States Watch New U.S. Supreme Court Term

By: - September 28, 2007 12:00 am

Just days before starting its new term on Monday (Oct. 1), the U.S. Supreme Court took on two cases of major importance for states, dealing with how the death penalty is carried out in many states and whether voters should be required to show photo identification at the polls. 

But the two high-profile cases aren’t the only ones on the court’s schedule this term that states will be following closely. Other cases will affect states’ ability to regulate delivery of “dangerous” products such as tobacco, states’ tax policies and, of course, their criminal courts.

 Photo by Danny Dougherty,

The U.S. Supreme Court begins its new term on Monday, Oct. 1.
The groups challenging Indiana’s voter ID law urged the justices to review the case, so that states will know whether laws similar to Indiana’s are valid before the 2008 presidential election.
In general, fights over the voter ID laws have broken down along party lines. Republicans have promoted ID requirements as a way to prevent voter fraud. Democrats say the laws discourage the poor and elderly from voting, and they say there’s little evidence of voter fraud that the rules would prevent.
Indiana and four other states (Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and South Dakota) require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Indiana’s law further defines the documentation as a government-issued photo identification that carries the voter’s address and signature. Those without proper identification in Indiana can cast provisional ballots that are counted only if the voter provides proof of identity within 48 hours.
Nineteen other states accept other forms of identification that could include utility bills or pay stubs.

Indiana’s voter ID law is considered to be the toughest, but so far it has survived legal challenges from Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law on a 2-1 vote in January, setting up the current appeals . Crawford v. Marion City Election Board , No. 07-21 ( petition ) and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita , No. 07-25 ( petition ).
Similar efforts in Georgia and Missouri weren’t as successful. The two states passed laws last year to require government-issued photo IDs at the polls, but courts struck them down. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state’s new voter ID requirements “impermissibly infringe on core voting rights guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution.” Georgia’s law, which required residents without a state photo ID to purchase a $20 digital identification card to vote, was struck down in federal court. The judge likened the law to an illegal Jim Crow-era poll tax.

The court’s agreement Tuesday (Sept. 25) to hear arguments in a Kentucky lethal injection case already is having an effect and could be leading to a nationwide suspension of executions by lethal injection until the justices rule sometime next year. 

Already, last-minute reprieves were granted to death-row inmates in Texas and Alabama who were scheduled die Thursday (Sept. 28). Both inmates argued their appeals raise the same claims as in the Kentucky case, which argues that the lethal drugs used in 36 states’ death chambers expose inmates to pain and suffering in violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In Delaware, a federal judge Thursday (Sept. 28) postponed a trial challenging lethal injection methods, extending a moratorium on executions there until the high court rules, likely by July 2008.

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent mixed signals on whether it will agree to a blanket moratorium on lethal injections pending its ruling. It refused to stop the execution of Michael Richard in Texas late Tuesday (Sept. 25), within hours of agreeing to take up the Kentucky lethal injection appeal. But it reversed course without explanation and issued a late-night reprieve for condemned inmate Carlton Tucker in Texas on Thursday (Sept. 27.)  

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) delayed the execution of murderer Thomas Arthur for 45 days while the state overhauls its lethal injection procedures. 

Lawyers handling death penalty cases around the country are rushing to file to stay executions until the court decides the appeal.

Meanwhile, Kentucky has promised to add more medical equipment to execution sites. But Kentucky is one of 11 states where executions by lethal injection already are on hold because of challenges to lethal injection procedures or to the absence of doctors at executions. The others are Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee.

The Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees , No. 07-5439 ( petition ), doesn’t seek to throw out lethal injection as a form of capital punishment but wants changes in how it’s administered and new standards for courts to use to determine whether the punishment is constitutional.

The first case the justices will hear on Monday involves a unique primary system approved by voters in Washington state in 2004 but put on hold by court challenges ever since.
Under the system, the top two vote-getters in state primaries would advance to the general election, regardless of their political affiliation. Supporters say the system would let voters – not political parties – control the outcome of elections.
But Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians who successfully have challenged the law convinced lower courts that the system violates their First Amendment right of free association. Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party , No. 06-713 and Washington v. Washington State Republican Party , No. 06-730 ( briefs ).
Other cases on the court’s docket include:
·         A showdown between President Bush and the top criminal court in his home state of Texas over the rights of foreigners facing the death penalty in the United States. The president ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review a case of a Mexican citizen, who claimed his rights were violated because the Mexican consulate was never told of his case, as required by the Vienna Convention and Consular Relations. The Texas judges ruled the president didn’t have the authority to tell them to reconsider the case. Medellin v. Texas , No. 06-984 ( briefs ).

·         A challenge to Maine’s authority to regulate how tobacco products are delivered to retailers, based on the argument that federal law preempts the state from regulating transport companies. Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association , No. 06-457 ( briefs ).

·         A review of a decision that state pension systems claim would have “catastrophic and destabilizing results” on state budgets and even their constitutions. The issue is whether the Kentucky pension plans illegally discriminated by using age as a factor to deny a government worker a disability pension, a common practice among pension plans. Kentucky Retirement Systems v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission , No. 06-1037 ( petition ).

·         A tax dispute that raises the question of whether states can give people who buy the state’s own bonds an income tax break without doing the same for people who hold bonds from other states. Department of Revenue of Kentucky v. Davis , No. 06-666 ( briefs ).

·         The case of a black Louisiana man sentenced to death by an all-white jury that raises questions of what evidence courts can weigh to determine whether the prosecutor purposely excluded black jurors. Snyder v. Louisiana , No. 06-10119 ( briefs ).

·         An appeal from New York City to determine whether parents of a special needs student must send their child to public schools first before deciding the schools don’t meet their child’s needs and whether those parents can recoup tuition costs for the child’s private education. Board of Education of the City of New York v. Tom F. , No. 06-637 ( briefs ).

·         The question of whether to throw out evidence of drug possession against a Virginia man who was arrested on charges of  driving with a suspended license, because the arrest violated state law . Virginia v. Moore , No. 06-1082 ( petition ).

·         A protest from the former owners of the online legal research company LexisNexis who objected to paying $4 million in Illinois taxes from the1994 sale, even though they weren’t based in the state. MeadWestvaco Corp. v. Illinois Department of Revenue , No. 06-1413 ( petition ).
The court will add more cases to its docket as the year goes on. It is expected to decide the cases by the end of June.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.