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Supreme Court: No HC Ruling, But No Change to Citizens United, Pre-Emption of Most of Arizona Immigration Law, Overturn on Life Sentences for Juveniles

There will be no ruling on the Affordable Care Act today, per the fine folks at SCOTUSBlog. However, three other consequential rulings did get announced.

First, there’s the case of American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock. This was the Montana attempt to effectively overturn Citizens United and re-establish limits on corporate participation in political campaigns. The Montana Supreme Court ruled to uphold a state law that corporations “may not make… an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party.” That contradicts Citizens United, and the state Supreme Court teed that up to challenge the new campaign finance law. But in a short ruling, the Supremes determined that the Montana ruling was covered under Citizens United, and therefore the ruling must be reversed. In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said that he didn’t agree with the Citizens United ruling and would like to see the Montana ruling get a hearing, but that there was no realistic way that this Court would vote to overturn a ruling they established just two years earlier. So, Breyer concludes, “Given the Court’s per curiam disposition, I do not see a significant possibility of reconsideration. Consequently, I vote in­stead to deny the petition.”

The other two cases decided today should actually cheer liberals a bit. First, in Miller v. Alabama (folded in with Jackson v. Hobbs), the Court determined that juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without parole violates the 8th Amendment bar on cruel and unusual punishment. The case involved two 14 year-olds sentenced in that fashion for various felonies. This is a significant criminal justice victory that makes the US system just a little less punitive. Justice Kagan wrote the 5-4 ruling, with several dissents from the more conservative justices. She wrote that the Eighth Amendment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.” Justices Roberts, Thomas and Alito dissented, and with Scalia in opposition as well, that means that this kind of sentence, life without parole, for juvenile offenders, is really holding by a thread.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, the Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional. So theoretically you could see a juvenile sentenced to life without parole after this ruling. It is nonetheless important. As Bryan Stevenson, the counsel of record in the case, said today in a statement: “This is an important win for children. The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change. The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”

Finally, we have the ruling on Arizona’s SB1070. The case here turned on whether federal immigration law pre-empted the parts of the Arizona law that essentially took over the process. And in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled, essentially, that federal law does pre-empt, in most cases. Sections 3, 5, and 6 of the law were thrown out entirely. That means these parts of the law are now moot:

Section 3 makes failure to comply with federal alien-registration requirements a state misdemeanor; §5(C) makes it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to seek or engage in work in the State; §6 authorizes state and local officers to arrest without a warrant a person “the officer has probable cause to believe… has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.”

One of the only major parts of the law that was not pre-empted was section 2(B), the “check your papers” provision, which mandates (MANDATES???) police to check the legal status of anyone arrested for any crime before they can be released. However, the Court issued guidance on how they can implement that provision without being invalidated at a later time for pre-empting federal law. And the Court ruled that the “show your papers” provision would have significant constraints on it. Basically, Arizona would have to stay well within the lines of federal law to keep this measure in place. As Kennedy writes, “This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”

The ruling was actually 5-3. Justice Kagan recused, because she participated in the case while serving as Solicitor General. Chief Justice Roberts and Kennedy joined Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor in the case. Antonin Scalia, in a dissent read from the bench, said he would have upheld the entire law, and brought up the recent ruling by President Obama to defer action on the deportation of DREAM-eligible students, which had nothing to do with the case.

This is largely a win for the Obama Administration. Most of the law is pre-empted, and the part that remains largely fits in place with Secure Communities, the information-sharing program between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials. Plus, the Court reserves the right for future challenges to Section 2(B) after implementation.

There will only be one other announcement of ruling this term, on Thursday. So that’s when we’ll learn the fate of the Affordable Care Act.

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David Dayen

David Dayen