January 19 & 20

Cases of interest this week involve First Amendment rights of public employees and land rights, including rights of Native Americans.

Tuesday, January 19

The first case today is a rather odd factual setting, involving a mistaken belief that a police officer engaged in political activity.  If he had, that would have been protected by the First Amendment — but since he actually hadn’t, is there any Constitutional violation?  If a government employee in a non-political position (someone who is not making policy and whose political affiliation should not be an issue for the job) is fired or demoted for engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment, that person would have a lawsuit for unlawful retaliation.  In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, a police officer was demoted because he was perceived to be supporting a challenger to the Mayor, while the sheriff supported the incumbent.  However, the officer was not actually supporting that candidate; he was just picking up yard signs for his mother.  The 10th Circuit dismissed the officer’s lawsuit, holding that he could not sue for retaliation for engaging in political activity because he had not in fact engaged in political activity (even though his supervisors thought he had, and explicitly said they were demoting him because of his support for the other candidate).  The Supreme Court granted cert. on the question “Whether the First Amendment bars the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that the employee supports a political candidate.”

The second case up for argument today is a technical question and will be of interest to fewer people, but those concerned with limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts may be interested.  Federal courts have jurisdiction when there is a “federal question” (interpretation of a federal law or the US Constitution) or, as relevant in this case, there is a “diversity of citizenship” (plaintiffs and defendants live in different states).  Diversity is not always obvious when the parties are corporations or other artificial entities.  Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods asks “whether the citizenship of a trust for purposes of diversity jurisdiction is based on the citizenship of the controlling trustees, the trust beneficiaries, or some combination of both.”


Wednesday, January 20

The two cases today involve land rights.  The first, Nebraska v. Parker, involves the jurisdiction of Native American tribes.  The specific issue is whether or not the Omaha tribe can impose a tax on liquor sales in territory it claims.  In the early 1880s, Congress opened up the area to settlers, but it is not clear if that resulted in complete loss of the tribe’s governing authority, and there is a general legal principle that Native American land interests should not be diminished if there is ambiguity.  See the above link for a full description of the history and legal principles.

The second case is specific to Alaska, involving the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  The factual background is nuanced and important to resolution of the case, involving failed efforts to resolve land ownership disputes among the federal government, private individuals, the state of Alaska, and Native American tribes.  See this helpful overview of Sturgeon v. Frost.