Supreme Court Opens Term With New Justice

The status of a cross on federal land, a challenge to U.S. deportation procedures and the treatment of immigrants in federal detention will be among the cases reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its first term with its new justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor was confirmed to the court this summer, replacing the retired Justice David Souter. The native of New York is the sixth Catholic sitting on the nine-member court. She is also the first Hispanic person and only the third woman justice in the history of the high court. The court began its new term on Oct. 5, a day after Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts, among others, attended the annual Red Mass in Washington, D.C.

One case the new justice will not hear, because it was declined by the court, is an appeal brought by the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., aimed at reversing a lower court order to release documents from sex-abuse lawsuits to local media. That means newspapers are one step closer to gaining access to more than 12,000 pages of documents from 23 lawsuits involving six Bridgeport priests.

A public cross. In the first week of the new term, the court heard Salazar v. Buono, which challenges a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ordering the federal government to no longer permit a cross to be displayed on public land. In 1934 the Veterans of Foreign Wars set up a cross on a rock in an isolated part of the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, Calif., as a memorial to those killed in World War I. The remote monument is visible only from a little-used side road; but a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, challenged the placement of the cross on federal land. Lower courts agreed that its presence in the preserve gives the inappropriate impression of government endorsement of a single religion. The cross remains on the rock but has been covered since the court ruling.

Juvenile sentencing. Another pending case concerns prison sentences for juveniles. In different trials, Joe Harris Sullivan and Terrance Jamar Graham were both sentenced by Florida courts to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were 13 and 17, respectively. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles, finding in part that for young people, with more limited judgment than adults, the practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. On Nov. 9 Sullivan and Graham will likewise challenge their sentences as cruel and unusual punishment. The American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association is among the groups that have submitted briefs calling for the prohibition of life sentences for juveniles.

Immigration cases. A case being followed by advocates for immigrants argues that federal medical workers are liable for a detainee’s untreated cancer. Despite complaints of pain, Francisco Castaneda, a Salvadoran immigrant, was ignored so long in a California prison and then in federal immigration detention that he died at age 36, shortly after his release, when a doctor finally diagnosed penile cancer. His case challenges the Federal Tort Claims Act, which bars suits for damages against federal employees and otherwise limits claims against the government for negligence.

Another immigration-related case, Padilla v. Kentucky, revolves around a Honduran immigrant’s criminal charges for drug-related crimes and his subsequent deportation proceedings. On the advice of his attorney, José Padilla, a legal immigrant and a military veteran, pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The plea triggered deportation proceedings, something his attorney had told him would not happen. The court will be asked to consider the obligations of legal counsel in such cases and whether the faulty advice of Padilla’s attorney constitutes grounds for setting aside his guilty plea.

Rulings in all the cases are expected before the court adjourns next summer.

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