Friday, March 25, 2022
The Supreme Court today stayed a lower-court injunction against the Defense Department's COVID vaccine mandate for 35 Navy special warfare personnel. The ruling means that the Navy can impose the mandate (or consequences) on servicemembers pending their appeal to the Fifth Circuit.
The case, Austin v. U.S. Navy Seals 1-26, arose when 35 Navy servicemembers assigned to naval Special Warfare Command units sued the Defense Department, arguing that DOD's COVID vaccine mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause. The district court ruled in their favor and entered a preliminary injunction against the mandate. It later declined to stay the injunction, however, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The government then sought a "partial stay" of the injunction at the Supreme Court.
Today the Court granted the stay in an unsigned order.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurrence, arguing that the district court's preliminary injunction improperly inserted the court into the military chain of command.
Justice Alito dissented, joined by Justice Gorsuch. He argued that DOD set up an unduly burdensome process for religious exemptions, and that it hadn't granted a single one. He claimed that the military's summary rejection of religious exemptions wasn't narrowly tailored to meet its compelling interest in minimizing serious health risks to Navy personnel, and that the government treated servicemembers who sought medical exemptions more favorably than those who sought religious exemptions.
The Supreme Court earlier this week reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court's ruling that adopted the governor's proposed state legislative map. The Court held that the state high court didn't adequately scrutinize the map under equal protection and sent the case back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court for a re-do. (The same day, the Court declined to reverse the state court's adoption of the governor's map for the state's congressional districts.)
The ruling is a short-term win for legislative Republicans against the Democratic governor. But because the state supreme court has a chance to reanalyze the governor's proposed map, the result may be the same--adoption of the governor's map.
The case, Wisconsin Legislature v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, arose when the state supreme court directed the governor and the state legislature, who couldn't agree on a map, to propose maps. The governor proposed a map that included a new seventh majority-black district--the current map includes only six--in order to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. (Section 2 requires that a state's "political process" must be "equally open to participation" to members of racial minority groups, so that group members have an equal opportunity "to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.")
The court adopted the governor's map. The legislature then filed for a stay at the Supreme Court, arguing that the map used race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
The Court agreed. The Court noted that under equal protection a state's use of race as a "predominant" factor in redistricting must satisfy strict scrutiny. That means that a state must show that its use of race is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. The Court acknowledged that under Court precedent compliance with the Voting Rights Act is a compelling interest. But still, a state map must be narrowly tailored to comply with the VRA to satisfy strict scrutiny.
The Court held that the map failed this test. It said that the governor didn't sufficiently prove that a seventh majority-black district was necessary to comply with the VRA, or that the court didn't sufficiently assess whether the map was necessary to comply with the VRA. In particular, the Court said that the Wisconsin court failed to determine whether a race-neutral map that didn't include a seventh majority-black district could satisfy the VRA. (If so, the governor's map wouldn't be necessary to comply with the VRA.)
The Court remanded the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court "to undertake a full strict-scrutiny analysis." This could mean that the court simply collects more evidence, sharpens its analysis, and re-adopts the governor's map. Or it could go in a different direction.
Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justice Kagan. She argued that the Court's action was "unprecedented." That's because "summary reversals are generally reserved for decisions in violation of settled law," but law in this area "is hazy at best." She also claimed that the Court would do better to let an appropriate plaintiff bring a direct equal protection challenge or VRA challenge in the appropriate forum.
Thursday, March 24, 2022
The Supreme Court ruled today that a condemned prisoner was likely to succeed on his claim that prison authorities violated his religious rights when they denied his request to allow his pastor to pray and lay hands on him in the execution chamber.
The preliminary ruling only means that the prisoner's execution without his pastor is temporarily halted. Prison authorities could, of course, allow the pastor to pray and lay hands, and then schedule the execution.
The case, Ramirez v. Collier, arose when condemned prisoner John Ramirez asked prison authorities to allow his pastor to pray and lay hands on him in the execution chamber before and during his execution. Authorities denied the request, and Ramirez sued, arguing that the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Ramirez sought a temporary injunction halting his pastor-less execution.
The Court granted Ramirez that injunction. The Court held that the prison's failure to honor Ramirez's request amounted to a "substantial" burden on his religious exercise, "sincerely based on a religious belief." Moreover, the Court said that the prison's denial wasn't the "least restrictive means" of achieving its stated interests in denying the request. The Court held that the prison's denial thus failed RLUIPA's strict scrutiny test for actions that substantially burden religious exercise.
As the Court noted, this is not a ruling under the Free Exercise Clause.
The Supreme Court ruled today that the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System did not violate the First Amendment when it censured a member for misconduct. The ruling is narrow: it only means that an elected body can censure (without further punishment) a member of the body (but not necessarily a non-member) without violating free speech.
The case, Houston Community College System v. Wilson, arose when the HCC Board censured member David Wilson for various antics that were "not consistent with the best interests of the College" and "not only inappropriate, but reprehensible." Wilson sued, arguing that the censure and related actions by the Board violated the First Amendment. The Court only addressed the censure, however, and not related actions.
Justice Gorsuch wrote for a unanimous Court that legislative bodies have a long tradition of censuring members, and that there's "little reason to think the First Amendment was designed or commonly understood to upend this practice." Moreover, the particular facts of this case counseled against Wilson's claim. For one, he was an elected official, and "[i]n this country, we expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers--and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes." For another, the only adverse action that Wilson suffered was . . . free speech by his colleagues on the Board. "The First Amendment surely promises an elected representative like Mr. Wilson the right to speak freely on questions of government policy." But just as surely, it cannot be used as a weapon to silence other representatives seeking to do the same."