WASHINGTON — In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that states may abolish a common form of the insanity defense, that an entrepreneur suing Comcast for race discrimination must meet a demanding standard and that states are immune from claims of copyright infringement.
In their latest response to the coronavirus, the justices did not take the bench to announce the decisions, a sharp break with their practice in cases in which there were oral arguments.
On Friday, some of the justices also participated by phone during their usual private conference to discuss which appeals to hear, said Kathleen Arberg, a court spokeswoman. She did not say which justices were working from home.
The justices who did turn up for the conference skipped a long-standing custom at the court, that of each justice shaking hands with every other justice each time they convene.
Several of the justices are in the demographic group thought to be most at risk from the coronavirus: notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, and Justice Stephen Breyer, 81. Four other members of the court — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor — are 65 or older.
The justices were to have started a two-week stretch of arguments Monday, but those have been postponed. It is not clear whether or when they will be rescheduled. It issued its opinions on its website at five-minute intervals and in ascending order of the author’s seniority, roughly tracking how the decisions would have been announced had the court been in session.
These were the major decisions:
The court ruled that the Constitution does not require Kansas to use a common form of the insanity defense, one that allows criminal defendants to avoid conviction if they can show that their mental illness prevented them from recognizing that their criminal act was morally wrong.
Kansas eliminated that version of the insanity defense about two decades ago. It instead allows defendants to argue that they lacked the required intent to commit the crime with which they were charged. Defendants may also argue for more lenient sentences based on mental illness.
The case concerned James Kahler, who was sentenced to death in 2011 for killing four family members. His lawyers said he had severe depression that made it impossible for him to understand reality or distinguish right from wrong. Under the Kansas law, similar to those of Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Utah, Kahler was barred from raising the defense that his mental illness prevented him from knowing his actions were wrong.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the Constitution’s due process clause allowed states to choose the more restrictive approach to the insanity defense.
“That choice is for Kansas to make — and, if it wishes, to remake and remake again as the future unfolds,” she wrote. “No insanity rule in this country’s heritage or history was ever so settled as to tie a state’s hands centuries later.”
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and Roberts, Thomas and Alito and joined Kagan’s majority opinion in the case, Kahler v. Kansas, No. 18-6135.
Kagan’s usual liberal allies dissented. “Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense,” wrote Breyer, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor. “Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries.”
The court ruled that Byron Allen, an African American entrepreneur, had to meet a demanding standard in a lawsuit saying that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, had discriminated against him based on his race in its decision not to carry programming from his network.
The case, Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African-American-Owned Media, No. 18-1171 concerns a Reconstruction-era federal law that gives “all persons” the same right to “make and enforce contracts” as “is enjoyed by white citizens.”
The question for the justices was whether Allen’s company, Entertainment Studios, had to assert at an early stage in its lawsuit that race was a determinative reason for Comcast’s decision rather than just one factor among many. In legal terms, the question was whether Entertainment Studios had to say in its complaint that race was a “but for” cause of Comcast’s decision or a mere “motivating factor.”
Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous court, said that Allen had to meet the more demanding standard that race was a “but for” cause. He said the appeals court should decide whether the allegations in Allen’s lawsuit were enough to clear that higher bar.
In its lawsuit, Entertainment Studios said Comcast had expressed interest in its programming but never closed a deal, reversed its position on what Entertainment Studios needed to do to secure carriage and carried every network that its main competitors did except Entertainment Studios. The lawsuit also said that Comcast offered space to “lesser-known, white-owned” networks even as it said it lacked capacity to carry Entertainment Studios. Comcast has disputed the allegations.
In a concurring opinion, Ginsburg suggested that the allegations might be sufficient to allow the case to move forward.
In a statement, Comcast said that it was committed to diversity and that its victory was a modest one. “The nation’s civil rights laws have not changed with this ruling; they remain the same as before the case was filed,” the company said.
Civil rights groups expressed dismay. “This ruling weakens our nation’s oldest civil rights statute and may shut the courthouse door on some discrimination victims,” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.
In a third decision, the court ruled that an underwater videographer may not sue North Carolina for using his copyrighted videos of the submerged remains of a ship that had been used by the pirate Blackbeard.
After a private company discovered the wreckage in 1996, it hired the videographer, Frederick Allen, to film and photograph its ambitious underwater salvage work. Allen copyrighted the images and videos he created, but North Carolina officials posted five of his videos on a YouTube channel and printed one of his photographs in a newsletter.
Kagan, writing for the majority, said Allen could not sue. The Constitution, she wrote, granted states sovereign immunity, shielding them from federal lawsuits.
A 1990 federal law, the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, tried to allow copyright lawsuits against states, saying that they “shall not be immune, under the 11th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or under any other doctrine of sovereign immunity,” from such lawsuits.
Under the court’s precedents, Kagan wrote, Congress was powerless to enact the law, dooming Allen’s case, Allen v. Cooper, No. 18-877. Six justices joined most or all of her opinion, and all of the justices agreed on the bottom line.