Florida Local Officials Sue Over State Ethics Law
February 23, 2024 | Bill Kramer
January 4, 2024 | Sandy Dornsife
State high courts issue thousands of opinions each year, and these court decisions have just as much of an impact on public policy as the legislative process. To help you keep track of consequential judicial decisions and their impact on state policy, MultiState publishes the Monthly Court Report, which offers a monthly recap of notable state high court decisions to provide a more dynamic picture of public policy trends.
Over the past year, state supreme courts have issued over 6,500 opinions, with supreme courts in Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Texas accounting for over 25 percent of opinions issued in 2023. Utah, Virginia, and Michigan state courts released the fewest number of opinions, issuing less than 30 decisions in each state. In the new year, state supreme courts are set to deliver decisions in a large volume of cases addressing hot-button issues like abortion and reproductive rights, artificial intelligence, privacy, and even minimum wage. It will be important to keep a close eye on court actions this year and how they will affect the 2024 legislative session.
In December, several state supreme courts wrestled with legal issues involving liability. Delaware and Washington addressed statutes of limitations, while Missouri clarified the duty to protect. In the case of Sullivan v. Werner Company, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania delivered a win to consumers in the state when it found that “evidence of compliance with industry standards is inadmissible under the risk-utility test in strict products liability cases.” In this case, an individual was seriously injured at a worksite when a platform on a scaffold collapsed and subsequently filed a strict liability suit alleging that the scaffold was defectively designed.
While the defendants in the case wished to present evidence that the scaffold complied with industry standards as a defense to its liability, the court emphasized the distinction between the negligence theory of recovery where the focus is on the conduct of the manufacturer/supplier and strict liability where the characteristics of the product itself are at issue. Strict liability requires the perception of a product’s danger by a consumer to be the primary consideration.
The Court found that while evidence of compliance and industry standards demonstrate that the government or industry would not find the product defective, it provides no persuasive evidence of the attributes of the product itself; and therefore, must be excluded. This decision places Pennsylvania within the minority of states regarding evidence in strict products liability cases. The decision, however, was not unanimous, with only three justices signing on to the majority opinion. A fourth justice filed a concurring opinion, and two justices joined in a dissent.
With Pennsylvania’s historically competitive elections for Supreme Court justices and the term of three liberal justices expiring in 2026, changes in court membership may mean this precedent may be challenged again in the not-so-distant future.
Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled that Donald Trump engaged in an insurrection on January 6, 2021, and is therefore disqualified from the presidency under the U.S. Constitution’s “insurrection clause.” The court ordered that, as a result, Donald Trump should not appear on ballots in the state. However, the Court stayed its own decision, putting it on hold to provide the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to weigh in. Read more.
In a unanimous decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that local personal property taxes do not discriminate against interstate commerce, and are therefore constitutional. In this case, a company’s vehicles were taxed in Massachusetts based on their registration in the state and by Connecticut as a result of their being garaged in the state. The court determined that Massachusetts’ tax scheme did not negate Connecticut taxes. Read more.
Delaware’s Supreme Court found that the correct statute of limitations was applied by lower courts in a worker’s compensation suit where a new, but causally related injury, arose after parties had already entered into a compensatory agreement. The court held that the claim was not barred by the 2-year statute of limitations for initial claims, but fell within the category of claims subject to a 5-year statute of limitations. Read more.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the protection offered by the state and federal constitutional right to free speech does not extend so far as to permit an individual to trespass on another’s property in order to exercise this right. In this case, an individual left numerous notes on the doors of residents in relation to their display of a rainbow flag. Read more.
Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of Republican-drawn state House and Congressional district maps. The court ruled that while the maps were partisan gerrymanders, such gerrymanders are not explicitly prohibited by the constitution. Read more.
The Minnesota Supreme Court found that racial imbalances in local schools do not inherently violate the constitution without other contributing factors. While the court stopped short of requiring proof of intentional segregation for a constitutional claim, it did state that such a claim would need to demonstrate that the racial disparity between schools deprives some students of the “adequate” education guaranteed to them by the state constitution. Read more.
Missouri’s Supreme Court held that the known third person exception to the general rule that businesses do not have a duty to protect invitees from criminal acts of third parties did not apply to a hospital when an individual who previously stole medication from an unlocked vehicle later committed an assault. The court ruled that since the assailant had not previously acted in a dangerous or threatening manner, no reasonable person would have anticipated a danger, and therefore, there was no duty to protect. Read more.
More than two years after the initial court filing, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that mask mandates instituted by three school districts during the COVID-19 state of emergency did not violate the rights of parents or students. The court established that since masks are not considered to be medical treatment, the mandate did not interfere with parents’ rights to make decisions regarding the care of their children. Read more.
Nevada’s Supreme Court ruled that a medical provider in a malpractice lawsuit may not give evidence regarding the assumption of risk and informed consent when the plaintiff does not dispute consent. The Court found that such evidence is improper in a professional negligence case as it confuses juries and does not pertain to the two prongs of medical malpractice and that the case involves a deviation from the standard of care and that that deviation caused the injury. Read more.
The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, threw out the state’s congressional district map and ordered the Independent Redistricting Commission to create a new one. The previous map was created by a court-appointed expert after both the Commission and the legislature failed to properly enact a map of their own. Read more.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled that a defendant’s refusal to disclose the passcode to their phone was protected by the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination and could not be considered as evidence of guilt. Read more.
Virginia’s Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit of a former Virginia high school teacher who sued the local school board after being fired for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns. The Court found that the plaintiff’s claims against the school board for a violation of his right to exercise his religion and free speech, as well as a breach of his contract, were legally viable. Read more.
The Washington Supreme Court held that the state’s eight-year statute of repose for medical malpractice was unconstitutional and violated the state’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection. Over the last few decades, the legislature has passed several versions of the statute requiring that plaintiffs file malpractice suits within 8 years of injury, but the laws have consistently failed to pass muster with the supreme court. Read more.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state’s right-leaning legislative maps were unconstitutional as the districts consisted of non-contiguous areas. The court ordered new maps to be drawn before the election in 2024. Read more.
The Supreme Court of Wyoming found that officers did not illegally enter the home of a defendant who did not give permission for their entry, as they believed it was the victim’s home and the victim’s actions implied permission to enter. As a result, all evidence obtained from the legal search was deemed admissible. Read more.
February 23, 2024 | Bill Kramer
February 7, 2024 | Sandy Dornsife
December 4, 2023 | Michael Greene