The Skinny on SCOTUS - 6-21-24 Edition: We've Got Guns, Hearsay, Sentences, Spouses, and Water Fights

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

You're not seeing double — fresh on the heels of Thursday's handdowns come Friday's. This time, there were five opinions issued by the Supreme Court (which leaves 15 to go — with Wednesday, June 26, designated as a decision day currently, expect another day or two to be added to the court's calendar for next week, and possibly another day added the following week). 

Advertisement

We're starting to see more split decisions as we wend our way into the thornier issues, though it should be noted that, for all the caterwauling by the left about this "extreme" court, the splits frequently aren't along purely partisan lines — and the decisions don't always fall in line with what pleases "the right." 

Funny that. At any rate, here's the skinny on the latest batch:

June 21, 2024 Decisions

United States v. Rahimi

Date: June 21, 2024

Author: Roberts

Split: 8-1

Dissent: Thomas

Appeal From: Fifth Circuit

Basic Facts:

Respondent Zackey Rahimi was indicted under 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(8), a federal statute that prohibits individuals subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a firearm. A prosecution under Section 922(g)(8) may proceed only if the restraining order meets certain statutory criteria. In particular, the order must either contain a finding that the defendant “represents a credible threat to the physical safety” of his intimate partner or his or his partner’s child, §922(g)(8)(C)(i), or “by its terms explicitly prohibit[ ] the use,” attempted use, or threatened use of “physical force” against those individuals, §922(g)(8)(C)(ii). Rahimi concedes here that the restraining order against him satisfies the statutory criteria, but argues that on its face Section 922(g)(8) violates the Second Amendment. The District Court denied Rahimi’s motion to dismiss the indictment on Second Amendment grounds. While Rahimi’s case was on appeal, the Supreme Court decided New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen, 597 U. S. 1 (2022). In light of Bruen, the Fifth Circuit reversed, concluding that the Government had not shown that Section 922(g)(8) “fits within our Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

Issue:

Whether 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(8), which prohibits the possession of firearms by persons subject to domestic-violence restraining orders, violates the Second Amendment on its face.

Holding: Reversed and remanded.

When an individual has been found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another, that individual may be temporarily disarmed consistent with the Second Amendment.

Skinny: You can't have a gun if you're subject to a restraining order. 

Note: Thomas' dissent is an interesting counterpoint on due process grounds.


Supreme Court Declines to Toss 2nd Amendment Restrictions
in Certain Domestic Violence Cases

Advertisement

Second note: While this case involved a separate section of 18 U.S.C. 922(g), which prohibits certain categories of people from possessing/transporting firearms, from the one involved in Hunter Biden's conviction — his was under section 922(g)(3), while Rahimi's was under section 922(g)(8) — had this decision gone the other way, Hunter's Second Amendment arguments (should he raise them on appeal) would have had an even stronger leg to stand on. 


Smith v. Arizona

Date: June 21, 2024

Author: Kagan

Split: 9-0

Dissent: N/A

Appeal From: Arizona Court of Appeals

Basic Facts:

The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him. In operation, the Clause protects a defendant’s right of cross-examination by limiting the prosecution’s ability to introduce statements made by people not in the courtroom. The Clause thus bars the admission at trial of an absent witness’s statements unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant had a prior chance to subject her to cross-examination. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36, 53–54. This prohibition “applies only to testimonial hearsay,” Davis v. Washington, 547 U. S. 813, 823, and in that two-word phrase are two limits. First, in speaking about “witnesses”—or “those who bear testimony”—the Clause confines itself to “testimonial statements,” a category this Court has variously described. Id., at 823, 826. Second, the Clause bars only the introduction of hearsay—meaning, out-of-court statements offered “to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Anderson v. United States, 417 U. S. 211, 219. Relevant here, the Confrontation Clause applies in full to forensic evidence. For example, in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U. S. 305, prosecutors introduced “certificates of analysis” stating that lab tests had identified a substance seized from the defendant as cocaine. The Court held that the defendant had a right to cross-examine the lab analysts who prepared the certificates. In Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 564 U. S. 647, the Court relied on Melendez-Diaz to hold that a State could not introduce one lab analyst’s written findings through the testimony of a substitute analyst. Finally, in Williams v. Illinois, 567 U. S. 50, the Court considered a case where one lab analyst related an absent analyst’s findings on the way to stating her own conclusion. The state court held that the testimony did not implicate the Confrontation Clause because the absent analyst’s statements were introduced not for their truth, but to explain the basis for the testifying expert’s opinion. Five Members of the Court rejected that reasoning. But because one of those five affirmed the state court on alternative grounds, Williams lost.

