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High Court Showdown: Dogs, Guns and Sexual Predators

Here's the truth: A lot of important -- really important -- Supreme Court cases would put most of us to sleep. In the abstract we may appreciate the importance of separation of powers, but we recoil at the thought of plowing through the hundreds of pages in this year's separation of powers barn burner, Federal Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. (Even the name is off-putting!) This case -- while IMPORTANT -- is unlikely to trigger conversation on a Saturday night unless you're dining -- God help you -- with one of the attorneys involved.

Yet there are already several cases on the docket for this year's term, scheduled to start on Monday, that are both important and actually really interesting. (Let me know in the comments if you disagree, in which case I'd be happy to forward the documents from the accounting oversight board case.)

United States v. Stevens. Robert J. Stevens produced videos he says were intended to show owners how to train their pitbulls to ward off predators, such as coyotes, or help in hunting expeditions involving wild boar. As part of his self-styled instructional videos, Stevens included footage -- admittedly gruesome -- of some of these endeavors gone terribly wrong, including one passage that showed a pitbull mauling a hog. The federal government charged Stevens with violating a statute that prohibits the sale or possession of material that depicts a live animal being maimed, tortured, injured or killed. The statute in question was passed during the Clinton administration, presumably to combat the proliferation of videos showing high-heeled women crushing small animals for the prurient enjoyment of viewers. Yet during the past decade, it has been invoked only three times in prosecutions involving those involved in some way with dog fighting. Exhibit A: Robert Stevens.

Stevens' conviction set off alarm bells in the media and among hunters. The law includes a provision stipulating that those who produce "serious" material with a journalistic or educational bent are exempt from prosecution. The Supreme Court must now decide whether the law passes constitutional muster or whether it violates the First Amendment by prohibiting speech that may be offensive but perfectly legal. The case is set to be heard on Oct. 6.

Salazar v. Buono. In 1934, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a cross in what is now the Mojave National Preserve to honor those who died during World War I. Because the cross now sits on federal land, it was challenged as an improper embrace of religion by the federal government. To avert any possible conflict, Congress entered into a deal with the VFW -- in which Congress would give the organization an acre of Mojave property on which the cross stands and the group would bequeath a similarly valued parcel of its land to the federal government. This proved too cute by half for a federal court, which ordered that the land swap be put on hold. The Supreme Court must now decide whether this land exchange cures the possible constitutional ill -- or whether the cross must go. Arguments are scheduled for Oct. 7.

Graham v. Florida. Terrence Jamar Graham fits no one's definition of an angel. When only 16, Graham and two friends held up a barbeque joint in Florida, seriously injuring a restaurant worker by bludgeoning him with a blunt object. Graham, who was adjudicated as an adult despite his age, pled guilty to two felony counts in connection with the robbery but was given a relatively light 12-month sentence followed by three years of probation because this was his first offense. According to briefs filed by the state of Florida, Graham returned to a life of crime shortly after he was released from a county jail, committing a home-invasion robbery with two others. Under Florida's tough repeat offenders law, Graham was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. In November, the justices will hear the case and are being asked to decide whether sentencing a juvenile to life in prison for a non-homicide charge violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

United States v. Comstock. In 2006, Congress passed a law that allows the federal government to continue to confine individuals deemed "sexually dangerous" even after they have completed their sentences for criminal sexual offenses. The government argues that, although these people have technically served their time, they continue to pose a danger to society at large. As proof, they point to the records of the handful of men who are now challenging the civil commitment process. All of the men, the government claims, had criminal records for sexually abusing children before their current prison terms and will likely reoffend if released upon completion of their sentences. The case, which is in the early stages of briefing and has not yet been scheduled for argument, asks the justices to decide whether this continued confinement is constitutional.

McDonald v. Chicago. In 2008, the justices ruled in a case from the District of Columbia that the Second Amendment bestows an individual right to keep and bear arms. Because the case originated in a federal enclave, the justices passed on the question of whether the Second Amendment also applies to states, thus calling into question gun regulations in those jurisdictions. The justices have now taken up this question and are expected to decide whether citizens in Chicago -- which has one of the most restrictive gun regulation regimes in the country -- also enjoy the same Second Amendment rights as do their brethren in the District. This case was recently granted and is expected to be heard some time in early 2010.

By Eva Rodriguez  | October 4, 2009; 8:32 PM ET
Categories:  Rodriguez  | Tags:  Eva Rodriguez  
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You can be sure of one thing about the cases mentioned, without having to plow through their hundreds of pages of legalese:

Given the present makeup of the Court, they are virtually certain to be wrongly decided.

Posted by: norriehoyt | October 4, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, clarifying and excellent article.

Posted by: owlafaye | October 4, 2009 10:59 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "norriehoyt" after the Imminent Domain ruling against private citizens in favor of commercial interest I lost faith in the Supreme Court to decide if anything is "Constitutional". The drug maker won. That's a disgrace.

I'm sure health care reform will pass for the same reason. The Supreme Court has lost its true course.

Posted by: RavenGodiva | October 4, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

These are cases that call for close listening. But I have seen the court really go to the narrow side when deciding cases. Almost to a point of not deciding anything. Except the alloance of government to take a persons personal property and then give it to private companies to develope. That was horrible. I can only hope they keep our Constituion as it was meant to be and not think we have the right to change it for ebs and flows of personal or political movements. 220 years is alot more knowledge than we currently have in our Government. I don't care what side your on. Our Constitution is what still allows us to have this converstation.

Posted by: mnmcrew1 | October 4, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

What in the world is "imminent Domain?"

Posted by: lowercaselarry | October 5, 2009 12:13 AM | Report abuse

It's like emminent domain, only really, really soon...

