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Warth v. Seldin

Warth v. Seldin


Warth v. Seldin


In United States law, petitioners must have standing to sue in order for their case to be heard.  In general, United States federal and state courts have ruled that there must be a specific “case or controversy” that starts the initial petition to the courts.  Warth v. Seldin is a 1975 Supreme Court case that examined whether citizens of a city could sue over zoning ordinances that affected them indirectly.  The decision of the court in Warth v. Seldin clarified who had standing to sue over zoning issues and enhanced state and local control of zoning decisions.


Zoning Ordinances and State/Local Control


Traditionally, zoning ordinances in the United States have fallen under the jurisdiction of municipalities, with states providing judicial review in situations where a dispute arises.  However, in some cases, people have attempted to take their zoning cases all the way to the Supreme Court.


Zoning affects communities in several different ways.  By zoning particular areas as commercial or single-family residential, towns and cities can actually manipulate some aspects of property value and make it more difficult for people to move into an area.  Additionally, zoning codes can create housing size and lot size minimums.


The Lawsuit


Warth v. Seldin was a lawsuit against the city of Penfield, New York, which the plaintiffs maintained had deliberately excluded people of low and moderate income from their town.  Several of the plaintiffs worked in Penfield, but in order to find affordable housing were forced to live over 40 miles away.  The plaintiffs were also from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds.


According to the plaintiffs, Penfield's zoning law allotted 98% of vacant land to single-family housing, and the requirements for building single family dwellings were onerous for anyone wishing to make housing affordable to people with low incomes.  Less than one percent was allocated to multi-family residences, but even this tended to be unaffordable because the city required very large lots.  This zoning was perceived as exclusionary, and they sued.


However, their lawsuit soon encountered a setback: the district court ruled that because they could not point to a specific rule that had affected them directly, the plaintiffs had no standing to sue.  The case was appealed and reached the Supreme Court.


The Supreme Court's Ruling


The Supreme Court held in Warth v. Seldin that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.  The court ruled that the plaintiffs would have needed a more specific complaint, and would have to show that the changes they were requesting would lead to them being able to live in Penfield.  Since they were not builders and did not know whether, even if the codes were changed, builders would build low-income housing, the court ruled they were not directly affected.


The court's holding in Warth v. Seldin was part of a long line of decisions limiting standing to people with a specific case or controversy to resolve.  If the courts did not limit standing in this way, they would become places where nearly anyone could sue simply in order to decide issues of public policy, and the courts do not wish to be continuous arbiters of abstract policy disputes that could be handled better by legislators.

Commonwealth v. Sharpless

Commonwealth v. Sharpless


Commonwealth v. Sharpless


When Americans think of obscenity cases in federal courts, they tend to think of 20th century cases, like the one against pornographer Larry Flynt.  But cases involving obscenity and pornography are nothing new.  Commonwealth v. Sharpless is the first Supreme Court case that examined the ability of states to prosecute privately displayed obscenity, and it took place in 1815.


The Beginnings of the Case


Contemporary obscenity cases almost always revolve around photography, so it may seem somewhat quaint to people in the 21st century that in Commonwealth v. Sharpless, the charge of obscenity extends from a painting.  The painting itself has been lost to history, but according to court documents, it depicted a man in a sexual position with a woman.


Jesse Sharpless, the defendant, had exhibited the painting in his Pennsylvania home for profit.  He had charged an admissions fee to see the painting privately in one of the rooms of his house.  When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania arrested him for lewdness, his response was a guilty plea.  Immediately after the plea, the defendant's lawyer motioned to stop judgment in the case.


Lewdness, Privacy, and Morality


The reason that the defense attorney believed the Commonwealth had no right to enforce lewdness statutes against his client was simple: according to the lawyer's argument, the crime of lewdness was inherently a public crime—the publicity was, in fact, what made an exhibition of lewd material criminal.


The attorney also argued that while indeed it would be legitimate for Sharpless to be tried by ecclesiastical courts or be subject to the “frowns of society,” that did not mean it was legitimate for the state to criminally prosecute him.  This was, the defense attorney said, a potentially immoral act, but not all immoral acts are legislated against.


The Court's Ruling


The court started by agreeing with Sharpless' lawyer that not all immoral acts rise to the level of illegality.  However, the court at this time also perceived itself as a protector of public morality, and agreed with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that Sharpless should be convicted of lewdness.


