SCOTUS Preview: From the Courthouse to the Slaughterhouse

Many of the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases may affect state courts.
by | October 28, 2011

The next U.S. Supreme Court session kicks off Monday and many of the cases involve the courts themselves. From what can be used as evidence to whether public officials can be sued for lying on the stand, several cases that the justices will hear starting Oct. 31 will have a huge impact on how trials operate in state courts. There are also cases that state regulators and public-safety workers should keep an eye on. The following is quick rundown of the cases affecting states and localities.

Rehberg v. Paulk will decide whether a government official can be sued for giving false testimony during a trial. The case started when Charles Rehberg, a public accountant, revealed a Georgia hospital's unethical billing and accounting practices. James Paulk, the Dougherty County District Attorney's lead investigator, found no evidence of wrongdoing on Rehberg's part but testified otherwise in court. Paulk's false statements led to three indictments for Rehberg - all of which were later dismissed. Paulk claims he testified under absolute immunity, which means Rehberg can't sue for any damages to his reputation or finances. But the prosecution contends that the defendant was only granted qualified immunity, making him subject to lawsuits.

Perry v. New Hampshire questions when eyewitness identifications, which are known to be unreliable, should be used as evidence. The case involves Barion Perry, who was arrested for stealing from cars after a woman identified "a tall black man" allegedly doing just that. The eyewitness was unable, though, to identify Perry in a photograph. Citing the woman's unreliable identification, Perry wanted all eyewitness accounts to be barred from being used as evidence in his trial. But the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the information could only be thrown out if its unreliability was caused by the police. Citing scientific studies that show the frequency of false identifications, the American Psychological Association has thrust its support behind Perry.

Eyewitness identifications also play a role in Smith v. Cain, which involves Juan Smith, who was convicted of first-degree murder solely on this basis. Evidence casting doubt on the eyewitness' certainty and Smith's guilt existed but was not revealed by the state courts until after his conviction. At issue is whether the state courts violated Smith's constitutional rights by not presenting the information until after the trial.

The case of United States v. Jones is likely draw a lot of attention, especially among privacy rights advocates. U.S. v. Jones questions the constitutionality of placing a GPS tracking device on someone's car without their consent or a warrant -- something District of Columbia police did to Antoine Jones in 2004 when they suspected he was trafficking cocaine. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Gun Owners of America, Inc. have filed their support to protect Jones and his Fourth Amendment rights, which they argue were violated.

The next case takes us out of courtrooms and into slaughterhouses. National Meat Association v. Harris is a classic case of contradictory federal and state laws. When a slaughterhouse animal loses the ability to walk, federal law requires a full examination of the animal for possible diseases but does not prohibit the use of disabled animals from ending up on dinner tables. In 2008, California adopted a law that required these animals to be immediately put down and barred from being used as consumable meat. The meatpacking industry argues that the law would raise their operational costs, while groups like the Humane Society of the United States say it would protect animals from abuse and people from unsafe food.

The high court may also decide whether to review the federal health-care reform law, reports Politico. At issue in most states that have challenged the law enacted in 2010 is the mandate that requires individuals to purchase helath insurance or face a penalty. That decision could come as early as Nov. 10.

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