5 Important SCOTUS Rulings You Didn’t Hear About
The Supreme Court is on a summer break, after a session that was controversial and history making. However, behind the high profile cases making headlines were more than 70 other important cases decided without much fanfare.
1. The circle of life does not apply to seeds owned by Monsanto
In order to save money, Farmer Bowman decided to plant the seeds produced from his soybean crop. The original crop used Monsanto’s patented herbicide resistant seeds, which most farmers use because Monsanto owns 90% of the soybean seed market in America. Upon hearing about the second crop, Monsanto sued, saying that he violated their patent because, well, patents.
In Bowman v. Monsanto Co., the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Monsanto, agreeing that the patent protects all copies of the original invention, which includes new seeds from the original crop. Farmers must buy new seeds – Monsanto seeds – for every subsequent crop.
2. No need to be mentally competent during federal appeals
After conviction in state court, a person has several opportunities to appeal their conviction through the state’s court system and, if unsuccessful, through the federal court system (known as “writ of habeus corpus”). In two separate cases filed by Arizona and Ohio, the defendants were ruled mentally incompetent during the time their appeals were going through the federal system and judges delayed the proceedings until competency returned.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees accused persons a lawyer in all stages of their case, up to the time of conviction. During the appeals process, federal law guarantees a right to an attorney only in death penalty cases. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the two companion cases (Ryan v. Gonzales and Tibbals v. Carter) that there is no constitutional right to have a lawyer during federal appeals nor a requirement of mental competency — since habeus proceedings are not trial proceedings and do not require participation by the convicted persons.
3. Sharing a joint won’t get you deported.
If a non-citizen living here legally is charged with a crime, they can be deported. Federal law requires automatic deportation if they are convicted of an aggravated felony. This is what the federal government claimed Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican national living legally in the U.S. since he was three, committed when he admitted to possessing with intent to distribute a small amount of marijuana that was found during a traffic stop in Georgia. The amount of marijuana was the equivalent of two or three joints. In this case, “distribute” referred to the fact that he was going to share the joints with some friends, for free. They deported him, and his appeals for reentry were denied.
In Moncrieffe v. Holder, the Supreme Court decided (7-2) that having a small amount of marijuana was not a felony and, therefore, not a cause for automatic deportation nor reason to be denied reentry if already deported.
4. Proving employer retaliation just got harder
Dr. Nail Nassar was a physician at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He complained of religious and racial bias against his supervisor and applied for another position at the medical center. He accused the university of not hiring him in retaliation for his complaints. The university claimed he would have never gotten the job due to the hiring agreement guidelines between the university and the medical center.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 enacted by Congress states that if the plaintiff proves that “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice,” the employer can be held liable. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that because that section of the act doesn’t specifically include retaliation, it is not covered.
In other words, if employers adequately prove that there were other reasons for firing (or not hiring, in this case), it will be difficult to establish a retaliation claim.
5. Employers just got a break on sexual harassment and other bias claims
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are forbidden to practice gender or racial discrimination in the workplace, including through their agents. In 1998, two Supreme Court decisions further defined supervisors as agents of employers, extending liability of the supervisor’s actions, such as sexual harassment, to the employer.
In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that in order to be considered a supervisor, a person must have the power or authority to impact an employee’s job, such as through firing or promoting. In practice, this means that if a person assigns tasks or otherwise oversees your activities, but cannot make decisions regarding the status of your employment, they are not your supervisor, just a co-worker.
So, as an example, when that “co-worker” makes sexual advances and assigns more difficult deadlines or tasks because you refuse the advances, yet can’t fire you if you don’t meet those deadlines, the employer isn’t liable for the harassment – as long as they have made an effort to address the hostile work environment.
You can always sue if you get fired in retaliation for accusing your co-worker for the harassment — assuming, of course, you met those difficult deadlines.