The reason for this is that the court's justices believed the painting not only to be a corrupting influence on people who viewed it, but also by extension on society at large.  Even people who had never seen the painting themselves could potentially be corrupted by reading about it or having it described to them.  Anything which tends to corrupt society, the judges ruled, could be legislated against at the state level.


Changes to Obscenity Laws


Of course, given the number of provocative pieces of art extant today, it's clear that America's obscenity laws have undergone some major revision since the time of Commonwealth v. Sharpless.  Courts have become substantially more relaxed with the definition of obscenity because community standards have significantly changed since the early 19th century.  The court has consistently held that community standards are the overall arbiter of what is and is not considered obscene at a particular time and place.

Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid

Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid


Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid


This 1989 case explored the relationship between artists and the people who commission works from them.  United States copyright law treats works differently that are created as “works for hire” rather than joint works or which are produced by an artist without having been hired.  The controversy over Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid arose when a non-profit group changed how they intended to use a work of art, and the creator of the artwork was not in favor of the plan.


The Sculpture and the Dispute


The Community for Creative Non-Violence was an organization dedicated to helping the homeless and creating sometimes provocative works of advocacy to raise awareness of homelessness in the United States.  The CCNV hired a sculptor, James Reid, to create a sculpture to further their mission.


Reid's sculpture was called “Third World America,” and featured a nativity scene in which the Holy Family were replaced by homeless individuals around a warm grate.  “And Still There Is No Room At the Inn” was written on the pedestal that would support the sculpture.  The CCNV gave Reid input on what they wanted the sculpture to look like, but Reid still had a great deal of creative freedom and control in the specific implementation of the sculpture.


When Reid finished, he was paid, but the CCNV announced a change to their plans for the sculpture.  Rather than keeping it in a single location, as Reid had been told, the sculpture would now begin a multi-city tour.  Reid decided he wanted the sculpture back, as this had not been the original agreement and he had artistic objections to the tour.


Work for Hire and Creative Control


Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid hinged on the question of what constitutes a work for hire.  In United States copyright law, works for hire are the property of the employer, not the person who created the work.  For example, a reporter who writes a news story does not maintain control over the news story, because it is a work for hire.


Supreme Court Decision


The Supreme Court examined several work for hire precedents, and in the case of Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid decided that the sculpture did not in fact qualify as a work for hire.  In essence, the Supreme Court ruled that Reid had acted much more like an independent contractor than an employee.  He had his own tools and sculpture studio (rather than having had those things provided by CCNV), and had maintained creative control throughout the creation of the sculpture.


While it is possible for an independent contractor to create a work for hire, this usually involves a specific contract which specifies that the work will no longer be under the worker's creative control.  The court decided that while “Third World America” had not been a work for hire, they would not make a ruling on whether, due to CCNV's involvement, it had been a joint work (and thus jointly copyrighted by both the artist and CCNV).  The court remanded Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid for a further examination of whether the work should be considered a joint work or not.

Berghuis v. Thompkins

Berghuis v. Thompkins


Berghuis v. Thompkins


Anyone who's ever been arrested—or watched a television show with an arrest in it—is familiar with the words.  “You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”  In 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States made a major decision about the right to remain silent for people being interrogated and detained by police.  The 5-4 Berghuis v. Thompkins decision created major controversy within circles of legal scholars and has become emblematic of the Roberts Court's approach to criminal procedure and jurisprudence.


The Right to Remain Silent and Miranda Warnings


The right to remain silent has existed in United States law as long as the Constitution has existed.  The Constitution does not ever require a person to testify against themselves, and allows the assistance of professional legal counsel for all arrested or detained suspects.


However, until 1966, that right was invoked much more rarely.  That's because until a case called Miranda v. Arizona, criminal suspects were not told explicitly that they had the right to remain silent, or that they had the right to request counsel at any time during their interrogation.  In fact, many police officers before that time would say things that were very much the opposite, and used coercion to elicit confessions and incriminating evidence from suspects.


After Miranda v. Arizona was decided in favor of the criminal defendant who had not been told his rights, police were required to “mirandize” suspects before at the time of arrest and before beginning any interrogation.


Invoking, Waiving, and Remaining Silent


The question in Berghuis v. Thompkins revolved around whether a defendant actually needed to explicitly state that they were invoking their right to remain silent in order to have police respect that right.  Van Berghuis had been arrested after being suspected of a shooting outside a mall, and was taken into an interrogation room.


