Supreme Court Action: License Plates and a Host of Others

The Supreme Court issued six opinions yesterday.  The most controversial is the Texas specialty license plate case, Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (14-144).  The facts are straightforward.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans applied for a vanity plate that featured the organization and included a confederate flag.  A Google image search of [sons of confederate veterans license plate] will bring up ample amounts of results showing the design.  It is also appended to the end of the majority opinion.  Interestingly, it appears that other states have issued plates with the design.  Texas, however, said no to the confederate flag.  The SCV naturally sued.  The federal district court upheld the denial and the Fifth Circuit reversed.

The issue concerned whether plate design was government speech or private speech.  If it was the former, Texas had the right to control its own governmental message appearing on its license plates.  If it was private speech, the First Amendment would prohibit government from censoring the message.  The majority ruled that Texas had the right to refuse the design as it was characterized as government speech.  The Court based this holding mostly on the prior case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460 (2009).  In Summum, the Court rejected a private organization’s attempt to place a religious monument in a city park where other privately erected monuments already existed on the basis that the government could control its own message.  The nature of the park did not turn it into a private forum.  The Court analogized the park setting with that of vanity license plates.

The Court’s opinion was delivered by Justice Breyer and he was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Kennedy.  The dissent argues that the Summum case is distinguishable and that the majority passes off government speech with private speech.

The other cases involve subjecting the mentally handicapped to the death penalty, Brumfield v. Cain (13-1433, (the defendant has a right to prove he is mentally handicapped); introduction of statements made earlier by a 3-year old child about abuse does not violate the confrontation clause, Ohio v. Clark (13-1352); whether the state has to prove intent and knowledge when a defendant is charged with selling drug analogues appearing on schedules from the Controlled Substances Act (it does), McFadden v. United States (14-387); and whether a church can be fined for not removing temporary directional signs in time limits contained in its sign code (it can’t in that the applicable code was not content neutral), Reed v. Town of Gilbert (13-502).

Mark

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