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. Several of the justices are in the demographic group thought to be most at risk from the coronavirus: notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, and Justice Stephen Breyer, 81. Four others members of the court — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor — are 65 or older.
The justices were to have started a two-week stretch of arguments Monday, but those have been postponed. It is not clear whether or when they will be rescheduled. :
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 allows defendants to argue that they lacked the required intent to commit the crime with which they were charged. 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. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and Roberts, Thomas and Alito joined Kagan's majority opinion. Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.
The court ruled that Byron Allen, a black 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. The case concerns a Reconstruction-era federal law that gives "all persons" the same right to "make and enforce contracts" as "is enjoyed by white citizens."
The question for the justices was whether Allen's company, Entertainment Studios, had to assert at an early stage in its lawsuit that race was a determinative reason for Comcast's decision rather than just one factor among many. In legal terms, the question was whether Entertainment Studios had to say in its complaint that race was a "but for" cause of Comcast's decision or a mere "motivating factor." Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous court, said Allen had to meet the more demanding standard.
Civil rights groups expressed dismay. "This ruling weakens our nation's oldest civil rights statute and may shut the courthouse door on some discrimination victims," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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 the Constitution granted states sovereign immunity, shielding them from federal lawsuits.