Analysis: Calm before Supreme Court storm

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent   |   June 16, 2003 at 5:54 PM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court of the United States showed unusual late-term cohesiveness Monday while handing down rulings in four cases. Two of the rulings were unanimous decisions, one was on a 7-2 vote and one was 6-3.

However, the seeming collegiality may just be the calm before the storm because the high court dealt with none of the more controversial cases awaiting decisions -- the University Michigan affirmative action cases, the challenge to the Texas sodomy law, the challenge to the federal requirement that public libraries install Internet filters against pornography.

The justices traditionally hand down their hardest cases, those with rulings based on 5-4 majorities or even prevailing pluralities, at the very end of the term. If the case is very difficult, a judgment sometimes has to be cobbled together from a number of opinions, with justices agreeing with some parts of the prevailing opinion and bitterly dissenting from others.

The justices have an estimated two weeks before recessing for the summer. Even then, they are scheduled to come back early in September, continuing the current term while they hear argument on the constitutionality of the ban on unregulated soft money in federal elections.

Monday, there was relative sweetness and light as the justices handed down their decisions.

The Supreme Court ruled that government can force defendants to take anti-psychotic medications under some conditions; that federal law can ban direct contributions to elections by non-profit advocacy corporations; that prison limits on the number of visitors to inmates does not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free association; and that banning non-residents from once public streets around a low-income housing project in Richmond, Va., is constitutional.

In the case of a former St. Louis dentist (No. 02-5664, Sell vs. United States) the justices said government can force defendants to take anti-psychotic medications under some conditions, but those conditions should be rare.

The ruling overturned a lower court decision forcing Sell to take his medication, however, the former dentist could be forced to take medication under the new criteria outlined by the court.

Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said a court must find that some "important government interests" are at stake.

Once past that hurdle, the court must conclude that forcing medication will further those government interests and the defendant's parallel interest in a fair trial; that the medication is substantially likely to make a defendant competent for trial with no side effects that would interfere in conducting a defense; that the involuntary medication is necessary to further those interests without a less intrusive alternative, and finally, that administering the drugs is medically appropriate.

The ruling came in the case of Charles Sell, a former dentist charged with insurance fraud and attempting to kill an FBI agent. Sell had refused to take anti-psychotic medication at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo.

The justices also ruled 7-2 Monday (in No. 02-403, FEC vs. Beaumont et al) that a federal law banning direct contributions to federal campaigns by non-profit advocacy corporations is constitutional.

Justice David Souter said for the majority that such direct contributions have been banned since 1907, and current law is constitutionally designed to "prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption."

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented.

"I continue to believe that campaign finance laws are subject to strict scrutiny," he said. In other words, such laws must overcome high hurdles set by the First Amendment's free speech guarantees.

The ruling reverses a lower-court decision in favor of North Carolina Right to Life Inc.

The justices ruled unanimously that prison systems can constitutionally limit the number of visitors for inmates, but were very careful not to make that authority absolute.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said even if some free association guarantee of the First Amendment survives incarceration -- and the court was not saying that it doesn't -- that does not mean regulations bearing a rational relation to legitimate prison interests are unconstitutional.

Separately, barring visits for two inmates who committed substance abuse violations was not "cruel and usual punishment."

The ruling came in a case that challenged visitation restrictions set by the Michigan Department of Corrections, which was concerned about security problems.

All of the nine justices agreed to the judgment, but two wrote separate opinions using different reasoning.

Thomas, joined by Scalia, said he agreed with Kennedy but on different grounds. Thomas said Supreme Court case history on prisoner "rights" is erroneous because it rests on an implied -- but non-existent -- definition of incarceration in the Constitution.

Thomas said in his opinion the states are free to impose all kinds of deprivations on prisoners -- as long as the deprivations do not constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment banned by the Eighth Amendment.

In the fourth case Monday (No. 02-271, Virginia vs. Hicks), the justices said that a local policy banning non-residents from once public streets around a low-income housing project in Richmond, Va., is constitutional.

In 1997, Richmond gave the streets around the Whitcomb Court project to the local housing authority, hoping to turn around what had become an open-air drug market.

The housing authority in turn asked the local police to bar from those streets any person who did not have "a legitimate business or social purpose" in being there. One person arrested for trespassing in the area successful challenged the policy in the lower courts.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts Monday.

Scalia said in Monday's opinion that the policy's provisions "apply to all persons who enter the streets of Whitcomb Court, not just those who seek to engage in expression" and therefore the First Amendment was not violated.

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