After issuing its final decisions of the term Thursday, the Supreme Court on Friday granted a religious liberty case for next term and turned away challenges to longstanding decisions on qualified immunity and defamation, prompting dissents from the court's conservatives.
Court agrees to hear one religious liberty case, but rejects another
The justices agreed to consider a constitutional challenge to a school funding program in Maine that excludes private schools that teach religion.
Only half the school districts in Maine run their own high schools. The rest pay for students to attend public schools in other districts or to attend private schools. The state, however, will not fund students who attend any school that offers religious teaching.
Parents who wanted to send their children to a private Christian school challenged the law, alleging it violated their right to exercise their religion freely. The First Circuit disagreed, but now the high court will hear their case.
The justices, however, declined to hear another case about religious liberty – this one brought by a Washington state florist who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. She alleged that the state's antidiscrimination law violated her First Amendment rights, and in 2017, Washington's supreme court ruled against her.
Though the justices on Friday declined to hear her appeal, three of the court's conservatives—Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch—would have taken it for next term.
Thomas calls to do away with qualified immunity
Also on Friday, Justice Thomas once again called for the court to do away with qualified immunity, the legal shield for police officers that has come under intense scrutiny in the last year of racial justice protests.
Thomas was dissenting from the court's refusal to hear the case of a college student promoting Turning Point USA, a right-wing organization known for publishing lists of university professors it deems hostile to conservatives. The student alleged campus police at Arkansas State University violated her First Amendment rights when they stopped her from advertising the organization near the student union. But the campus officers escaped liability in the lower court because of qualified immunity, a doctrine created by the Supreme Court in 1967 that has evolved into a near-impenetrable bulwark for the police.
"Why should university officers," wrote Thomas, "receive the same protection as a police officer who makes a split-second decision to use force in a dangerous setting?" Going further, Thomas questioned whether the judicially-created doctrine should exist at all, an opinion that has garnered more and more bipartisan consensus in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
Thomas and Gorsuch call to overturn landmark Free Speech precedent
The court declined to hear a defamation case brought by a Miami-born international arms dealer—portrayed in the 2016 movie War Dogs—against the author of a book about his life.
The lower court dismissed the suit. It pointed to a landmark 1964 First Amendment decision, in which the high court said that publishers are immune from libel suits brought by public figures, so long as the publishers either didn't know, or had no reason to know, that the information they published was false.
Both Thomas and Gorsuch dissented, arguing the court should overturn the nearly 50-year-old precedent. In the era of disinformation, "lies impose real harm," wrote Thomas. "Instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies," said Thomas, the court should narrow First Amendment protections.
In a separate dissent, Gorsuch agreed. In 1964, publishers needed protection against libel for unpopular opinions to survive. Indeed, the court's 1964 decision was first used to protect civil rights leaders who had published a New York Times ad criticizing the Montgomery, Alabama police for repeatedly arresting Martin Luther King Jr.
But, said Gorsuch, in 2021, "it's less obvious what force [libel protections have] in a world in which everyone carries a soapbox in their hands," referring to smartphones. Now, Gorsuch wrote, "the deck seems stacked against those with traditional (and expensive) journalistic standards—and in favor of those who can disseminate the most sensational information as efficiently as possible without any particular concern for truth."
On top of its decisions about cases next term, the justices gave Alabama the green light to execute Matthew Reeves, whose death sentence was recently overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
This is the second time the justices have ruled against Reeves, who in 1998 was convicted for murder in Alabama. In 2002, Reeves first challenged his sentence in state court. He argued that because of his low IQ, his lawyer should have hired an expert to evaluate him for an intellectual disability. After 15 years of appeals, the Supreme Court denied his claim in 2017. So Reeves appealed his claim through the federal system.
But on Friday, the high court again rejected his challenge, thus allowing Alabama to move forward with his execution. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented, criticizing the state court for its brusque dismissal of Reeves's claim.
Sotomayor drew attention to "a troubling trend in which this court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution." The court, wrote Sotomayor, "turns deference" to state courts "into a rule that...relief is never available to those facing execution."