He was given a waiver of his rights to read, but refused to sign the waiver.  For over two and a half hours, officers continued to interrogate him while he remained silent.  After nearly three hours, Berghuis answered a question that was used to prove his guilt.  Berghuis and his attorneys argued that the warnings in Miranda didn't require a suspect to specifically invoke his rights, while the state argued that without invocation of the right to remain silent, the police did not have to leave him alone or stop interrogation.


The Supreme Court's Decision


The court ruled against Berghuis, noting that in order for a criminal suspect to receive legal counsel during an interrogation, they are required to specifically invoke their right to counsel.  The majority opinion saw no reason that the invocation of the right to remain silent should be any different.


Dissenters, as well as many people in the legal community, believed that the decision in Berghuis v. Thompson represented a lessening of Miranda rights, and felt that it was equivalent to saying that a suspect needed to know “magic words” to stop an interrogation that they were not specifically told they needed to invoke at the time they were given their rights.

Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.

Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.


Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.


The fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall, made many of the most momentous decisions in American constitutional law.  While he is often remembered for cases like Marbury v. Madison (establishing the Supreme Court as capable of judicially reviewing law) and McCulloch v. Maryland (which established federal supremacy over the states), Marshall also decided a number of other cases that would have far-reaching effects on federal and state laws, as well as the lives of American citizens.  Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co. is one of those cases.  Originally about a Delaware dam, this 1829 case would lay the foundation for the current American system of federal and state regulation.


How the Case Began


Thompson Willson owned a small ship which he used in several navigable waterways throughout the state of Delaware.  He was fully licensed to own and operate a sailing vessel.  At one point, he was navigating Blackbird Creek, which had been dammed by Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co., when his ship broke through the dam, causing extensive damage.


The company that had built the dam was licensed to do so by the state of Delaware, and sued Willson for trespassing and the damages done to their work.  The case went to the Supreme Court because Willson contended that the state had no right to allow the dam to be built in the first place—he said that only the federal government should be able to regulate whether a dam was built on waterways in any state, due to the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Willson claimed that the federal government's right to regulate traffic on waterways was exclusive, and that the state of Delaware had overstepped its authority by regulating it on its own.


The Supreme Court Decision


The Supreme Court decided against Willson, the plaintiff.  According to the Supreme Court, Willson was partially right—the federal government certainly did have the right to regulate navigable waterways.  However, the court noted, it had not actually chosen to do so with Blackbird Creek.  This meant that while the United States government did indeed have an interstate commerce power to do what Willson claimed, the power was a dormant one.


In the absence of any federal regulation that would in any way prohibit the dam from having been built, the court ruled that the state of Delaware was free to pass whatever laws it wished in order to regulate the creek and other waterways.  However, if the federal government ever chose to use its power, it would no longer be dormant and the state laws would no longer be valid.


Effects of Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co.


When Willson was ruled against, it was a huge victory for states that wanted to create regulations within their own borders.  If the case had been decided the other way, states would have been unable to have regulated any conduct that could have affected commerce, even if that conduct was in no way prohibited or regulated by federal law.


In many ways, we have Willson v. Black-Bird Creek Marsh Co. to thank for things like state environmental laws today.  Without the decision that states should be free to pass regulations that affected their own citizens, much of environmental law today would be very different.

Tennard v. Dretke

Tennard v. Dretke


Tennard v. Dretke


Robert Tennard's 2004 case in front of the United States Supreme Court helped establish whether death penalty defendants had been given sufficient opportunity to present mitigating evidence at their trial and sentencing phase.  Tennard, who was convicted of murder in 1986 after the 1985 stabbing of his acquaintance, Larry Neblett, was said to have an IQ of just 67—substantially lower than a normal intelligence quotient.  However, the jury had never received this information, and Tennard's attorneys petitioned the Supreme Court to review his case.


Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty


In a case called Atkins v. Virginia that took place two years before Tennard's appeal was heard, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “the mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution.”  The reasons for this were varied, but boiled down to the simple fact that someone who is mentally retarded is less capable of exercising impulse control and the level of reasoning expected of a reasonable adult.


However, the Supreme Court left some room for interpretation in their ruling.  They refrained from setting a specific IQ threshold that would render a defendant mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution.  They even mentioned that some people who are identified as mentally retarded would not be “so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a consensus.”  In Tennard v. Dretke, the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether Tennard's 67 IQ fell within this boundary, and whether the jury should have been informed about this factor when it decided to sentence him to death row.