This case presents the same question on which the Court fractured in Williams. Arizona law enforcement officers found petitioner Jason Smith with a large quantity of what appeared to be drugs and drug-related items. Smith was charged with various drug offenses, and the State sent the seized items to a crime lab for scientific analysis. Analyst Elizabeth Rast ran forensic tests on the items and concluded that they contained usable quantities of methamphetamine, marijuana, and cannabis. Rast prepared a set of typed notes and a signed report about the testing. The State originally planned for Rast to testify about those matters at Smith’s trial, but Rast stopped working at the lab prior to trial. So the State substituted another analyst, Greggory Longoni, to “provide an independent opinion on the drug testing performed by Elizabeth Rast.” At trial, Longoni conveyed to the jury what Rast’s records revealed about her testing, before offering his “independent opinion” of each item’s identity. Smith was convicted. On appeal, he argued that the State’s use of a substitute expert to convey the substance of Rast’s materials violated his Confrontation Clause rights. The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected Smith’s challenge, holding that Longoni could constitutionally present his own expert opinions based on his review of Rast’s work because her statements were then used only to show the basis of his opinion and not to prove their truth.

Advertisement

Issue:

Whether the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment permits the prosecution in a criminal trial to present testimony by a substitute expert conveying the testimonial statements of a nontestifying forensic analyst, on the grounds that (a) the testifying expert offers some independent opinion and the analyst's statements are offered not for their truth but to explain the expert's opinion, and (b) the defendant did not independently seek to subpoena the analyst.

Holding: Vacated and remanded.

When an expert conveys an absent analyst’s statements in support of the expert’s opinion, and the statements provide that support only if true, then the statements come into evidence for their truth.

Skinny: If the expert is not testifying in court, his/her out-of-court statements don't come in as evidence. 


Erlinger v. United States

Date: June 21, 2024

Author: Gorsuch

Split: 6-3

Dissent: Kavanaugh, Alito, Jackson

Appeal From: Seventh Circuit

Basic Facts:

Paul Erlinger pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U. S. C. §922(g). At sentencing, the judge found Mr. Erlinger eligible for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, §924(e)(1), which increases the penalty for a 922(g) conviction from a maximum sentence of 10 years to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years when the defendant has three or more qualifying convictions for offenses committed on different occasions. Subsequently, the Seventh Circuit held in unrelated decisions that two of the offenses on which the government relied for Mr. Erlinger’s sentence enhancement no longer qualified as ACCA predicate offenses. The District Court vacated Mr. Erlinger’s sentence and scheduled resentencing. At the resentencing hearing, prosecutors again pursued an ACCA sentence enhancement based on a new set of 26-year-old convictions for burglaries committed by Mr. Erlinger over the course of several days. Mr. Erlinger protested that the burglaries were part of a single criminal episode and did not occur on separate occasions, as required by ACCA. Moreover, Mr. Erlinger argued that the question whether he committed these prior burglaries during a single episode or on distinct occasions required an assessment of the facts surrounding those offenses, and that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments required that a jury make that assessment. The District Court rejected Mr. Erlinger’s request for a jury and issued a 15-year enhanced sentence. On appeal, the government confessed error. Pointing to this Court’s recent decision in Wooden v. United States, 595 U. S. 360, which acknowledged that an ACCA “occasions inquiry” can be intensely factual in nature, the government admitted that given the factual nature of the inquiry and its impact on a defendant’s sentence, the Constitution requires a jury to decide unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt whether Mr. Erlinger’s prior offenses were committed on different occasions. This Court granted certiorari and appointed counsel to defend the judgment below.

Advertisement

Issue:

Whether the Constitution requires a jury trial and proof beyond a reasonable doubt to find that a defendant's prior convictions were "committed on occasions different from one another," as is necessary to impose an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1).

Holding: Vacated and remanded.

The Fifth and Sixth Amendments require a unanimous jury to make the determination beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant’s past offenses were committed on separate occasions for ACCA purposes.

Skinny: It's up to a unanimous jury to determine if a defendant's past criminal offenses qualify him/her for a harsher sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act. 

Note: A case involving a section 922(g) firearms offense and the question of jury unanimity all in one — all sounds so familiar...


