Case Summaries – Supreme Court of the United States (June 23, 2022)

This post summarizes cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 23, 2022. The cases are principally criminal law adjacent, but as appropriate may be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present. Shea Denning prepared the summary of Nance v. Ward, and I prepared the others.

An officer’s violation of a suspect’s Miranda rights is not a deprivation of the suspect’s constitutional rights for which the officer may be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. __, __ S. Ct. __ (June 23, 2022). Tekoh worked as a nursing assistant at a California hospital. A female patient accused him of sexually assaulting her. Deputy Vega investigated the allegation. “Vega questioned Tekoh at length in the hospital, and Tekoh eventually provided a written statement apologizing for inappropriately touching the patient’s genitals.” Tekoh was charged with unlawful sexual penetration. He moved to suppress his statement because Vega did not read him Miranda warnings, but the trial court ruled that he was not in custody and so not entitled to the warnings. Tekoh was subsequently acquitted by a jury.

Tekoh then sued Vega under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which applies when a state official deprives a person of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” Tekoh alleged that Vega violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, including by failing to administer Miranda warnings. The federal district court judge determined that the Miranda warnings are prophylactic in nature and that a failure to administer them in not in itself a constitutional violation. It therefore instructed the jury that it should find Vega liable only if he “coerced or compelled” Tekoh’s statement. The jury found no liability and Tekoh appealed what he viewed as an erroneous jury instruction. The Ninth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the matter.

In an opinion by Justice Alito, a six-justice majority of the Court ruled that the district court had it right: Miranda established “prophylactic rules” designed to protect the right against compelled self-incrimination. Those rules are “constitutionally based” but they are not themselves constitutional in nature. The majority quoted passages from Miranda and cited later cases like Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222 (1971), where “the Court held that a statement obtained in violation of Miranda could be used to impeach the testimony of a defendant, even though an involuntary statement obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment could not have been employed in this way.”

Tekoh relied heavily on Dickerson v. United States, 530 U. S. 428 (2000), which held that Congress could not legislatively overrule Miranda through the enactment of 18 U.S.C. § 3501 (which would have made the admissibility of confessions in federal court depend exclusively on their voluntariness). Dickerson said Congress could not do so because Miranda was a “constitutional decision,” was “constitutionally based,” and adopted a “constitutional rule.” In the view of the majority, these statements fell short of equating a Miranda violation with a violation of the Fifth Amendment. The majority also emphasized that the Dickerson Court reaffirmed that the Miranda warnings would not be necessary if other measures were developed that adequately protected the right against compelled self-incrimination.

Finally, section 1983 applies to the deprivation of rights secured by the “Constitution and laws” of the United States, and one could argue that Miranda warnings are required by “law[]” even if not by the Constitution. But the majority found that section 1983 liability should not attach because of the potential for practical difficulties. For one thing, allowing liability would require “a federal judge or jury to adjudicate a factual question (whether Tekoh was in custody when questioned) that had already been decided by a state court.”

Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. She argued that Miranda is constitutional in nature. In her view, Dickerson said as much, and the fact that Miranda applies in state court proceedings is further evidence that it is a constitutional right. At a minimum, it is a right “secured by the Constitution,” so a violation should provide a basis for section 1983 liability.

A death-row prisoner may challenge a state’s proposed method of execution pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 even when the alternative method of execution proposed is not currently authorized under the applicable state’s law.

Nance v. Ward, 597 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (June 23, 2022). The petitioner, Nance, was convicted by a Georgia jury of murder for shooting and killing a bystander as he fled a bank robbery. The trial court imposed a sentence of death. Nance unsuccessfully challenged his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, in state collateral proceedings, and in federal habeas. He then brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to enjoin Georgia from using lethal injection, the only method of execution authorized under Georgia law, to carry out his death sentence. Nance argued that applying that method to him would create a substantial risk of severe pain because of the condition of his veins and his longtime use of pain medication, which created a risk that the sedative used in the lethal injection protocol would fail to render him unconscious. Nance proposed death by firing squad as a readily available alternative method of execution. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court’s dismissal of Nance’s suit, reasoning that Nance should have brought his claim in a habeas petition instead as he sought to invalidate his death sentence. Because Nance already had sought federal habeas relief, the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the action as second or successive.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari review and reversed in an opinion written by Justice Kagan.

