This week, the justices of the Supreme Court don their robes and reclaim their seats on the bench to open the Court’s fall session. The first week alone promises enough controversy and mayhem to rival any TV late-night lineup. Following their summer recess, the gang of nine will hear oral arguments on issues ranging from deceptive cigarette labels to illegally confiscated methamphetamine to sexual harassment in the workplace and the effects of sonar on underwater mammals. And this is only week one.
So far this term, the Court has yet to grant a hearing on a single case out of Texas, but the first case of the term involves issues that directly affect citizens from every state of the union: smokers. According to a 2007 Gallop poll, approximately one in five Americans smokes cigarettes, and at least half of them smoke brands that claim to be “light” or “low tar.” In fact, cigarettes labeled as “light,” “ultra light,” or “low tar” make up somewhere between 87- to 97-percent percent of the market. In Altria Group v. Good, scheduled for argument first thing Monday morning, October 6, a group of smokers took the stand against Philip Morris USA for advertising cigarettes as “light” and “low tar” despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that these cigarettes ultimately yield just as much nicotine and tar as regular cigarettes do. The tobacco-industry giant is arguing that because they are federally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, they are not required to change their labels unless specifically instructed to do so by the FDA.
The second day of the term brought with it two different cases involving faulty police warrants. In the first, Herring v. United States, an Alabama police officer stopped a man and proceeded to search his vehicle under the belief that a neighboring county had a warrant on him, Bennie Herring. It turns out that the neighboring county’s warrant had been recalled five months prior, and it was somehow never removed from the system. By the time this was uncovered though, the officer had already found methamphetamine and a handgun in Herring’s possession. Defense attorneys for Herring point to what is known as the Exclusionary Rule, which forbids evidence from being presented in court if it was illegally obtained.
The issue here is, admittedly, a difficult one. The officer’s mistake was not his own, and it is clear that Herring is guilty of drug and weapons possession. But organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in support of Herring, along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, point to the importance of deterring police misconduct and inaccuracy.
The second case, Arizona v. Gant, similarly involves the question of whether a court should exclude evidence of a handgun and a bag of cocaine that were found as a result of an inadequate search warrant.
The third day of oral argument centers on the environment. In Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the Court will consider the question of underwater mammals versus Navy sonar drills. Sonar is a technique similar to radar that is used to detect underwater vessels. The Navy employs sonar in practice drills performed off the coast of Southern California. Sonar transmitters have been shown to cause hearing loss, disorientation, hemorrhaging, and even the beaching of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Such practices were forbidden by a California court unless mitigated by precise measures that protect the marine mammals from harm. In January, President Bush specifically exempted the Navy from the court order, claiming that the use of sonar in these exercises is “in the paramount interest of the United States” in conducting “realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups.” So now the Supreme Court is to decide which is more important: the well-being of marine mammals or the interests of the military? Given the Court’s track record on such issues, it’s not looking good for the whales.
Other cases before the Court this term include a Nashville woman’s suit against her employer for firing her after she participated in a sexual-harassment investigation involving one of her supervisors, a Vermont woman and professional musician whose arm had to be amputated after she was erroneously injected with an anti-nausea drug, and a suit by the Federal Communications Center against Fox Television Stations for the live broadcast of stars including Bono, Cher, and Nicole Richie blurting expletives during awards shows on the air who before there was time to bleep them out.
And on top of such real-life legal drama, Washington faces a momentous presidential election amidst an unprecedented financial crisis. The Supreme Court, this year as much as any other, will be choosing sides in complicated legal questions with far-reaching consequences that will be argued, decided, and go mostly unnoticed by a country rocketing between apathy and panic. •