Supreme Court Notebook

Supreme Court Justices to rule in Privacy Act case

BOSTON (Daily Record Newswire) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a pilot who sued the government for mental anguish for disclosing information about his HIV status has established "actual damages" under the Privacy Act.

The pilot revealed his HIV status to the Social Security Administration in order to get benefits but did not disclose it to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The two agencies exchanged the pilot's medical records and the FAA revoked his license for failing to disclose his HIV-status.

The pilot sued the FAA for unauthorized disclosures under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. 552a(g)(4)(A).

A U.S. District Court dismissed on summary judgment, finding that the pilot could not establish the Act's required "actual damages" because he alleged emotional distress damages only.

The 9th Circuit reversed, holding that the Act allows recovery for nonpecuniary injuries such as humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress.

"Applying traditional tools of statutory interpretation, we hold that in using the term actual damages, Congress clearly intended that when a federal agency intentionally or willfully fails to uphold its record-keeping obligations under the Act, and that failure proximately causes an adverse effect on the plaintiff, the plaintiff is entitled to recover for both pecuniary and nonpecuniary injuries," the court said.

It noted similar decisions from the 6th and 11th Circuits, as well as a contrary ruling from the 5th Circuit.

A decision from the Supreme Court is expected next term.

The case is FAA v. Cooper.

Court rules indigent father had right to counsel

BOSTON (Daily Record Newswire) -- An indigent father's constitutional rights were violated when he was imprisoned for failing to pay child support without first being provided counsel or afforded other procedural safeguards, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 5-4 decision.

The ruling reverses a decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

A state judge cited the defendant for civil contempt based on his failure to pay more than $5,000 in child support. The judge sentenced him to 12 months in prison.

The defendant argued that his due process rights were violated because court-appointed counsel was not provided at his contempt hearing.

The state countered that the constitutional right to counsel is not triggered by a civil contempt proceeding that results in a jail term.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause does not automatically require the state to provide counsel at civil contempt proceedings to an indigent parent.

However, the Court decided that counsel must be provided unless the state has in place "alternative procedures that assure a fundamentally fair determination of the critical incarceration-related question, whether the supporting parent is able to comply with the support order."

Here, the Court concluded that the defendant's constitutional rights were violated because the state did not have the necessary safeguards in place.

The Court explained that the defendant "did not receive clear notice that his ability to pay would constitute the critical question in his civil contempt proceeding. No one provided him with a form (or the equivalent) designed to elicit information about his financial circumstances. The court did not find that [the defendant] was able to pay his arrearage, but instead left the relevant 'finding' section of the contempt order blank."

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined the dissent in part.

The case is Turner v. Rogers.

Court Justices rule in retaliation case

BOSTON (Daily Record Newswire) -- Government employees may not sue their employers for retaliation under the First Amendment's Petition Clause unless they have petitioned the government on matters of public concern, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In 2003, a Pennsylvania town council fired the local police chief. He filed a union grievance, and an arbitrator ordered the chief reinstated with back pay. But the town council then issued 11 directives which specifically forbade the chief from working overtime and driving his police vehicle on anything other than official business. The police chief filed another grievance, which was decided in his favor.

He then filed suit against the town, alleging that the council's directives constituted retaliation in violation of the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. A jury agreed, awarding him $45,000 in compensatory damages and $24,000 in punitive damages.

The town appealed, but the 3rd Circuit affirmed the verdict.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split in the circuits, and heard oral argument in March.

In a decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court vacated the 3rd Circuit opinion, ruling that a government employer's allegedly retaliatory actions do not give rise to liability under the Petition Clause unless the employee's petition relates to a matter of public concern.

"A petition that 'involves nothing more than a complaint about a change in the employee's own duties' does not relate to a matter of public concern and accordingly 'may give rise to discipline without imposing any special burden of justification on the government employer.' The right of a public employee under the Petition Clause is a right to participate as a citizen, through petitioning activity, in the democratic process. It is not a right to transform everyday employment disputes into matters for constitutional litigation in the federal courts," the Court said.

The justices expressed concern that the "unrestrained application" of the Petition Clause in the context of government employment "would subject a wide range of government operations to invasive juridical superintendence."

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

The case is Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri.

Thomas' friendship with GOP donor raises more ethical questions

BOSTON (Daily Record Newswire) -- The exit from Congress of one of Justice Clarence Thomas's most vocal critics has not stopped ethical questions from being raised about the Supreme Court justice's associations.

In January, liberal lobbying group Common Cause asked the Justice Department to investigate Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia for possible conflicts of interest based on the justices' association with conservative financiers Charles and David Koch.

Now, a New York Times piece examines the relationship between Thomas and hefty conservative donor and Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow.

Crow, among other things: has donated money -- at Thomas' behest -- for a land preservation project and museum in the justice's home town of Pin Point, Ga.; financed a Savannah library project in the justice's honor; gave Thomas a bible once belonging to Frederick Douglass; and even gave Thomas' wife, Virginia, the seed money to start her Tea Party-affiliated group Liberty Central.

Under the ethical code which binds federal judges except for those on the Supreme Court bench, judges "should not personally participate" in raising money for charitable activities, nor should they know the donors to projects honoring them. The rule is meant to prevent the appearance that the donations are designed to sway the judge's vote in any matter pertaining to the donor.

Ethicists are split on whether Thomas' association with Crow raises serious ethical problems, with some saying his participation in the fundraising activities should have been prohibited. Others say Thomas did not violate any ethical rules, but one added: "It's just a very peculiar situation."

Published: Fri, Jun 24, 2011