U.S. Supreme Court term: More than health care and immigration

By Kimberly Atkins Dolan Media Newswires BOSTON, MA--While the nation has focused on the big cases the U.S. Supreme Court saved for last this term - rulings upholding the majority of the federal health care law and striking down several provisions of the Arizona immigration enforcement statute--the term was marked by several other big cases that will have a major impact, particularly in the employment, criminal and family law context. Employment law developments One of the biggest cases on the employment law front was Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, in which the Court held that the First Amendment's ministerial exception bars job-bias suits against religious employers. The ruling will be used to defend claims of discrimination against religious organizations, but experts say the decision also leaves many questions unanswered--meaning more litigation lies ahead. "To me, the really hard question is: who is a minister under this exception?" said Paul R. Q. Wolfson, a partner in the Washington office of WilmerHale. "Most religious traditions really don't have someone who is called a 'minister.'" The ruling could come into play in a wide range of cases, from civil suits alleging sexual abuse by religious leaders to the latest challenge to the federal health care law. "I would suspect that this decision will play a role in the upcoming litigation brought by religiously affiliated organizations challenging the contraception requirement of the ... health care law," Wolfson said. That rule requires most employers to cover contraception in their health care plans. Another major employment decision was Knox v. SEIU, Local 1000, in which the Court held that the imposition of special union fees on non-union employees without prior approval was a violation of the First Amendment. Neal Katyal, a partner in the Washington office of Hogan Lovells, noted that Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. strongly admonished the union for its actions in his harshly worded opinion. "If you are a general counsel for a union, I think you [would] be wise to be concerned about this opinion," Katyal said. Also on the employment front, the Court held in the wage-and-hour case Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. that pharmaceutical representatives who pitch products to doctors are "outside salespeople" under the Fair Labor Standards Act and therefore not entitled to overtime pay. Criminal law, sentencing and the right to counsel It was a blockbuster term on the criminal law front, led by the Court's ruling in U.S. v. Jones, which said that police's warrantless installation and use of a GPS device to monitor a suspect for a month violated the Fourth Amendment. Walter E. Dellinger, III, a partner in the Washington office of O'Melveny & Myers who authored the winning brief in the case, said that the decision gave protections beyond the criminal context. "What is really important about the Jones case is what it did not do," Dellinger said. "Had they confirmed the [defendant's] conviction, it would have meant that any law enforcement officer --federal, state or local--could for any reason or no reason at all install a GPS device on anyone's car because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, no search, no Fourth Amendment." The ruling in Williams v. Illinois that a forensic specialist could rely, in his testimony, on a DNA report produced by a technician who was not available for trial served to further muddy the waters of recent Confrontation Clause jurisprudence after recent rulings in similar cases went the other way, experts say. The area of law is now being described as "a bloody mess," Wolfson said. In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Court held that jailhouse strip searches of those arrested for relatively minor offenses are constitutional as long as the policy for conducting such searches strikes a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions. On the sentencing front, the Court held in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment prohibited homicide defendants under the age of 18 from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In Hill v. U.S., the justices held that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which lowered the minimum sentencing requirements for many crack cocaine-related offenses, applies to all sentences imposed after the statute's enactment, even those for pre-enactment crimes. The Court also handed down major Sixth Amendment right to counsel cases this term. Most notably, in Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye the right to counsel was extended to the plea bargaining stage. Family law and beyond A case about the right to Social Security benefits could have far-reaching implications in the areas of family law and estate planning. In Astrue v. Capato, the Court held that children conceived via in vitro fertilization after their father's death were not entitled to Social Security benefits because such determinations, under the federal statute, are controlled by applicable state intestacy law. As the use of assisted reproductive technologies continues to expand, attorneys need to be prepared for the possible legal repercussions down the road. "All estate planning attorneys and family law attorneys are going to have to ask, as part of their initial consultation, whether there has been any assisted reproduction technologies in the family and what the status of that is," said David A. Tracy of Naylor, Williams & Tracy in Tulsa, Okla. "We need to find out if people have signed contracts with storage facilities [for] embryos or sperm, and what those contracts say. We fail to ask those questions at our own peril." Entire contents copyrighted © 2012 by The Dolan Company. Published: Thu, Jul 19, 2012