first giving them a hearing to determine if they pose a danger to the community or are a flight risk. The case was not terrorism-related. Instead, it centered on a section of the immigration law that deals with legal permanent residents who are convicted of drug and other “aggravated” offenses.
  • Court Rules Charities Can Be Charged with Fraud (May 5, 2003): Justices unanimously uphold states' rights to charge fund-raisers and telemarketers with fraud. Court says prosecutors must prove that a solicitor purposely made a false assertion about what percent of a contribution will go directly to the charity “with the intent to mislead the listener, and [succeed] in doing so.”
  • Maine Prescription Drug Plan Gets Qualified Approval (May 19, 2003): Court, 6–3, lifts an injunction that had prevented the Maine Rx Program from going into effect. Maine sought to reduce the price of prescription drugs for the state's uninsured by acting as a pharmacy benefit manager and requiring drug companies to offer the state similar rebates that they give to the Medicaid program.
  • Court Expands Federal Authority (May 27, 2003): Justices, 6–3, rule that states are not immune from lawsuits when they violate state employees' rights to take time off for family emergencies under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The decision was a break from the court's recent tendency to expand states' rights.
  • Justices Restrict Medication of Defendants (June 16, 2003): Court, 6–3, imposes strict limits on the government's ability to forcibly use antipsychotic drugs on defendants to make them fit to stand trial. The court says defendants can only be involuntarily drugged when the medication is in the defendant's own best interest and when it's highly unlikely that the drugs will cause side effects that could compromise the trial.
  • Court Saves Affirmative Action Program (June 23, 2003): In Grutter v. Bollinger, justices, 5–4, uphold the University of Michigan Law School's consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. In her majority opinion, Justice O'Connor said that the law school uses a “highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file.” Race, she said, is not used in a “mechanical way.” Therefore, the university's program is consistent with the requirement of “individualized consideration” set in 1978's Bakke case. “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” O'Connor said. However, the court, in Gratz v. Bollinger, 6–3, rules that the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions system, which awards 20 points to black, Hispanic, and American-Indian applicants, is “nonindividualized, mechanical,” and thus unconstitutional.
  • Internet Filter Law Upheld (June 23, 2003): Justices, 6–3, rule that the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires public libraries that receive federal money to install antipornography filters on computers that provide Internet access, does not violate the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “Because public librarians have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their other collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance programs.”
  • Court Endorses New Redistricting Guidelines (June 26, 2003): In a 5–4 ruling, court says states can consider the overall political influence of a minority voting block, not simply the numbers, when redrawing districts. The justices overturned a Georgia district court ruling that said the state senate had violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it redrew legislative and congressional districts to decrease the majorities of black voters in some areas in order to shore up Democratic districts elsewhere.
  • Sodomy Laws Declared Unconstitutional (June 26, 2003): Court, 6–3, overrules a Texas sodomy law and votes 5–4 to overturn 1986's Bowers v. Hardwick decision, which held that there's no constitutional right to have homosexual relations in private. “The state cannot demean their [gays'] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion. In his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Scalia said the court has “largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.”
  • Court Throws Out Death Sentence of Convicted Killer (June 26, 2003): Justices, 7–2, rule that because public defenders for Kevin Wiggins, a Maryland man convicted of killing a 77-year-old woman, did not investigate his background, which included years of physical and sexual abuse, they failed to provide him adequate representation. The court said that had the jury been informed of the abuse, it may have sentenced him to life in prison rather than death.

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