New SCOTUS, new precedents


The Supreme Court of the United States — the highest court in the land. The new 2020-2021 term is starting, and each new case brings new questions in need of answers. (Photo used by permission of Davis Staedtler on Flickr) 

The Supreme Court released their schedule for the weeks ahead, and the cases they’re reviewing. Mail-in ballot disputes with different states — including North Carolina —  are in the hot-seat, but there are a few cases in particular that raise some attention. 


Fulton v. Philadelphia


Back in 2018, the city of Philadelphia barred Catholic Social Services the right to place children in foster homes. Why? 

The CSS, as it’s known, has a policy: They don’t allow same sex couples to be foster parents due to the “religious integrity” of the organization. 

Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who first brought this case to the courts, started this fight with the surplus of foster children in mind. Both the District and Appeals courts ruled in favor of the City of Philadelphia, claiming that the CSS is justifying discrimination against LGBT+ families on the basis of religious beliefs. A precedent set by late Justice Antonin Scalia in 1990 said “that people cannot use religious beliefs to justify not complying with laws that are otherwise valid.”

This is a case with a complex question. Does the First Amendment allow such discrimination based on religious beliefs? Is there an applicable solution that reaches all religions, not just Catholicism? 

The biggest question, however, is if the court should look back at that 1990 case and change their answer. Employment Division v. Smith, as it’s known, was a turning point at its time, refusing discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs. Now, the Supreme Court is looking back at that case, and might just sway in Fulton’s favor. Only time will tell how this case will end. 


Borden v. United States


Borden’s case begins in March 2017, during a traffic stop, revealing Borden’s pistol. After pleading guilty to possessing a firearm, the Tennessee district court raised his sentencing; the court claimed his three previous arrests counted as felonies, labeling him as an Armed Career Criminal. 

In an attempt to appeal this nine-year sentence, Borden argued his previous arrests were a result of recklessness, therefore invalid. However, the district and appellate courts didn’t feel the same, referencing another case from six months after Borden’s final hearing as they sealed his fate.  

How can a case, settled six months after his arrest, dictate Borden’s fate?

September 2017, six months after Borden’s arrest and appeals, Eric Verweibe brandished a knife at police officers and threatened to kill them. With two previous accounts of armed assault — one resulting in serious bodily harm — his sentencing increased under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The biggest standout of this case was Verweibe’s argument that not all of his assaults should be counted against him — claiming a “reckless” state of mind should result in a lesser charge. However, the courts disagreed, charging him with the original sentence. This set the precedent that recklessness holds the same weight in court when it comes to assault, therefore invalidating Borden’s arguments. 

Enraged, Borden said that the decision violated his due process rights, and took his case to the Supreme Court. Now, they must look at the constitutionality of the lower court’s decision. They must also decide the validity of the “reckless” mindset argument, which will likely cause uproar either way. 


Jones v. Mississippi


A fifteen year-old convicted of murder. Never an easy case to hear, and sentencing is just as difficult. 

Brett Jones turned fifteen in 2004, then stabbed his grandfather to death not even a month after his birthday. Found guilty, he was originally sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Here’s where the higher courts begin to come into play

After a rejection by Mississippi’s appellate and state supreme courts, Jones decided to bring his case to the Supreme Court. Jones’ argument stands on two cases settled back in 2012 and 2016 — both setting precedents for the lower courts to follow. In 2012, a life sentence without parole violates the Eighth Amendment for minors committing murder and that there needs to be an alternate sentencing. However in 2016, the Supreme Court amended that statement: Instead, a life sentence without parole should only apply in the rarest of circumstances. 

The state of Mississippi thinks this is one of those circumstances, but we will just have to see what the justices decide. 

This new term for SCOTUS is keeping everyone on their toes — who knows what other cases they will revisit and revise. 


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