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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Slattery

Recapped: The Ides of March

Today was a rare Friday opinion day. The justices released decisions in three cases that were argued in October, and there were also a handful of interesting orders throughout the week.

Pulsifer v. United States

The Court announced the opinion in Pulsifer v. United States, which was argued on the first day of the term. 

The case concerned the First Step Act’s “safety valve” provision, which allows a judge to deviate from a mandatory minimum sentence and instead issue an individualized sentence. Individualized sentencing often leads to a shorter prison sentence. The defendant in this case pleaded (or are you Team Pled?) guilty to distributing at least 50 grams of methamphetamine, a federal crime subject to a 15-year minimum sentence. The dispute in this case was over the conditions a defendant must satisfy to be eligible for the safety valve.

With Justice Elena Kagan writing for the majority, the Court held that a defendant is eligible for the safety valve only if heor she!satisfies all three of the conditions enumerated in 18 U.S.C. §3553(f)(1). The conditions are that the defendant does not have (1) more than four criminal-history points, (2) a prior three-point offense, and (3) a prior two-point violent offense. The majority agreed with the federal government’s view that a defendant is not eligible for the safety valve if he meets any of the three conditions. Because Pulsifer had two prior three-point offenses and more than four criminal-history points (“three plus three equals six,” Justice Kagan helpfully spelled out for the mathematically challenged among us), he was ineligible for the safety valve. 

Stranger bedfellows alert! Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, explaining that Congress changed the landscape when it passed the First Step Act and that the Court misread the statute’s “ordinary and most natural meaning.” In the dissenters’ view, a defendant must meet all three to be ineligible for the safety valve (because the statute says “A, B, and C” not “A, B, or C,” per Justice Gorsuch). The dissent closed: 

Today, the Court does not hedge its doubts in favor of liberty…  All to what end? To deny some individuals a chance—just a chance—at relief from mandatory minimums and a sentence that fits them and their circumstances. It is a chance Congress promised in the First Step Act, and it is a promise this Court should have honored. Respectfully, I dissent. 

Lindke v. Freed and O’Connor-Ratcliffe v. Garnier

The Court also announced its decisions in Lindke v. Freed and O’Connor-Ratcliffe v. Garnier, two cases involving public officials blocking their critics from accessing their social media accounts. Constituents (and critics!) sued California school board officials and Port Huron, Michigan’s city manager under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violating their First Amendment rights. 

Check out Anastasia’s preview of the cases and recap of the oral arguments for more background.  

In Lindke, a unanimous opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Court held that a public official’s use of social media may be considered state action for purposes of §1983 only if the official “(1) possessed actual authority to speak on the State’s behalf on a particular matter, and (2) purported to exercise that authority when he spoke on social media.” Justice Barrett wrote, “The distinction between private conduct and state action turns on substance, not on labels[.]” It was not clear if Freed, the Port Huron city manager, acted in his private capacity (and thus exercised his own First Amendment rights) when he blocked Lindke from his social media page. Barrett concluded that public officials “too have the right to speak about public affairs in their personal capacities… Lest any official lose that right, it is crucial for the plaintiff to show that the official is purporting to exercise state authority in specific posts.” 

The Court issued a per curiam opinion in O’Connor-Ratcliffe, noting that the lower court applied a state action test based on the official “appearance and content” of the public officials’ social media pages. In both, the Supreme Court instructed the lower courts to reconsider the cases using the test spelled out in Lindke

Turning to orders from this week, the Court denied an application for an injunction in Spectrum v. Wendler. This case stems from the president of West Texas A&M University canceling a drag show a student group planned to hold on campus. The student group sued, arguing that the public university violated their First Amendment rights by banning their expressive conduct on campus. The district court denied a preliminary injunction. The case is on appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, but that court denied temporary injunctive relief. The students filed an emergency application for an injunction with the Supreme Court while the case is pending in the Fifth Circuit. Justice Samuel Alito, who is the circuit justice for the Fifth Circuit (which means he decides stay applications that come from that court), denied the application. 

Earlier this week, the Court extended its stay of a Texas law that would allow state police to arrest individuals who cross the border illegally. A district court in the Western District of Texas halted the law from going into effect while a constitutional challenge brought by the federal government and advocacy groups is pending, but the Fifth Circuit stayed that ruling. The federal government then asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the law, which Justice Alito granted on March 4 and extended until March 18. The Fifth Circuit has expedited its review and will hear oral arguments on the merits of the challenge on April 3. Stay tuned…

Wrapping things up, the SCOTUS highlight of the week for me was Justices Barrett and Sotomayor continuing their unity tour. Speaking at a Civic Learning Week National Forum at George Washington University, they underscored the importance of disagreeing agreeably and assuming good faith of those you may disagree with. At another event with both justices in February, Justice Barrett remarked, “We don’t sit on opposite sides of an aisle… We all wear the same color black robe.” 

Check back Monday for our preview of next week's oral arguments.


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