|court held that state governments may not be sued in state court without
their consent. Although no provision in the Constitution accords state governments such
immunity, the court found that state sovereign immunity "inheres in the system of
federalism established by the Constitution."
The other two cases decided by the
Supreme Court involved claims by College Savings Bank, which devised a system for students
to save money to pay college tuition. College Savings Bank brought two lawsuits against
the Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board for copying their system. One
claim was for patent infringement. In 1992, Congress amended patent laws to expressly
allow states to be sued in federal court for patent infringement.
In Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, No.
98-531 (June 23, 1999), the Supreme Court ruled that this authorization of suits against
states is unconstitutional and that states cannot be sued in federal court for patent
infringement without their consent. Because federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction to
hear patent claims, College Savings Bank means that no court can hear patent suits against
The other claim by
College Savings Bank was under the Lanham Act against Florida Prepaid Postsec-ondary
Education Expense Board for making false advertising statements. The Trade-mark Remedy
Clarification Act was adopted by Congress in 1992 to authorize suits against state
governments. The court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, found that the authorization of
suit was unconstitutional. Congress only may override the Eleventh Amendment pursuant to
its section five powers, and the Trademark Remedy Clarification Act was not adopted under
The decisions are significant because they approve the complete preclusion of all
jurisdiction. The probation officers in Maine allegedly are owed money under federal law,
but they cannot sue in any court. A state university can infringe patents or copyrights
and nowhere can be sued. State officers, of course, still can be sued for injunctive
relief, but injured individuals have no damage remedy available against state governments.
State governments can violate federal law with impunity and inflict great injuries, but
cannot be sued in any court.
The most significant decision of the term concerning criminal procedure was Mitchell v.
United States, 119 S.Ct. 1307 (1999). In Mitchell, the court held that an individual who
pleads guilty may invoke the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination at
sentencing proceedings and that no adverse inference can be drawn from the assertion of
Amanda Mitchell pleaded guilty to selling cocaine, but reserved the right to contest
the amount of cocaine involved. The quantity was crucial in determining the length of her
sentence. At the sentencing proceeding, the government used testimony from others involved
in the conspiracy to establish the number of transactions that Mitchell participated in
and the large amount of cocaine she sold. Mitchell did not testify at the sentencing
proceeding, relying instead on her lawyer's attacks on the credibility of the witnesses
against her. The sentencing judge expressly said that he was drawing an adverse inference
from her assertion of the privilege against self-incrimination at sentencing.
Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that defendants who plead guilty retain the right to invoke
the Fifth Amendment at sentencing and that no adverse inference can be drawn from their
silence. Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court and was joined by Justices John
Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
In contrast, the court ruled in favor of the government in virtually all of the Fourth
Amendment search and seizure cases before it. In Minnesota v. Carter, 119 S.Ct. 469
(1998), the court held that defendants who were in another person's apartment for a short
time solely for the purpose of packaging cocaine had no legitimate expectation of privacy
in the apartment and thus any search which may have occurred did not violate their Fourth
Amendment rights. In Wyoming v. Houghton, 119 S.Ct. 1297 (1999), the court ruled that
police officers with probable cause to search a car may search passengers' belongings that
are capable of concealing the objects of the search.
On the other hand, in Wilson v. Layne, 119 S.Ct. 1692 (1999), the court ruled that the
Fourth Amendment is violated when police, executing a warrant, invite the media to enter
premises. The effect is to end the practice of the police allowing the media to "ride
along" when a search or arrest warrant is being executed.
Fourteenth Amendment Rights
Civil rights plaintiffs won two major victories in cases involving the meaning of the
Fourteenth Amendment. In Saenz v. Roe, 119 S.Ct. 1518 (1999), the court declared
unconstitutional a California statute that limits welfare benefits for first-year
residents to the amount that they would have received from their prior state. In a 7-2
decision, with Justice Stevens writing for the majority and only Chief Justice Rehnquist
and Justice Thomas in dissent, the court held that California law violated the right to
travel which is protected by the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteen
This provision states: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge
the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." In 1873, in the first
case to interpret the provision, the Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36 (1873),
the court very narrowly interpreted the provision and essentially read it out of the
Constitution. Saenz v. Roe has revived it and now it will be interesting to see what, if
any, additional rights the court finds to be protected by it.
In City of Chicago
v. Morales, No. 97-1121 (June 10, 1999), the court declared unconstitutional Chicago's
gang loitering ordinance, which requires gang members to disperse when ordered to do so by
police officers. In a 6-3 ruling, with Justice Stevens writing, in part for a majority and
in part for a plurality, the court held that the law is unconstitutionally vague and a
violation of due process. The majority of the court agreed that the law gave police undue,
unchecked discretion. A plurality also concluded that the law failed to give individuals
sufficient notice of what they need to do to avoid being arrested.
It is likely that the case will be used to challenge anti-gang injunctions and
ordinances that have become increasingly common in California cities.
Statutory civil rights claims
Some of the most important decisions of the term involved federal statutes protecting
civil rights. In three cases decided on June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court significantly
curtailed the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The issue in all three cases was the same: Is there discrimination based on a
"disability" if a person is disadvantaged because of a medical condition that is
under control so it does not interfere with major life activities?
All three cases involved individuals who were denied employment because of physical
conditions. In each instance, the physical condition was corrected or controlled so that
there was no claim that it would interfere with job performance. Each of the plaintiffs
sued claiming that the denial of employment because of the condition was discrimination
based on disability in violation of the ADA. Each of the defendants responded by arguing
that the individuals were not disabled because their conditions were corrected and did not
interfere with any major life activities.
v. United Air Lines Inc., No. 97-1943 (June 22, 1999), involved two twin sisters who are
severely myopic, but with corrective lenses have vision that is 20/20 or better. Murphy v.
United Parcel Service Inc., No. 97-1992 (June 22, 1999), involved an individual who was
fired from his job because of high blood pressure that was controlled by medication.
Albertsons Inc. v. Kirkinburg, No. 98-591 (June 22, 1999), concerned an individual with a
vision disorder that could not be corrected, but that did not interfere with the person's
life or job performance.
In all three cases, the court ruled in favor of the defendants and held that a
disability exists only if a condition in its corrected state interferes with a major life
The court's decisions substantially narrow the definition of disability and therefore
the protections of the ADA. If a person has a medical condition that is corrected, there
is not a disability and the employer can refuse to hire the person solely out of
irrational prejudice against those with the impairment. However, if the condition is not
corrected, then the employer can refuse to hire the person because the impairment could
hinder job performance.
In a case
involving another civil rights stat-ute, Davis v. Mon-roe County Board of Education, No.
97-843 (May 24, 1999), the court held that a school board may be held liable under Title
IX for peer sexual harassment. However, liability requires demonstrating that the school
system had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment, was deliberately indifferent with
regard to this knowledge, and that the harassment is sufficiently severe and pervasive to
interfere with educational opportunities.
In Kolstad v. The American Dental Association, No. 98-208 (June 22, 1999), the court
held that under Title VII an employer's conduct need not be egregious in order to justify
a punitive damage award, but that punitive damage awards cannot be awarded based on
Although these, of
course, are only some of the decisions of the term, they unquestionably are among the most
Next term promises to be even more dramatic as the court already has granted review in
cases involving issues such as whether the Food and Drug Administration can regulate
tobacco, what aid the government can give to parochial schools, whether states can be sued
for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the permissibility of state
regulation of campaign financing.
The court may be deciding many fewer cases than it used to, but its role is certainly
Guest writer Erwin Chemerinsky is the Sydney
M. Irmas professor of public interest law, legal ethics and political science at the
University of Southern California Law School.