The Supreme Court created a small letdown on June 20 for its fans when it issued opinions on two non-blockbuster cases.
The hotly anticipated Voting Rights Act and affirmative action rulings may come on June 24–instead, the court decided in one case that prior state convictions should not be easily used to increase a federal sentence.
The case: Descamps v. United States. The issue: felons are not allowed to own firearms. A three-strike rule called the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) required heavier federal punishments when a person who had committed three violent felonies was caught with a gun.
The problem comes with inconsistent reasons for convictions under state laws. Convictions can and often do come from plea bargains, and not all states define burglary the way federal law would define it–a convicted criminal might not actually be the violent felon the ACCA intended to target, according to the Supreme Court blog.
Matthew Descamps had pleaded guilty to a burglary in California, and was given an enhanced sentence under the act for a later crime.
Because state laws and state convictions can vary so much, the justices struck down the act. Justice Elena Kagan led an eight to one decision. The Court wrote: “We know Descamps’ crime of conviction, and it does not correspond to the relevant generic offense. Under our prior decisions, the inquiry is over.”
Justice Antonin Scaalia was the lone dissenter.
The other opinion released June 20 is American Express Company v. Italian Colors Restaurant. Merchants who took American Express cards agreed to resolve disputes through arbitration, but then filed a class action antitrust lawsuit, seeking damages from the credit card company.
The plaintiffs said the cost of hiring expert witnesses made it impossible for them to prove their claims in arbitration.
The court found that a contract requiring arbitration is binding.
The opinion stated, “The FAA (Federal Arbitration Act) does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential.”