The US Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two cases. In Johnson v. Williams [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] the court heard arguments on whether a state court can "adjudicate on the merits" a case when it has denied a habeas corpus [Cornell LII backgrounder] claim but not expressly mentioned a federal law basis for doing so. In this case, the defendant argues that the California state trial court violated her Sixth Amendment [text] right to a trial by an impartial jury by dismissing the lone juror who was holding out for her acquittal based on a finding that the juror was disregarding court orders and holding the prosecution to a higher standard of proof than required by law. Although a federal district court denied her petition for habeas corpus, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court and granted [opinion, PDF] her petition. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the state trial court "cut some corners" to avoid a hung jury and lacked "good cause" to dismiss the juror. The state of California, however, argued Wednesday that there is a categorical rule that deference should be given to a state court to determine the merits of a federal claim, including one for a writ of habeas corpus.
The court also heard arguments in Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] to determine whether recurring flooding of property caused by federal governmental actions constitutes a "taking" under the Takings Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the Fifth Amendment [text], requiring the federal government to pay due compensation to owners of damaged property, if it is only temporary. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission brought this action against the federal government, alleging that the US Army Corps of Engineers [official websites] caused increased flooding on one of its properties, which in turn damaged timber. The commission claims the damaging of timber on its property constituted a taking for which it deserved compensation, and the US Court of Federal Claims [official website] agreed and awarded damages of more than $5.6 million. The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, overturned [opinion] that ruling, saying that the flooding did not constitute a taking because it was only temporary and did not permanently take over the land. The commission argued to the Supreme Court that it should not matter whether the water remains on the land permanently, but that the government should compensate landowners whenever it releases water that causes a "physical invasion" of private property.