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Supreme Court declines to rule on Utah highway crosses

The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday declined to rule on whether crosses placed beside highways as memorials to deceased Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) [official website] troopers is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The court denied certiorari [order list, PDF] in the combined cases of Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American Atheists [docket; cert. petition, PDF] and Davenport v. American Atheists [docket; cert. petition, PDF], allowing the August 2010 ruling [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which found found the display unconstitutional, to stand. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff [official website] appealed [JURIST report] to the Supreme Court in April, arguing that the lower court improperly applied the Establishment Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] to "passive public displays" and erroneously deemed the memorials "government speech." Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter from the denial of certiorari:

Today the Court rejects an opportunity to provide clarity to an Establishment Clause jurisprudence in shambles. A sharply divided Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has declared unconstitutional a private association's efforts to memorialize slain police officers with white roadside crosses, holding that the crosses convey to a reasonable observer that the State of Utah is endorsing Christianity. The Tenth Circuit's opinion is one of the latest in a long line of "'religious display'" decisions that, because of this Court's nebulous Establishment Clause analyses, turn on little more than "judicial predilections." Because our jurisprudence has confounded the lower courts and rendered the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property anyone's guess, I would grant certiorari.
The memorials in question, erected in 1998 by the Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA) [official website], consist of 14 12-foot-high cross memorials displaying the fallen troopers' name, rank, badge number and the official UPH symbol. The memorials were paid for with private funds, but most were placed on public land.

Also Monday, the court issued a per curiam opinion [text, PDF] in Cavazos v. Smith [docket; cert. petition, PDF], summarily reversing the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court found that the appeals court, "substituted its judgment for that of a California jury on the question whether the prosecution's or the defense's expert witnesses more persuasively explained the cause of a death." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, calling the court's summary disposition, "a misuse of discretion."

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