Supreme Court Judgment


The Supreme Court decided to reverse Tennard's sentence in a 6-3 decision and remand the case for a new penalty phase.  According to the court, Texas death row inmates sentenced before 1991 were given no way to present mitigating factors in the sentencing phase of their trials, which was contrary to decisions made in several Supreme Court death penalty cases.  They agreed that the defendant's IQ of 67 was definitely something that could be considered a mitigating factor to at least some jury members, and that therefore the jury should have been made aware of it before agreeing to send him to death row.


After Tennard v. Dretke, not only Tennard was granted a new sentencing hearing.  Over fifty other death row inmates in the state of Texas who had been sentenced before 1991 were allowed to present mitigating evidence that juries had not been allowed to see at the time of their original sentencing.


Aftermath: What Happened to Tennard?


The result of Tennard v. Dretke was to send the case back for re-sentencing.  Because the Supreme Court's decision in this case did not specifically address whether Tennard fell under the category of people who could not be executed constitutionally, it was still possible for him to receive the death penalty.  When Tennard was given the opportunity to have a new sentencing phase, prosecutors set up a deal: he could avoid the death penalty in return for agreeing to a sentence that would put him in prison for life without the possibility of parole.


Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt

Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt


Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt


The case of Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1992.  This case, which questioned how much power states had to stop waste materials from being imported into their state boundaries, has become an important part of how environmental decisions are made at the state level.


The Beginnings of the Case


All fifty states in the United States export some of their waste, including hazardous waste, to other states.  However, poorer states have historically become “dumping grounds” for environmentally hazardous wastes that richer states don't want to have to deal with.  In 1990, the state of Alabama passed a law that limited the amount of waste that could be imported into the state and enforced high levels of taxation on any waste dumped there.


Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt began when Chemical Waste Management, a company with garbage processing facilities in Alabama, California, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, and Oregon was subjected to a tax of $72 per ton on out of state waste.  This was in addition to an already existing statewide fee of $25.60 for every ton of garbage dumped in Alabama (regardless of whether it was from in state or out of state).


Interstate Commerce Clause Violations


In Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Hunt (the governor of Alabama, and therefore the defendant in a case against the constitutionality of a state law) had acted outside of his constitutional authority when he decided to enact this law.  The reason stated is that governors and state legislative bodies are not allowed to restrict interstate commerce of any kind—this is a privilege only afforded to the United States Congress.


By creating a differential tax for out of state waste that did not apply to waste generated within the state of Alabama, the court ruled that Alabama had restricted interstate commerce.  The tax was immediately halted, and Chemical Waste Management and other companies who had paid the unconstitutional tax were refunded their money by the state.


Effects on Other States


The holding in Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt also affected several other states that had developed differential fees on out of state dumping, including Louisiana.  While businesses were generally happy about the decision in the case, states and environmental agencies were disappointed, saying that the ruling made it difficult for states to protect their environment from significant degradation by out of state hazardous wastes.


Environmental Impact of the Case


When Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt was decided, it caused a proliferation of waste exports all over the United States.  Today, about 25 percent of garbage is transported across state lines to a dump—an increase of 147 percent from the 1990s.  Environmental groups have warned that this kind of trash exportation allows states with money to simply ignore how much trash they're producing, while passing on the environmental and health costs of disposal to states with less money to fix the problems the trash creates.

Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc.

Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc.


Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc.: The Background

The case of Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc. began in 1987, when several Spendthrift Farm shareholders, including Mr. Ed Plaut, filed suit against the underlying corporation claiming stock sales in 1983 through 1984 were in direct violation of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

The United States Supreme Court Ruling in a previous case set a universal time constrain of three years following an alleged violation for suits stemming from the relevant aspects of the Securities and Exchange Act. Based on this decision, a district court dismissed the shareholders’ case in August of 1991. On December of the same year, U.S. Congress enacted the FDIC Improvement Act, which mandated the court system to reinstate cases dismissed under the limitations set forth in Lampf. In response, the shareholders filed a motion to reinstate. The District Court then agreed that the act required the case to be put back in place, but denied the request on the basis that Congress had violated separation of powers in requiring the court system to reopen settled matters. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit of the United States affirmed the lower court’s conclusion on the same basis.


Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc.: The Question

The question of Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc. asked the question of whether or not Congress violated the separation of powers by requiring federal courts to reopen settled cases as part of the FDIC Improvement Act.


Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc.: The Question

The case of Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc., in a 7 to 2 vote, held that Congress did indeed violate the separation of powers by requiring the federal courts to reopen settled cases as part of the Improvement Act.

