U.S. Supreme Court Cases to Watch This Upcoming Session

Zoey DiMauro | October 1, 2014 | 11:20am EDT
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U.S. Supreme Court justices (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) -- On October 6th, the U.S. Supreme Court will start hearing cases in its 2014 October Term. Here are some of the cases that court watchers will be keeping an eye on:

First Amendment:  Elonis vs. United States

In 2010, Anthony Elonis used his Facebook page to threaten to kill his estranged wife and shoot up a nearby elementary school. After FBI agents came to his home, Elonis used Facebook to threaten them:

"So the next time you know, you best be serving a warrant/ And bring yo' SWAT and an explosives expert while you're at it... I was jus' waitin' for y'all to handcuff me and pat me down/Touch the detonator in my pocket and we're all goin' [BOOM!]'

Elonis was arrested and convicted of using "interstate or foreign commerce" to transmit ‘any threat to injure the person of another.’” But he claims that his hostile rap lyrics are protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court must decide if someone can be guilty of a crime just by posting threats online, or whether the courts must also establish intent to carry them out.

Record KeepingYates v. United States

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, was catching red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico when he was cited by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for having 72 undersized fish on his boat. When he arrived back at the dock, authorities found only 69 of the smaller grouper, surmising that he had thrown three overboard.

Instead of being cited for catching undersized grouper, Yates was charged with knowingly destroying a "record, document or tangible object,” which carries a harsher penalty than catching undersized fish.

Critics say that the law used was originally intended to stop white-collar criminals from shredding documents, not to penalize fishermen for throwing fish overboard, and the district court noted that “it might be a stretch to say throwing away a fish is a falsification of a record.”  Yates also argues that he was not warned beforehand about the severity of the crime he could be charged with.

The justices will decide whether a fish should be considered a “tangible object” under the record-keeping law.

Religious ExpressionHolt v. Hobbs

Citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Arkansas prisoner Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, asked for permission to grow a half-inch beard as part of his Islamic religious observance. The prison denied his request, citing fears that prisoners could hide contraband such as razor blades in their beards.

The Becket Fund, a religious liberty law firm, called the decision an attack on prisoners’ free expression of religion, noting that 43 other prisons are able to meet their security needs while also allowing beards of that length.

Fourth Amendment: Heien v. North Carolina

In 2009, Sgt. Matt Darisse of the Surry County, N.C. Sheriff’s Dept., pulled over a Ford Escort with one broken taillight and subsequently found a bag of cocaine hidden in the car’s trunk.

The deputy allegedly did not realize that under state law, a driver can be penalized only for driving a car with no functioning taillights. But the car’s owner, Nicholas Brady Heien, claims his misinterpretation of the law made his seizure of the cocaine illegal.

The court must now decide whether the Fourth Amendment protects searches and seizures made by law enforcement officers who are ignorant of the law.

Redistricting: Alabama Legislative Black Caucus  v. Alabama

African American state lawmakers in Alabama are challenging the state’s 2012 redistricting, saying it packs black voters into districts where they already have control in order to limit their influence.

“Challengers argued that this was an unconstitutional use of racial gerrymandering,” says the SCOTUSblog, while Republican legislators “insisted they were doing so to obey their obligations to protect minority voters’ political strength under federal voting rights law.”

The court will decide who’s right.

The Supreme Court is also expected to take on additional cases this term, including ones on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, although it has not yet announced which of those cases it will accept.

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