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.
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