The 7 to 2 vote was issued by Justice Antonin Scalia. The case of Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc. concluded that Congress had abused powers that were assigned to the judiciary by Article III and as a result had violated the separation of powers principle. Justice Scolia, when reciting the opinion of the Court in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc, stated that Article III assigns judicial powers to the courts and the power to say what the law is. According to the Supreme Court in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm Inc. this includes the power to render final judgments. Congress therefore abused the powers of the courts to issue last word of the judicial system with regards to particular cases. 

Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co.

Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co.


Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co.


Binding arbitration clauses are incredibly important to businesses today.  However, when these provisions are part of a contract, who is to decide whether the contract itself is enforceable?  That's the question that the Supreme Court had to decide in the case of Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co..  This 1967 case was one of the first where the Supreme Court had to look at the enforceability of contracts that contained binding arbitration clauses.  Its decision was extremely controversial, leading some states to enact laws that acted in direct opposition to the court's ruling.  Today, Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co. is not a law that is obeyed in every state.


Binding Arbitration Clauses


If you've ever signed an employment contract or an end user license agreement, you have probably signed a binding arbitration clause.  These clauses say that if you have any dispute about the contract, you are required to have a private arbitrator settle your dispute rather than suing in a civil court system.  This kind of clause is generally thought to benefit employers and businesses, rather than workers and consumers, because arbitrators are more likely to side with businesses who employ them consistently.


In this case, the question in front of the court was whether questions about whether a contract was enforceable should be settled by an arbitrator or a court.  Prima Paint Corporation argued in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co. that they should not be bound by a consulting agreement they signed with a company that had purchased their paint business three weeks before.  Prima said that they had been defrauded into signing the contract, and that the arbitration clause (and the rest of the contract) was therefore not valid.


The Court's Decision


The court determined that the United States Arbitration Act of 1925 applied to the contract that had been signed between the parties in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co..  What this meant was that regardless of whether Prima had been defrauded into signing the contract, the court had no authorization to determine its enforceability due to the arbitration clause, and would need to be taken to an arbitrator rather than through the court system.


The only exception to this is if the arbitration clause itself is the unenforceable portion of the contract.  Questions about the enforceability of arbitration clauses specifically could still be taken up with the courts, according to the ruling in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co..


State Laws Modifying Prima Paint Corp.


Prima was a very contentious decision, and many states have since created laws designed to get around its ruling.  When Texas passed its law allowing courts to determine the enforceability of arbitration clauses, its legislators noted that according to the doctrine created by Prima, someone could make a person sign a contract at gunpoint—and as long as it still had an arbitration clause, the enforceability of the contract overall would need to be decided by an arbitrator.


You can check your own state's laws about arbitration clauses and contractual enforceability to learn whether the precedent set in Prima applies in your state.

Talbot v. Janson

Talbot v. Janson


Talbot v. Janson: The Background

The case of Talbot v. Janson was a matter tried before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court, in this case, held that the jurisdiction of the court system extended to the open waters and seas and that citizens of the United States may also hold the citizenship of other nations.

The case of Talbot v. Janson was presided over by Chief Justice John Rutledge and the following associate justices: James Wilson; William Paterson; James Iredell; William Cushing and John Blair.

The case of Talbot v. Janson began when an appeal was filed from the Circuit Court for the district of South Carolina. Prior to this, a libel was filed against Edward Ballard, the captain of an armed vessel. It was argued that the vessel and the cargo onboard were the property of Citizens of the United Netherlands, a neutral nation and one in treaty with the United States of America.

On May 16th, 1794 the ship and cargo was taken possession near the west side of Cuba. The boat was usurped by the L’Ami de la Point at Petre, which was commanded by Captain Talbot. The boats then arrived in Charleston on May 25th of 1794.

The case of Talbot v. Janson revolves around whether or not the seized ship and its goods were of American property. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court in Talbot v. Janson held that the jurisdiction of the court system extended beyond land boundaries and that citizens of the United States may also maintain citizenship of other nations. Moreover, the Supreme Court of the United States in Talbot v. Janson ruled that both Ballard and Talbot were Americans by birth and because each had done nothing which could be regarded as a lawful expatriation, their birth—although providing no property in the man—American citizens may leave their country provided their exit is with good cause and under the regulations prescribed by law. 

Rostker v. Goldberg

Mickie Most

Chisholm v. Georgia