ACS Presentation on 2008-09 Supreme Court Opinions

imagesWith the beginning of the 2009-2010 term of the Supreme Court, the Marquette Chapter of American Constitution Society for Law and Public Policy (ACS) spent a lunch-hour discussing some of the more interesting cases of the past 2008-2009 term. Leading the lunch discussion were Marquette professors Blinka, McChrystal, and Secunda.

Professor Blinka started the lunch discussion with Arizona v. Gant, a 5-to-4 decision written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justices Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg (an odd confederation to say the least).  In Gant, the Court limited the scope of “search incident to arrest.”  The Court held that while police can conduct a warrantless vehicle search “incident to an arrest,” police can only search without a warrant and without consent if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or if the officers have reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Arizona v. Gant 556 U. S. ____, 2 (2009).

After the discussion of the case, Professor Blinka suggested that one ramification of Gant is that law enforcement will likely put more emphasis on gaining consent to search vehicles, since arrest will no longer yield such access. Professor Blinka also left the lunch group with one question: why did the Court decide that it was appropriate to narrow the “search incident to arrest” rule in 2009, especially since the broader search rule had been in effect for nearly thirty years?

Professor McChrystal addressed the Court’s decision in Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 557 U.S. ___ (2009), another Fourth Amendment case. Unlike Gant, which was based on a police search, this case addressed the ability of public school administrators to strip search a minor student for contraband. In reaching their decision that the school administrator’s strip-search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protection, the eight-member majority found that the intrusive nature of the search did not adequately correspond with a “substantial chance” of finding contraband in her underwear.

The 8-to-1 decision in Redding left Justice Thomas alone in dissent. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas argued that the doctrine of in loco parentis (literally meaning “in place of the parent,” allows a third party to act with same authority that a parent would have) should be applied to allow school administrators to search a student’s person without any Fourth Amendment concerns whatsoever. Under this approach, not only would a strip search be constitutional, but so would a more drastic search of a student’s body cavities.

In Professor McChrystal’s closing remarks, he cautioned future practitioners about a broader issue of privacy— that in an age of Google searches, clients might want to limit their names from public record.  A Google search for the plaintiff in Redding results in nearly four million hits. And while Ms. Redding’s ordeal at school occurred six years ago this month, her name will always be attached to the school’s invasion of her privacy. However, had her lawyer petitioned the court for a pseudonym for the minor plaintiff, something that most courts would be likely to grant under the circumstances, she might have maintained more of the privacy that she fought so hard to protect.

The last case, Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, discussed by Professor Secunda, reviewed the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII. This provision protects employees suffering from adverse employment actions (such as a demotion, change in pay, or termination) when the employee “participates” or “opposes” an unlawful employment practice. At the heart of the matter in Crawford was what type of employee conduct constitutes “opposition” to an unlawful employment practice. The Court, reversing the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, held that reporting sexual harassment was not needed for protection under the “opposition” prong of the anti-retaliation provision. Furthermore, applying an ordinary definition of “opposition” the Court held that the “opposition” prong of Title VII protected an employee’s cooperation with an internal investigation of sexual harassment when an employee gave a “disapproving account” of a supervisor’s conduct.

Professor Secunda noted that while the unanimous decision is good for employees that seek retaliation protection, the Court may have better helped such workers by addressing employee protection under the more frequently used “participation” clause.

MU-ACS sincerely appreciates the faculty members and students who gave their time for the event. All students are welcome to join MU-ACS events.

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