20 December 2006

Unconstitutional Death Penalty

After class on Tuesday (Common Law Legal System class), a student asked how a California state court could have ruled that the death penalty in California violates the United States Constitution. This is a good question, although the facts aren't quite accurate. In fact, it was a United States District Court Judge who ruled California's system of lethal injections to be unconstitutional. Clearly, a federal court judge can rule on whether something violates the federal constitution. But the student's question remains a good one. How can a state court find that something violates the FEDERAL constitution? Simple. Remember when we discussed the state and federal court systems in the United States I noted that a case will often raise both state and federal law claims. When this is the case, as it often is in criminal appeals, a state court can rule on the federal law claims as well as the state law claims. So, it is conceivable that the a California state court could find that the death penalty in California violated the FEDERAL constitution.

The student also wondered whether this court was ignoring binding precedent that says the death penalty does not violate the U.S. Constitution. The quick answer is probably not. Past U.S. Supreme Court cases have set forth tests to be used to determine whether the process used to carry out the death penalty in a given state violates the Constitution. Of course the government would try to draw analogies to cases upholding procedures used for the death penalty, while the defense (petitioner) would try to draw analogies to those cases that found death penalty procedures to violate the U.S. Constitution. Capital punishment in the United States is not automatically constitutional, and if someone challenging a procedure can find enough flaws with the way it is carried out, which appears to be the case in California, they can get a court to say e the procedures violate the U.S. Constitution and still be in accord with Supreme Court precedent.

11 December 2006

Playing Chicken

The case of Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. Int’l Sales Corp, plays an important role in our discussion of contract interpretation (and the mistake defense) in Common Law of Contracts. Apparently, it's an important case for many American law school contracts courses as well. So important, legend has it, that one professor dresses up a chicken for the lecture. Urban legend? Myth? Apparently not. A post on the Contracts Prof Blog claims that there is living proof (pictures, which sadly are not included in the post) of a professor dressing up as chicken for the discussion of this case that begins with line, "What is a chicken."

04 December 2006

Santa's Butt Raises First Amendment Issue

According to the Bangor News Daily, "The Maine Civil Liberties Union wants Santa’s Butt in beer coolers by Christmas." In fact, what they (the ACLU) appear to be fighting over is whether the State of Maine can stop a beer producer from selling a beer that bares Santa's bottom on the label (see picture to the left). American Constitutional Law students will learn that the courts generally take a rather broad view concerning what constitutes "free speech." When the government prohibits a beer producer from using a particular label does that violate the First Amendment's Freedom of Speech provision? Probably. In Missouri, where I worked for the ACLU before coming to Germany, my office worked on a similar case. In this instance the beer producer used reproductions of classic nude paintings on his labels. The State of Missouri refused to grant him a liquor license to sell his beer unless he changed the label. The government finally backed down when we pointed out that the "obscene" label was a reproduction of a famous painting that hangs in the Louvre in Paris.