Wow! Justices agree and get it right

In a rare display of unity for this group, the U.S. Supreme Court this week issued a series of unanimous opinions, each well-grounded in upholding constitutional protections.

Ruling in a case with broad implications for the digital age, the court found that in making an arrest, police need a warrant to search a suspect's cellphone, just as they need a warrant to search his home. The court concluded the information contained in a cellphone (aka smartphone) falls under the Fourth Amendment requirement that law enforcement officials obtain a warrant before searching "houses, papers, and effects."

As Chief Justice John Roberts well put it in writing the unanimous decision, "With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life.' "

It will make things more difficult for police, but this country was founded on the premise that individual rights take priority over the convenience of law enforcement authorities.

Before rifling through a cellphone - just has long been the case before they can search a home office - police must demonstrate to a judge that there is reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime has been committed and evidence of that crime can be found on the phone. This is how it should be.

Recognizing the potential for information to be remotely erased, the justices noted that police, while awaiting a warrant, can turn off the phone, remove its battery or place it in a container impervious to radiofrequency waves, .

Protests

In a ruling protecting First Amendment rights, the high court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that imposes a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics. The intent of the buffer is to prevent patients and clinic workers from being harassed by anti-abortion protestors and to reduce the risk of violence.

However, there are already laws against harassment and they are constitutional. What the court correctly found as unconstitutional is to prevent a group from assembling on public property to make its point and, in this case, try to dissuade patients from having abortions.

This unanimous ruling should set a precedent that reverses a disturbing trend of late that has placed needless restrictions on the ability of people to assemble and make known their grievances. At political conventions, for example, protestors have been forced to amass in official demonstration areas, often far from the convention delegates and gathered news media they intend to reach with their message.

The court can start by easing some of the restrictions around the Supreme Court building itself. In 1983, the court found unconstitutional restrictions on demonstrations on the public sidewalks near the court. However, on the grand plaza in front of the courthouse itself, police have ordered visitors to remove buttons making political statements. In recently throwing out the conviction of college student Harold Hodge Jr. for wearing, on the plaza, a sign alleging police misconduct, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the Federal District Court in Washington pointed to the hypocrisy of the rule.

"The absolute prohibition on expressive activity in the statute is unreasonable, substantially overbroad and irreconcilable with the First Amendment" and "unconstitutional and void as applied to the Supreme Court plaza," she wrote.

Perhaps the Supreme Court will get the chance to toss out its own rules as unconstitutional. The clash of ideas in the public square can be inconvenient and even ugly, but it remains vital in a free society.

Recess

In a third 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court placed reasonable limits on the power of the president to make appointments while the Senate is in recess.

"The president shall have the power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate," reads the U.S. Constitution.

Presidents have long used this provision to make appointments that were unlikely to get approval from recalcitrant Senates.

The Supreme Court ruled, however, that President Obama went too far when he appointed three officials to the National Labor Relations Board during a brief break in the Senate's work, knowing that the chamber was convening every three days in pro forma sessions.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that it has to be a genuine break - the court set the bar at 10 days or more - before the president can constitutionally exercise his power to appoint without Senate consent.

This ruling leaves room for the party not in control of the White House to play games and act unreasonably in blocking appointments, but unreasonableness is for the voters to judge and correct at the ballot box, not by allowing the president to ignore constitutional checks and balances.

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