Posted by: LouG1 | October 5, 2009 12:32 AM | Report abuse

A number of years back, criminals in Maryland could opt-in to go to Patuxent in a medical diversion style program, with the aim being that a successful completion thereof would allow them to be discharged back into the community ahead of schedule.

If I recall correctly, some ended up being held past their original sentences, where again, if I recall correctly, the Supremes held that violated their various Constitutional rights.

I therefore suspect an interesting 'rematch' but this time in the area of child molesters with a different court, i.e., a child molester anonymous style solution, i.e. Sex Addicts Anonymous which is a legitimate 12 step program.

Posted by: | October 5, 2009 3:50 AM | Report abuse

People in the US use dogs in hunting wild pigs, which are environmentally quite damaging in some fairly critical habitat. The hunting they do is essential for that reason, & as a secondary concern because of the agricultural damage the pigs cause. The court needs to be very careful with this case because they could cause unintended harm. The pigs are dangerous, pretty hard to hunt in a lot of cases, and big. I don't know anyone who does it on `wild' terrain that has not had a good deal of training to do it.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 5, 2009 3:53 AM | Report abuse

this gun control case is a real can of worms, it could in the extreme invalidate the idea of "incorporation", to say that the bill of rights only applies to to federal government, not the states. if they uphold the 2nd amendment, all state laws of gun control would be invalid. if they hold for restrictions by the states, they could invalidate the incorporation clause. they will have to carefully tread here.

Posted by: dem4evr | October 5, 2009 6:12 AM | Report abuse

To my knowledge, in all of the cases brought to the Supreme Court where there was a challenge of whether the right only applied to the federal government and not the states, the Supreme Court has consistently found that the right applies to the states just as much as to the federal government. The reasoning being that denial of the right by the state being a circumvention of its protected status by the federal government.

Posted by: mhoust | October 5, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

1905 'Westm. Gaz.' 7Oct. 4/2 The writs of the insane are generally distinguished by great length.

Posted by: edtroyhampton | October 5, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Twenty years ago, I would have said the nation's main problem is crime. Today, I think our biggest problems lie with laws which are too harsh and even un-constitutional in some cases.

We overpunish crime and punish some things which should not be crimes. I hope the Supreme Court bats down law after law in this coming round of judgements.

Posted by: RealTexan1 | October 5, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Re references to the "incorporation" of the various items in the Bill of Rights to State law: over a lengthy period of time, the Supreme Court ruled on a one by one basis that certain citizen guarantees enumerated in the Bill of Rights were so "basic to a well ordered system of justice" that they were "incorporated" by means of the post-Civil War 13th and 14th amendments to apply to state law as well as to federal law. Before the 13th and 14th amendments with their guarantees of "due process" and "equal protection," the Constitution was directed solely towards the Federal Government.

Some Justices--most notably the liberals Black and Douglas--always argued for a wholesale and total "incorporation" of each enumerated right, i.e., its imposition on to the States. More conservative Justices, e.g., Frankfurter, preferred a more cautious approach, differentiating from one right to another as to whether it was sufficiently basic to be imposed on the States via the 13th and 14th amendment guarantees.

It would be possible for a similarly cautious Supreme Court majority to rule that the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms was not basic enough to prohibit a degree of state regulation. The earlier process whereby individual constitutional guarantees have been "incorporated" into the 13th and 14th amendments and thereby imposed on the States would not be affected at all should the Court rule that the right to bear arms was not of the same class as, say, the right of free speech, the right against self-incrimination, the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to legal counsel, etc. So the "doctrine of incorporation" of constitutional rights and their imposition on the States is not itself at issue in the current case concerning fire-arms.

Still, knowing this Court's penchant for very radical attacks on judicial precedent and sweeping categorical Diktats, I would predict that pragmatic attempts of local and state governments to protect the public from unreasonable gun violence will fall victim to the Court's right-wing dogmatism and habit of "legislating from the bench."

Posted by: orray | October 5, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: SISSD1 | October 5, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

What in the world is "imminent Domain?"

Posted by: lowercaselarry | October 5, 2009 12:13 AM

It's like emminent domain, only really, really soon...

Posted by: LouG1 | October 5, 2009 12:32 AM

LMAO LouG1 - And if it's spelled correctly (eminent), it's even sooner.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | October 5, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

The Stevens case could be applied to fox hunting by elites in Virginia and elsewhere. The climax of the hunt is when the dogs tear up to fox.

However, it appears that the law may prevent only taking pictures of the big event.

Posted by: esch | October 5, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Last year when those liberal constitutional geniuses (ROFLMFAO) Souter and Ginsburg ruled in favor of child porn web sites have the "right" to advertise under the 1st amendment; right after losing my lunch, I lost all confidence and respect for the US Supreme Court.

I am sure right at the top of their list, when the framers were concerned about individual free speech, was allowing children to be brutalized, video taped, and then those acts disseminated.

At some point you ignorant f--ing lib--turds, common sense has to come into play.

Posted by: Bcamp55 | October 6, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Heller was wrongly decided, ignoring the plain language of the Second Amendment.

But, the Constitution applies everywhere in the US. Until Heller is reversed, no city in the US may enforce an identical ban.

I'm amazed that it requires SCOTUS to make that determination.

Posted by: GregCleveland | October 6, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

The Second Amendment doesn't BESTOW anything. It simply protects a right which pre-exists the Constitution and the United States itself. The rights mentioned in the Constitution also are not the ONLY rights.

* Ninth Amendment – Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Tenth Amendment – Powers of States and people.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. [/i]

Posted by: tanksoldier | October 10, 2009 12:10 AM | Report abuse

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