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Supreme Court hears voting rights, sentencing enhancement, Tucker Act cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday in Riley v. Kennedy [LII case backgrounder; merit briefs], 07-77, a voting rights case where the Court is considering whether the state of Alabama and Alabama Governor Bob Riley must seek federal government approval in order to appoint a Republican to a vacant county commission seat in a primarily black, Democratic district. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 [DOJ backgrounder] requires several states, including Alabama, to obtain federal approval from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) before changing election procedures that were in effect on November 1, 1964 and that impact minority voters. Riley appointed Republican Juan Chastang to a vacant seat on the Mobile County Commission [official website]. Local Democrats challenged the appointment, and argued that a special election should have been held to fill the empty seat. In January 2007, the DOJ found that Chastang's appointment appeared to weaken minority voters and the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama subsequently vacated the appointment. Several justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seemed during arguments to side with Riley in the dispute. AP has more.

The Court also heard arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday in Burgess v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 06-11429, a sentencing enhancement case in which the Court is attempting to resolve an ambiguity in federal drug statutes. Keith Burgess pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a drug offense, and was sentenced according to a federal sentencing enhancement provision that sets a mandatory minimum of 20 years' imprisonment if the defendant had a previous felony drug conviction. Burgess had previously been convicted of possession of cocaine in South Carolina, which is a misdemeanor offense in that state, punishable by two years' imprisonment. There are two conflicting definitions of "felony" in the relevant federal code, one which defines a felony as a crime classified as such by federal or state law, and the other which defines a felony as any drug offense punishable by more than one year of imprisonment. Burgess has asked the Court to find the federal law to be ambiguous regarding the definition of a felony, and to apply the rule of lenity to resolve the ambiguity in Burgess' favor.

Additionally, the Court heard arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday in United States v. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 07-308, a tax refund case in which the Court is considering whether a taxpayer who was barred from bringing an action in federal court to obtain a tax refund may file a direct action under the US Constitution through the Tucker Act [text]. The Tucker Act allows any claim against the United States which is founded upon the US Constitution, federal legislative acts, or other means to be brought directly in the United States Court of Federal Claims [official website].

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