Supreme Court

As Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den illustrates, not all 5-4 Supreme Court cases involve high-profile, controversial issues where the Justices are divided on ideological lines.

In this case the Supreme Court held 5-4 that a treaty forbids the State of Washington from imposing a tax upon members of the Yakama Nation that import fuel.

An 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation reserves to the Yamakas “the right, in common with the citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.” A Washington statute taxes fuel importers who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by ground transportation. Cougar Den is a wholesale fuel importer owned by a Yakama member that transports fuel by truck from Oregon to Yakama-owned gas stations in Washington. Cougar Den argued the treaty preempted the tax.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) states that any information contained in the Form I-9, which is used to verify a person’s eligibility to work in the United States, may only be used for limited federal enforcement. The question the Supreme Court will decide in Kansas v. Garcia is whether the IRCA preempts states from using information contained in the I-9 to prosecute a person under state law (in this case for identity theft).

Before an employee alleging employment discrimination under Title VII (on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) may bring a lawsuit in federal court he or she must exhaust administrative remedies by bringing formal charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (or equivalent state agency).

The question the Supreme Court will decide in Fort Bend County v. Davis is if an employee fails to exhaust administrative remedies with the EEOC before filing a lawsuit is the lawsuit barred. The State and Local Legal Center amicus brief argues the answer to this question is yes.

In Madison v. Alabama the Supreme Court held 5-3 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a person who lacks a “rational understanding” due to mental illness for why the death penalty has been imposed to be put to death regardless of what mental illness the person is suffering from.  

Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. Since then he has suffered a series of strokes and has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. He claims he no longer remembers the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments disallows executing a person who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing.  The Court “clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman [2007] by focusing on whether a prisoner can ‘reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.’”

This case would have been a lot more interesting had it gone the other way. In an unanimous decision the Supreme Court held in Dawson v. Steager that West Virginia violated a federal statute by taxing all the retirement benefits of former federal law enforcement employees but not certain state law enforcement employees.

4 U.S.C. § 111 allows states to tax the pay of federal employees only “if the taxation does not discriminate . . . because of the source of the pay or compensation.” James Dawson, a former U.S. Marshal, sued West Virginia alleging it violated this statute because it taxed his pension but not the pensions of certain state law enforcement employees. The West Virginia Supreme Court found no discrimination because relatively few state employees received the tax break and the statute’s intent was to benefit those state retirees not harm federal retirees.

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