Department of State v. Munoz

Date: June 21, 2024

Author: Barrett

Split: 6-3

Dissent: Sotomayor, Kagan, Jackson 

Appeal From: Ninth Circuit

Basic Facts:

Respondent Sandra Muñoz is an American citizen. In 2010, she married Luis Asencio-Cordero, a citizen of El Salvador. The couple eventually sought to obtain an immigrant visa for Asencio-Cordero so that they could live together in the United States. Muñoz filed a petition with U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to have Asencio-Cordero classified as an immediate relative. See 8 U. S. C. §§1151(b)(2)(A)(i), 1154(a)(1)(A). USCIS granted Muñoz’s petition, and Asencio-Cordero traveled to the consulate in San Salvador to apply for a visa. See §§1154(b), 1202. After conducting several interviews with AsencioCordero, a consular officer denied his application, citing §1182(a)(3)(A)(ii), a provision that renders inadmissible a noncitizen whom the officer “knows, or has reasonable ground to believe, seeks to enter the United States to engage solely, principally, or incidentally in” certain specified offenses or “any other unlawful activity.” Asencio-Cordero guessed that he was denied a visa based on a finding that he was a member of MS–13, a transnational criminal gang. So he disavowed any gang membership, and he and Muñoz pressed the consulate to reconsider the officer’s finding. When the consulate refused, they appealed to the Department of State, which agreed with the consulate’s determination. Asencio-Cordero and Muñoz then sued the Department of State and others (collectively, State Department), claiming that it had abridged Muñoz’s constitutional liberty interest in her husband’s visa application by failing to give a sufficient reason why Asencio-Cordero is inadmissible under the “unlawful activity” bar. The District Court granted summary judgment to the State Department, but the Ninth Circuit vacated the judgment, holding that Muñoz had a constitutionally protected liberty interest in her husband’s visa application. Because of that interest, the court said, the Due Process Clause required the State Department to give Muñoz a reason for denying her husband’s visa. The court further held that by declining to give Muñoz more information earlier in the process, the State Department had forfeited its entitlement to insulate its decision from judicial review under the doctrine of consular nonreviewability.

Advertisement

Issue:

  1. Whether a consular officer's refusal of a visa to a U.S. citizen's noncitizen spouse impinges upon a constitutionally protected interest of the citizen.
  2. Whether, assuming that such a constitutional interest exists, notifying a visa applicant that he was deemed inadmissible under 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3)(A)(ii) suffices to provide any process that is due.
  3. Whether, assuming that such a constitutional interest exists and that citing Section 1182(a)(3)(A)(ii) is insufficient standing alone, due process requires the government to provide a further factual basis for the visa denial "within a reasonable time," or else forfeit the ability to invoke consular nonreviewability in court.

Holding: Reversed and remanded.

A citizen does not have a fundamental liberty interest in her noncitizen spouse being admitted to the country.

Skinny: Sorry — it doesn't violate your fundamental liberty interest not to let your former MS-13 gang member husband enter the country. 

(Apologies for the snark there — the summary of the holding is so succinct, I wasn't sure how else to frame it.)


Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado

Date: June 21, 2024

Author: Jackson

Split: 5-4

Dissent: Gorsuch, Thomas, Alito, Barrett

Appeal From: N/A

Basic Facts:

Approved by Congress in 1938, the Rio Grande Compact is an interstate agreement that apportions the waters of the Rio Grande River among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The Compact relies on the Federal Bureau of Reclamation’s operation of an irrigation system called the Rio Grande Project. Under the Compact, New Mexico must deliver a certain amount of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir, located in southern New Mexico. Then, in accordance with agreements called the “Downstream Contracts,” Reclamation releases specified amounts of water from the Reservoir for delivery to two water districts in New Mexico and Texas.

In 2013, Texas filed suit in this Court against the Compact’s other two signatory States, alleging that excessive groundwater pumping in New Mexico was depleting supplies of Rio Grande water bound for Texas. The United States sought to intervene, alleging essentially the same claims as Texas. In 2018, this Court allowed the United States to intervene, holding that the United States “has an interest in seeing that water is deposited in the [Elephant Butte] Reservoir consistent with the Compact’s terms,” as that “is what allows the United States to meet its duties under the Downstream Contracts, which are themselves essential to the fulfillment of the Compact’s expressly stated purpose.” Texas v. New Mexico, 583 U. S. 401, 414 (2018). Texas and New Mexico now seek approval of a proposed consent decree that would resolve this case and codify a methodology for allocating each State’s share of the Rio Grande’s waters. The Special Master recommended that this Court approve the consent decree, but the United States objected and filed an exception to the Special Master’s report.

Advertisement

Issue:

The United States excepts to the Special Master’s recommendation that the States’ joint motion to enter a consent decree be granted.

Holding: Motion denied.

Because the proposed consent decree would dispose of the United States’ Compact claims without its consent, the States’ motion to enter the consent decree is denied.

Skinny: The federal government gets a say in how the states who are parties to this agreement work out their differences. Water is not only wet — it can be complicated. 


You can check out prior installments of The Skinny on SCOTUS series, here.

Sponsored

Recommended

Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on RedState Videos