* Punitive damages are available in admiralty cases (in this case unpaid compensation to a seaman) whenever there is willful and wanton, or outrageous conduct, as a matter of federal common law predating the founding. A previous recent case had required that punitive damage awards in admiralty cases bear some proportion to the compensatory damage award under a standard more strict than that found in constitutional reviews of state law punitive damage awards. Congress can provide otherwise by law, but has largely left admiralty to the federal common law.
This is a rare 5-4 case where Justice Kennedy was in dissent. The court liberals were joined by Justice Thomas in making the ruling. The twin decisions stablize the law of punitive damages in admiralty decisions and also reflect attitudes of the Justices towards punitive damages in a non-constitutional context.
* Reconsideration of court orders mandating school funding for programs based upon federal law, when the reconsideration alleges a changes in circumstances, must permit a widespread relitigation of the facts that justify the existing order. This is because "institutional reform litigation" can last many years during which circumstances can change and raise federalism concerns. In ordinary cases, it is almost impossible to modify a court order in a civil case after appeal periods and a six months period from entry to raise the most common irregularities in court procedures.
The case involved a court order mandating increased English language learning funding for the Nogales school district in Arizona pursuant to a federal education funding statute. The decision was 5-4 with the usual conservative suspects in the majority and the court liberals in the minority.
* In a bipartisan 5-4 decision (liberal Justice Breyer dissented, as did conservative Justices Kennedy and Alito), the "Court held that a lab chemist must be called to testify in order to admit the lab analysis as evidence in a trial." The constitutional confrontation clause requires testimony to be offered in person (the rule parallels the evidentiary hearsay rule). The dispute turned on whether a lab analysis is testimony reduced to writing, or a mere document.
* It was unconstitutional for a school official to strip search a thirteen year old girl at a school based upon the claim of a fellow classmate that the girl has a prescription strength versions of an over the counter asprin-like drug in her possession, even though a bag search was justified. The weakness of the evidence and minor nature of the possible harm did not justify such an intrusive search. Qualified immunity applied to all but one of the school officials on that the ground that the law applcable in their situations was not "clearly established" and for remand for consideration of the issue of whether the law was "clearly established" based upon more evidence in the case of another school officials.
Justice Souter writes for the Court joined entirely by five other Justices. Justice Stevens filed a partial dissent joined by Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas concurs in part and dissents in part.
The last three cases of the session will be issued on Monday. The cases are, per SCOTUS blog:
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205), on whether federal campaign finance laws apply to a critical film about former presidential candidate Sec. Hillary R. Clinton intended to be shown in theaters and on-demand to cable subscribers. . . .
Ricci, et al. v. DeStefano, et al. (07-1428 and 08-328), on whether municipalities may decline to certify results of an exam that would make disproportionately more white applicants eligible for promotion than minority applicants, due to fears that certifying the results would lead to charges of racial discrimination.
Cuomo v. The Clearing House Ass’n, L.L.C. (08-453), on whether 12 USC § 484 and 12 CFR § 7.4000 prohibit measures taken by the New York State Attorney General to enforce state fair lending law against national banks by subjecting those entities to “visitorial powers.”
The Ricci decision, in particular, is a hot potato because U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayer was on the panel that decided it.