With the U.S. Supreme Court aiming to conclude its term in less than two weeks, it is grinding out decisions at a frantic pace on a variety of topics. Thursday's bundle included: the states' power to widen beaches without paying compensation to homeowners; privacy and texting; and a ruling invalidating hundreds of decisions by the National Labor Relations Board.
The texting decision was long awaited by a generation of tweeters. The question was whether a police department had violated the rights of one of its officers by auditing his personal text messages on police department cell phones. Sgt. Jeff Quon paid for the private text messages, but when a police department audit turned up sexually explicit material, he was reprimanded. He sued, claiming his right to privacy had been violated, and won in the lower courts. On Thursday, however, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that even if Quon had an expectation of privacy, the police department had reasonably audited his texts.
The court's ruling left unresolved the question that both employers and employees had been waiting for — whether electronic communications, like text messages, are so pervasive that even when they take place on government-supplied devices, there is an expectation of privacy for the worker.
A separate ruling involved not private messages, but private and public property, and the impact of the court's decision is likely to be nationwide. At issue was whether the state of Florida can widen its beaches to protect against erosion, without paying compensation to private property owners who may lose their exclusive right to the water.
The case pitted Florida's efforts to restore its storm-eroded beaches against the rights of waterfront homeowners to keep the public from frolicking and sunbathing in front of their homes.
For decades, state and local governments in Florida have spent millions of dollars in restoring beaches eroded by storms. Officials say that beach restoration protects roads, infrastructure, the state's tourism industry and private beachfront property from future storm damage. But a group of private beachfront homeowners saw it differently.
"It was simply a land grab," said Slade Lindsey, who was among a small group of private property owners who challenged the beach restoration project. "We were angry that someone could come in and rewrite our deeds without our consent."
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state wasn't rewriting anyone's deed. Rather, that the state was simply adding sand on top of previously submerged land that it owned. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed, noting that the state court's decision was based on a public/private balance long accepted under state law.
Property law experts said the decision would have a nationwide effect, since 35 states abut either the ocean or the Great Lakes.
"In terms of, you know, water boundary law, the Florida law as interpreted here represents kind of the majority view among coastal states," said Richard Michael Frank, director of the California Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. "So to the extent that the court has articulated — and for the most part reaffirmed — longstanding state coastal boundary law principles, they are likely to have relatively broad application across the country."
Property rights advocates were disappointed but said the silver lining was that four justices for the first time said there may be cases in the future that are so egregious they violate the federal Constitution's ban on a government taking of private property without compensation.
In a third important decision, the court ruled 5-4 that the NLRB, the federal agency that referees disputes between labor and management, cannot make decisions with only two board members.
For more than two years, Congress was deadlocked over agency appointments. During that time, the agency ruled on hundreds of cases with only two board members. In March of this year, President Obama went around the Senate by making two appointments during a congressional recess. But in the meantime, more than 500 cases had been resolved by the two-member board. Thursday's court ruling voids those NLRB decisions.
Writing for the high court majority was Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's most liberal member, joined by the court's four conservatives. If Congress had intended to authorize two members to act alone, he said, "it could have said so." Instead, Congress imposed a three-member minimum as a quorum. Allowing two members to run the agency because Congress and the White House can't agree on new members, he said, would be "letting the board create a tail that would not only wag the dog, but would continue to wag after the dog has died."