Ilya Shapiro and his readers make some great points in his article on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Opinion page, Why Obama Strikes Out In Court. In what he calls “the Obama administration’s increasingly extreme claims on behalf of unlimited federal power,” Shapiro cites 3 Supreme Court rulings whose votes were a unanimous 9-0 against the position the Obama administration was taking before the court.
The first ruling involved the court rightfully taking away employment rights of a woman because she contracted narcolepsy. In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a woman, Cheryl Petich, was a secular teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor school when she was “called” and joined the church. This calling–she continued teaching secular subjects but also added in a few religious classes–made her a minister of the church, at which point she lost employment rights in favor of the religious rights of the church school. When she came down with narcolepsy in 2004 and had to take a medical leave, she was replaced with a substitute teacher and when, a month later asked to return to her job, she was denied, due to the danger her illness posed to the children. In accordance with the vows of obedience she took to the synod when she joined, after she refused to resign, she was fired for insubordination.
While it is true that the case was winding its way through the courts at the end of the Bush Administration, it was during the Obama administration that the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Petich and her claims of employment rights, and the case went to the Supreme Court, with the Obama adminstration backing Petich. The case came down to the definition of what a “minister” is, and in “an extreme claim of unlimited federal power,” as Shapiro so aptly puts it, the Obama administration Solicitor General insisted that Petich, even though she taught about 45 minutes of religion class a day, did not strictly qualify as a minister, and thus did not give up her employment rights. In a gesture of support for the first amendment rights of religious organizations, the Supreme Court even refused to acknowledge an exception if, for instance, an employee of a religious institution was fired for reporting child abuse. Freedom means freedom.
The second case which Shapiro cites, United States v Jones, involves the rights of drug dealers. Antoine Jones owned a night club in D.C. and was under investigation for narcotics violations. The police department obtained a warrant to install a GPS device on Jones’ car in D.C, but failed to do so before the warrant expired. They then installed it, in Maryland, and tracked his movements for 4 weeks. Jones was tried in 2007 on cocaine-related charges, and in January of 2008, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Jones argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and the Court of Appeals agreed and in August 2010 overturned his conviction. The Supreme Court, noting that changing times require changing interpretations of the law, ruled 9-0 that the police erred by not obtaining a proper search warrant for the GPS device, but split 5-4 on the reasoning and breadth of the ruling. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the District Court for retrial. In this case we see that due to the technicality that the warrant to install the GPS device had expired and was limited to D.C., Jones retains his Fourth Amendment rights and his right to have his conviction on cocaine charges overturned. While conservatives often have strong feelings on law and order, in this case as in the first, freedom means freedom, and the Obama administration again makes “an extreme claim of unlimited federal power” when they argue that the conviction should stand even though the warrant had expired.
The third case is Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. The Sacketts bought some property, started clearing it, and in the process placed fill in jurisdictional wetlands on their property subject to the Clean Water Act. A Compliance Order from the EPA was raised. When they insisted on challenging the jurisdictional basis of the Compliance Order, the District Court in 2008 and the Ninth Circuit Court in 2010 ruled against them, since the EPA had never brought an enforcement action against them. The case came to the Supreme Court where the question before them was whether or not the petitioners may seek pre-enforcement judicial review. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that they could. While the Supreme Court did not challenge the Compliance Order itself–whether or not the Sackett’s had violated the Clean Water Act and were subject to penalties–and while Justice Alito recommended that Congress act to clarify the Clean Water Act, and while the Supreme Court was breaking some new ground with the idea of pre-enforcement judicial review of compliance orders, the Obama administration could not understand theirs was clearly another case of “an extreme claim of unlimited federal power.” Since the Supreme Court did not rule on it, we don’t know if the EPA was right in citing the Sacketts and requiring them to clean up the damage they are accused of, so unfortunately we can’t yet say that property rights are property rights.
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC
Supreme Court: Discrimination laws do not protect certain employees of religious groups
HOSANNA-TABOR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH AND SCHOOL V. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION (10-553)
What Is At Issue In the Hosanna-Tabor Case?
In Brief: Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC
United States v. Jones
Sackett v. EPA