States and the U.S. Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Supreme Court is considering “a ton of cases” affecting the states this term, according to Lisa Soronen, executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, who follows the court for associations serving states and local government.

The case with the most impact, she said during The Council of State Governments Leadership Conference June 21, is Schuette vs. BAMN, in which the court upheld Michigan’s 2006 ballot initiative banning race-sensitive affirmative action. That means state colleges and universities in Michigan can no longer use race in admissions.

The ruling, Soronen said, doesn’t answer the question about whether affirmative action is a good idea.

“A discussion about it is inevitable,” she said. “It simply can’t be avoided.”

Soronen said many speculate the court under Chief Justice John Roberts is chipping away at the use of race in many applications.

“I think the short answer is yes,” she said.

She said the court’s ruling on the voting rights act and its decision in the affirmative action case involving the University of Texas as examples of the Roberts’ court removing race as a measure for everything from applications for college to voting rights.

“What happens with race will be decided more by the people who we get to replace justices who are 80 or above than ones on the court now,” Soronen said. “The court’s relationship to race will change over time.”

Another recent high court case with implications for states involves the use of IQ tests and the death penalty. Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall challenged Florida’s definition of mental retardation for purposes of applying the death penalty. Nine states, including Florida, sets the IQ level at 70 to determine whether someone is eligible for the death penalty in capital cases. Twenty-three states established a range of 70 to 75 on an IQ test for death penalty consideration.

Hall was convicted of kidnapping, beating, raping and killing a 21-year-old pregnant woman and a sheriff in 1978, according to Marcus Greene, an intern at the State and Local Legal Center. The lowest score Hall received on an IQ test was 71, one point above the score of 70 Florida sets as a marker for the death penalty.

But Greene said IQ tests are looked at as a range, and create a “buffer zone” of five points in either direction. The court ruled Florida’s IQ score cutoff was too rigid to decide which individuals must be spared the death penalty.

The ruling, Greene said, will have repercussions for Kentucky and Virginia, both of which have the same wording in their statutes.

The Council of State Governments 2014 Leadership Conference: