Back at work but not on the bench, Supreme Court issues three major opinions

click to enlarge Back at work but not on the bench, Supreme Court issues three major opinions
Samuel Corum/The New York Times
The Supreme Court in Washington on Dec. 13, 2019.
Adam Liptak
The New York Times Company

WASHINGTON — In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that states may abolish a common form of the insanity defense, that an entrepreneur suing Comcast for race discrimination must meet a demanding standard and that states are immune from claims of copyright infringement.

In their latest response to the coronavirus, the justices did not take the bench to announce the decisions, a sharp break with their practice in cases in which there were oral arguments.

Insanity Defense

The court ruled that the Constitution does not require Kansas to use a common form of the insanity defense, one that allows criminal defendants to avoid conviction if they can show that their mental illness prevented them from recognizing that their criminal act was morally wrong.

Kansas eliminated that version of the insanity defense about two decades ago. It instead allows defendants to argue that they lacked the required intent to commit the crime with which they were charged. Defendants may also argue for more lenient sentences based on mental illness.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the Constitution’s due process clause allowed states to choose the more restrictive approach to the insanity defense.

Race Discrimination

The court ruled that Byron Allen, an African American entrepreneur, had to meet a demanding standard in a lawsuit saying that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, had discriminated against him based on his race in its decision not to carry programming from his network.

In legal terms, the question was whether Allen’s company, Entertainment Studios, had to say in its complaint that race was a “but for” cause of Comcast’s decision or a mere “motivating factor.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous court, said that Allen had to meet the more demanding standard that race was a “but for” cause. He said the appeals court should decide whether the allegations in Allen’s lawsuit were enough to clear that higher bar.

Copyright Infringement

In a third decision, the court ruled that an underwater videographer may not sue North Carolina for using his copyrighted videos of the submerged remains of a ship that had been used by the pirate Blackbeard.

Kagan, writing for the majority, said Allen could not sue. The Constitution, she wrote, granted states sovereign immunity, shielding them from federal lawsuits.

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