This is part two of a continuing series on Supreme Court rulings in the first part of 2006, analyzing the participation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
Case No. 04-848, DOLAN v. UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE et al.
In DOLAN v. UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE et al., Barbara Dolan tripped and fell over mail left in front of her door by the Postal Service, and sued for her injuries under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The suit was dismissed in District Court, with the Third Circuit affirming. The Supreme Court reversed, saying that "Here, both context and precedent require reading the phrase so that it does not go beyond negligence causing mail to be lost or to arrive late, in damaged condition, or at the wrong address."
What it means. Ordinarily, Federal and State employees enjoy a level of immunity when acting in an official capacity, though the FTCA waives this immunity for many Tort claims. The FTCA contains exceptions which restore that immunity, and the question is whether these exceptions apply in this case. The District and Appeals Court ruled that it does, though the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the exception was applied too broadly in this case.
How they voted. Justices Kennedy, Stevens, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Chief Justice Roberts voted in the majority to reverse and remand. Justice Thomas dissented, Alito did not consider. Decided 7-1.
Justice Kennedy delivered the courts opinion.
Case No. 04-593, DOMINO'S PIZZA, INC., et al., PETITIONERS v.JOHN McDONALD
"Respondent McDonald, a black man, is sole shareholder and president of JWM Investments, Inc. (JWM). He sued petitioners (collectively Domino's) under 42 U. S. C. Â§1981, alleging, inter alia, that JWM and Domino's had entered into several contracts, that Domino's had broken those contracts because of racial animus toward McDonald, and that the breach had harmed McDonald personally by causing him to suffer monetary damages and damages for emotional injuries. The District Court granted Domino's motion to dismiss on the ground that McDonald could bring no Â§1981 claim against Domino's because McDonald was party to no contract with Domino's. Reversing, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that an injury suffered only by the corporation would not permit a shareholder to bring a Â§1981 action, but concluded that when there are injuries distinct from those of the corporation, a nonparty like McDonald may nonetheless sue under Â§1981." -- Unedited summary.
What it means. Because John McDonald was not granted rights by the contract with which he could exercise (regardless of what they may be), he had no standing to argue that the contract was illegal and/or unjust. The District Court agreed and dismissed, the Appeals Court did not, and reinstated the suit. The Supreme Court agreed with the District Court that McDonald possessed no standing to sue, and reserved.
How they voted. The decision was unanimous, 8-0, with Justice Scalia delivering the opinion. Alito did not participate.
Case No. 04-1067, GEORGIA v. RANDOLPH
Scott Fitz Randolph was arrested after Narcotics were discovered in his home, subsequent to a search by police who were responding to a complaint of domestic violence. His wife invited the police to search the home, and indicated where the drugs were located, while her husband protested the search.
During trial, the court found that the warrantless search was legal, as his wife had given consent to search, regardless of her husbands objections. A Georgia appeals court reversed that finding, with the Georgia State Supreme Court affirming, holding that consent given by one occupant is not valid in the physical presence of another tenants objection. The Supreme Court affirmed.
What it means. The Supreme Court's majority reasoned that there is no law or precedent in which one tenant of a place of residence can be given priority over another, "Thus, a disputed invitation, without more, gives an officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have absent any consent. Disputed permission is no match for the Fourth Amendment central value of "respect for the privacy of the home," Wilson v. Layne, 526 U. S. 603, 610, and the State's other countervailing claims do not add up to outweigh it."
How they voted. Justice Souter delivered the courts opinion, with Stevens, Kenndy, Ginsburg, and Breyer joining. Justice Stevens and Breyer also filed their own concurring opinions. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion with Justice Scalia joining, as well as writing his own dissenting opinion. Justice Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion. Altio did not hear the case.
This is the first case reviewed where C. J. Roberts voted with the minority, and the vote was much closer at 5-3. The majority opinion is clear, there are no precedents or laws for determining which co-tenants wishes takes priority over another, and in such circumstances, non-consent must be assumed, and a warrant is required.
Roberts begins, "The Court creates constitutional law by surmising what is typical when a social guest encounters an entirely atypical situation." Many cases the Supreme Court hears employ this logic, presuming the existence of a neutral typical person, an "observer" to the issues at hand, in order to determine what may be a reasonable finding and reaction. Roberts continues, "The rule the majority fashions does not implement the high office of the Fourth Amendment to protect privacy, but instead provides protection on a random and happenstance basis", essentially arguing that this case is setting a wide-ranging precedent for a narrowly defined situation, and interprets this decision as preventing police from entering a residence to prevent real-time domestic abuse as well as other police actions without a warrant.
"The correct approach to the question presented is clearly mapped out in our precedents: The Fourth Amendment protects privacy", Roberts wrote, "If an individual shares information, papers, or places with another, he assumes the risk that the other person will in turn share access to that information or those papers or places with the government." Here, Roberts is arguing that in the case of shared residence, one tenant habitating with another amounts to an explicit understanding by both parties that their shared privacy can be extended to others, even to the detriment of one; that because you share your privacy with one another, the person is entitled to share yours (and their own) privacy with others as well.
He continues ".. just as an individual who has shared illegal plans or incriminating documents with another cannot interpose an objection when that other person turns the information over to the government", although he does not address the fact that while no federal law prohibits such action, the Fourth Amendment does specifically address consent on searches.
His summary concludes, "A warrantless search is reasonable if police obtain the voluntary consent of a person authorized to give it. Co-occupants have "assumed the risk that one of their number might permit [a] common area to be searched." United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164, 171, n. 7 (1974)." The majority found in its opinion however that Matlock did not specifically involve opposing co-tenants: "The Supreme Court of Georgia acknowledged this Court's holding in Matlock, 415 U. S. 164, that "the consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, nonconsenting person with whom that authority is shared," id., at 170, and found Matlock distinguishable just because Scott Randolph was not "absent" from the colloquy on which the police relied for consent to make the search. The State Supreme Court stressed that the officers in Matlock had not been "faced with the physical presence of joint occupants, with one consenting to the search and the other objecting." 278 Ga., at 615, 604 S. E. 2d, at 837. It held that an individual who chooses to live with another assumes a risk no greater than " 'an inability to control access to the premises during [his] absence,' "
This reasoning seems consistent with the notion of strict interpretation of the law, so strict that the courts in fact have no latitude at all in finding not just within the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law.