Notable Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, 2003–2004 Term

Updated June 18, 2019 | Infoplease Staff
  • Court Upholds Campaign Finance Laws (December 10, 2003): Court, 5–4, upholds major aspects of the 2001 law intended to thwart corruption—or the appearance of such—in political elections. In McConnell v. The Federal Election Commission, the justices vote that the ban on unlimited donations to political parties, known as soft money, does not violate free speech. However, the court acknowledges that the ruling will not end the flow of enormous sums of money in campaigns. “Money, like water, will always find an outlet,” write Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor.
  • States Can Deny Aid to Divinity Students (February 25, 2004): Voting 7–2, the court upholds the provisions of Washington state's Promise Scholarship program, which offers taxpayer-funded scholarships to low-income college students enrolled in secular studies. The justices rule in Locke v. Davey that states are not violating the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom if they choose not to subsidize students studying for the ministry.
  • Court Upholds Redistricting Plan (April 28, 2004): In Vieth v. Jubelirer, court rules, 5–4, that it is impossible to objectively determine if Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled legislature violated Democrats' right of equal treatment under the state constitution when it redrew congressional districts to eliminate seats held by Democratic incumbents.
  • Disabled Have Right to Sue States (May 17, 2004): Justices rule, 5–4, in Tennessee v. Lane that private citizens can sue states that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make their courthouses accessible to the disabled.
  • “Under God” to Remain in Pledge (June 14, 2004): In a unanimous 8–0 decision (Justice Scalia recused himself in the case), the court in Elk Grove v. Newdow overturns a federal appeals court ruling that said the term “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state. Justices O'Connor and Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist say the words “under God” are constitutional and were added in 1954 to set the U.S. apart from “godless Communism.” The other five justices, however, say the plaintiff, Michael Newdow, did not have the legal standing to bring the case because he and the girl's mother, who opposed the suit, are in a custody battle.
  • Court Strikes Down Patients' Rights Law (June 21, 2004): Court rules, 9–0, that states cannot allow individuals to sue managed-care companies for damages when the company refuses to cover a medical procedure that a doctor has determined necessary and injury or death occur as a result. In Aetna v. Davila, the court strikes down a Texas patients' rights law, saying it conflicts with a federal law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which allows patients to sue managed-care companies for reimbursement for cost of treatments that were denied, but not for damages.
  • Suspects Must Identify Themselves to Police (June 21, 2004): Court, 5–4, rejects the argument of a Nevada rancher in Hiibel v. The Sixth Judicial District Court that the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination do not allow a person suspected of being involved in a crime to refuse to identify himself to the police.
  • Court Invalidates Sentencing Guidelines (June 24, 2004): Ruling, 5–4, states that under the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a trial by jury, only juries—not judges—may take into account other factors when increasing sentences beyond the maximum set forth by Washington state's sentencing guidelines. The court says in Blakely v. Washington that Washington's sentencing rules granted judges unconstitutional power.
  • Death Penalty Ban Not Retroactive (June 24, 2004): In Schriro v. Summerlin, justices rule, 5–4, that a 2002 decision to invalidate the death penalty in five states could not be retroactively applied to those sentenced to death before the decision.
  • Court Rules in Favor of Vice President (June 24, 2004): Court rules, 7–2, to send a case involving Dick Cheney back to a federal court of appeals. In the politically charged case, Cheney v. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the court says the appeals court acted “prematurely” when it denied Cheney's request to keep confidential the details of his energy-task force meetings. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch sued Cheney and his task force, which was made up of government officials and advised by executives in the energy industry, to try to make them reveal details about the group's meetings. Cheney said the group was shielded by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which allows groups made up of government officials to keep the proceedings secret. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, however, said the executives were active enough in the group to be considered de facto members.
  • Detainees Have Right to Appear in Court (June 28, 2004): In Rasul v. Bush, court rules, 6–3, that foreign detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are legally entitled to file petitions for writs of habeas corpus when they believe they are being held illegally because the base falls under the jurisdiction of federal courts. The ruling says Guantánamo Bay is “territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.”
  • Court Declares Detention of U.S. Citizen Invalid (June 28, 2004) In an 8–1 ruling in the case Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, justices say the detention of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen held for two years as an enemy combatant, is invalid. Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Breyer, as well as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, say Hamdi has the right to a “fair opportunity to rebut the government's factual assertions before a neutral decisionmaker.” Justices Souter and Ginsberg rule that Congress did not authorize such a detention. Finally, Justices Scalia and Stevens say that Hamdi must either be tried for a specific crime or released. The court rejects the Bush administration's claim that the executive branch has unreviewable authority in time of war.
  • Justices Invalidate Questioning Tactic (June 28, 2004): Court, 5–4, rejects police tactic of questioning suspects twice, first before advising them of their Miranda rights—with the intention of elicting a confession—and again after. The ruling in Missouri v. Seibert says the strategy intentionally avoids informing suspects of their right to remain silent before questioning undermines Miranda.
  • Terror Suspect Must Refile Petition (June 28, 2004): In the case Rumsfeld v. Padilla, justices rule, 5–4, that Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was arrested and accused of trying to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States, filed his petition for habeas corpus in the wrong court.
  • Court Extends Ban on Child Pornography Law (June 29, 2004): The court rules, 5–4, that Congress's attempts to protect children from Internet pornography threaten free speech. It sends the case, Ashcroft v. the American Civil Liberties Union, back to a lower court, charging the government with proving that the criminal penalties imposed under the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) on certain sexually explicit websites are the only way to prevent children from accessing sexually explicit content on the Web.

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