Public School Football Coach Wins Prayer SCOTUS Case

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that the First Amendment protects an assistant football coach who “knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” The Supreme Court also overruled Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the district.

The majority and the dissent disagree about the facts of this case. Both sides agree assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy had a long history of praying alone and with students at midfield after football games and praying with students in the locker room pregame and postgame. When directed to, Kennedy stopped the latter practice. But he told the district he felt “compelled” to continue offering a “post-game personal prayer” midfield. The district placed Kennedy on leave for praying on the field after three particular games.

Justice Gorsuch, writing for the Court, concluded Kennedy was able to make the initial showing that the school district violated his free exercise of religion and free speech rights by not allowing him pray on the field after games.

Regarding Kennedy’s Free Exercise Clause claim, the Court concluded the school district burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is neither “neutral” nor “generally applicable.” The district’s actions weren’t neutral because “[b]y its own admission, the District sought to restrict Mr. Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.” The district’s actions weren’t “generally appliable” either the Court concluded. While the district stated it refused to rehire Kennedy because he “failed to supervise student-athletes after games,” the district “permitted other members of the coaching staff to forgo supervising students briefly after the game to do things like visit with friends or take personal phone calls.”

Regarding Kennedy’s Free Speech Clause claim, the Court first had to decide whether Kennedy was speaking as a government employee (who isn’t protected by the First Amendment) or as a citizen (who receives some First Amendment protection). The Court determined Kennedy was acting as a citizen. “When Mr. Kennedy uttered the three prayers that resulted in his suspension, he was not engaged in speech ‘ordinarily within the scope’ of his duties as a coach. He did not speak pursuant to government policy. He was not seeking to convey a government-created message. He was not instructing players, discussing strategy, encouraging better on-field performance, or engaged in any other speech the District paid him to produce as a coach.”

While the Court would have normally shifted the burden to the school district to defend its actions under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses, the Court didn’t in this case noting that under whatever test it applied the school district would lose.

The district explained it suspended Kennedy because of Establishment Clause concerns namely that a “reasonable observer” would conclude the district was endorsing religion by allowing him to pray on the field after games. In response the Court overturned the so-called Lemon test.

Lemon “called for an examination of a law’s purposes, effects, and potential for entanglement with religion. In time, the approach also came to involve estimations about whether a ‘reasonable observer’ would consider the government’s challenged action an ‘endorsement” of religion.’” In its place the Court stated it has adopted a view of the Establishment Clause that “accor[ds] with history and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.” The Court also found insufficient evidence students were coerced to pray.

Michael Dreeben, Ephraim McDowell, and Jenya Godina of O’Melveny & Myers wrote the SLLC amicus brief which the following organizations joined:  National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International City/County Management Association, International Municipal Lawyers Association, National Public Labor Employer Labor Relations Association, and International Public Management Association for Human Resources.

SCOTUS Decides Federal Arbitration Act Case Involving California’s Private Attorney General Act

In Viking River Cruises v. Moriana the U.S. Supreme Court held 8-1 that the Federal Arbitration Acts (FAA) preempt a holding of the California Supreme Court “insofar as it precludes division of [California private attorney general] actions into individual and non-individual claims through an agreement to arbitrate.”

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SCOTUS Decides Billion Dollar Medicare Drug Reimbursement Case

In American Hospital Association v. Becerra the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that if Health and Human Services (HHS) wants to reimburse Section 340B hospitals for certain outpatient prescription drugs provided to Medicare patients at a different rate than other hospitals it must conduct a survey of hospitals’ drug acquisition costs.

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SCOTUS Allows States to Recover Settlements for Future Medical Care to Reimburse Medicaid

States participating in Medicaid must require Medicaid beneficiaries to assign the state “any rights . . . to payment for medical care from any third party.” In Gallardo v. Marstiller the U.S. Supreme Court held 7-2 that states may collect from third party tortfeasors settlements allocated for the cost of future (not only past) medical care.

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SCOTUS to Decide Post-Conviction DNA Testing Statute of Limitations Case

In Reed v. Goertz the U.S. Supreme Court will decide when the statute of limitations begins to run on a claim seeking post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence. All fifty states and the District of Columbia allow postconviction DNA testing in some circumstances.

Rodney Reed was convicted of capital murder in 1998. Stacey Stites’ body and some personal items were found in one location; the truck she shared with her fiancé and other personal items were found at another location. The medical examiner concluded Stites had likely been sexually assaulted prior to being killed. A DNA profile of the sperm found matched with Reed. Reed claims he and Stites were having a consensual affair and that he is innocent.

In 2014 Reed asked the state court to test Stites’ personal items found at both locations pursuant to Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. In November 2014 the trial court denied the order. Reed’s unsuccessful appeals ended in October 2017.

In Skinner v. Switzer (2011) the Supreme Court held that state prisoners denied post-conviction DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may bring 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuits seeking “to show that the governing state law denies [them] procedural due process.” Section 1983 is a federal statute which allows government officials and entities to be sued for money damages for constitutional violations.

In August 2019 Reed brought a Section 1983 claim challenging the constitutionality of Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. The Fifth Circuit held it was barred by the statute of limitations which began running as soon as the state trial court denied the DNA testing in November 2014.

Texas has a 2-year statute of limitations that applies to Section 1983 cases so filing the Section 1983 action in August 2019 was too late. 

Per Fifth Circuit precedent the statute of limitations begins to run on Section 1983 cases “the moment the plaintiff becomes aware . . . he has suffered an injury or has sufficient information to know that he has been injured.”

According to the Fifth Circuit: “Here, Reed first became aware that his right to access that evidence was allegedly being violated when the trial court denied his . . . .motion [for post-conviction DNA testing] in November 2014. Reed had the necessary information to know that his rights were allegedly being violated as soon as the trial court denied his motion for post-conviction relief.”

In his petition asking the Court to hear his case Reed argues that the statute of limitations to bring challenges to post-conviction DNA statutes shouldn’t begin running until the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals. According to Reed: “Before the state appellate court interprets the statute, a movant cannot know definitively what the statute means and whether it is adequate to protect his constitutional rights.”