Because § 1983’s authorization for suit for the deprivation of any constitutional rights would, if read literally, include claims that a prisoner was unconstitutionally confined, the Supreme Court has read § 1983 as containing an explicit exception for actions that lie within the core of habeas corpus. That habeas core consists of claims that challenge the validity of a conviction or sentence as opposed to claims that the conditions of confinement are unconstitutional, which fall within the purview of § 1983. The Court concluded that Nance’s method-of-execution claim, which pursuant to Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U. S. ___ (2019), required him to identify a readily available alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain, fell into the latter category as he was not challenging the death sentence itself. Instead, he was providing the State with a “blueprint for carrying the death sentence out.” Slip op. at 8.

The Court further held that suit under § 1983 remains proper even when the prisoner identifies an alternative method of execution that is not currently authorized by the executing state’s law. The fact that Georgia would have to change its statute to execute Nance by firing squad did not switch Nance’s claim to the habeas track as Georgia could enact legislation approving an alternative method of execution.

Justice Barrett dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch. The dissent reasoned that Nance was required to bring his method-of-execution challenge in a habeas proceeding because a judgment in his favor would necessarily bar Georgia from executing him under existing state law.

The Second Amendment protects the right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense. A state may not require residents to show a “special need” in order to obtain a permit to do so, but a “shall issue” licensing regime based on objective criteria is permissible.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 597 U.S. __, __ S. Ct. __ (June 23, 2022). In this case, two individuals and a gun rights organization challenged a New York law that required citizens to obtain a permit from the police or other licensing officials to carry handguns outside the home. Such a permit could be issued only upon a showing of “proper cause,” meaning a “special need” for self-defense beyond the security concerns common to everyone. Because this standard vests discretion in the issuing official, New York and a few other states are known as “may issue” jurisdictions. By contrast, most states – including North Carolina – are “shall issue” jurisdictions where any requested permit must be granted if the applicant is not subject to a list of objective disqualifiers. The individual plaintiffs presented no “special need” and were denied permits. The lower courts found no constitutional problem.

The Court, in an opinion by Justice Thomas, disagreed and found that New York’s statutory scheme was unconstitutional. The Court noted that most lower federal courts have applied a two-step test in Second Amendment cases, as follows: (1) A gun regulation is valid if it regulates conduct that is outside the scope of the Second Amendment as originally understood. (2) If the regulation addresses conduct that is within the historical sweep of the Second Amendment, then it is assessed under intermediate scrutiny. The Court rejected this two-step test, stating that “it is one step too many” and that Heller “demands a test rooted in the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by history,” not the balancing of interests inherent in means-end scrutiny. The Court stated that “[w]hen the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Court stated that this sort of historical inquiry will sometimes be “straightforward” but other times may require “a more nuanced approach” as “[t]he regulatory challenges posed by firearms today are not always the same as those that preoccupied the Founders in 1791 or the Reconstruction generation in 1868.” In these more difficult cases, courts will need to use “analogical reasoning.” This will include asking “whether modern and historical regulations impose a comparable burden on the right of armed self-defense and whether that burden is comparably justified.”

Turning to the case at hand, the Court stated that “the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.” The right to “bear” arms “naturally includes public carry.” The Court proceeded into an extensive discussion of historical sources, which it described as a “long journey through the Anglo-American history of public carry.” The Court gave the greatest weight to those sources close in time to the ratification of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, and acknowledged that some states were outliers that significantly limited the carrying of firearms. Overall, however, the majority concluded that the history and tradition of firearms regulation in the United States do not allow a state to require a showing of “proper cause” or “special need” to carry a firearm.

Justice Alito concurred but wrote separately to criticize some aspects of the dissent. Justice Kavanaugh, joined by the Chief Justice, concurred but wrote separately to note that a “variety” of gun regulations are permissible under Heller and its progeny, including “shall issue” licensing requirements. Justice Barrett concurred but wrote separately to note that the Court left open some questions about the historical methodology it required, including whether the focus of the inquiry should be 1791 (ratification of the Second Amendment) or 1868 (ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment).

Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. The dissent argued that the Court did not have an adequate factual record to determine how the New York law worked in practice; that its history-only approach to interpretation was wrong, difficult for lower courts to apply, insufficiently deferential to legislatures, and blind to the real-world problems of gun violence; and that the Court’s historical analysis was itself incorrect and ignored or minimized historical limitations on public carry.