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The Supreme Court has begun its new term

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GAIL CURLEY: The honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And that was the kickoff today for the current Supreme Court term. It marked the first time in a year and a half that nearly all of the justices gathered in person to hear arguments. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who tested positive for COVID last week, was there by phone. Joining us to talk about the opening day is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Welcome back.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: And, Nina, the court was back - first time in more than a year. Can you talk about the atmosphere? What was it like?

TOTENBERG: Well, I think for the justices and certainly for the 21 reporters who were in the court chamber, it actually was, well, kind of cool to be back. Even retired Justice Anthony Kennedy was there, sitting in a seat to the left of the bench, along with Chief Justice Roberts' wife Jane and Justice Breyer's wife Joanna. And we reporters, for the first time ever, were seated facing the bench in seats normally reserved for lawyers and members of the public. It was really different looking at the justices head-on. I had never realized before what a hard time Justice Alito has sitting still.

We had a great view. The justices were all unmasked, except for Sonia Sotomayor, who has serious diabetes and is justifiably very worried. Everyone else - court staff, reporters, council, official onlookers - we all had to be masked, although the lawyers took their masks off when speaking at the podium.

CORNISH: Is there a vaccine mandate at the court?

TOTENBERG: Technically, no, but it's my understanding that almost all of the court's workforce has been vaccinated. I think the reporters are all vaccinated, and we had to get tested in addition. But I don't think there's a vaccine mandate, probably because it is possible that the court will have to rule on a mandate case.

CORNISH: Let's move to some of the other cases that they heard today. What was there?

TOTENBERG: They heard one water case important to Mississippi and Memphis, Tenn. They're at odds over groundwater. But it was sufficiently boring that Justice Alito didn't even ask a question. The second case involved a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which tacks an extra 15-year penalty on a defendant in possession of a firearm if he has a record of three violent felonies. The defendant in this case was William Wooden, arrested in 2015 after police found a rifle and a gun in his home.

Now, normally, the sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm would be zero to 10 years. And in fact, the probation officer recommended a sentence of 21 to 27 months. But because Wooden had 18 years earlier pled guilty to burglarizing a 10-unit warehouse, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. And the question before the court is that Congress amended the ACCA, the law, to make clear that you don't get slammed with that extra 15 years unless you've committed three violent felonies, quote, "on occasions different from one another."

So the question today was, what does that mean? The government maintains that because Wooden broke into 10 units at the warehouse 18 years ago, he committed 10 burglaries. Here's an example of the questioning today from Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan.

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STEPHEN BREYER: Jesse James gets on the train, and he goes to one person and then the next person and then the next person and takes their stuff. You know, he takes...

ELENA KAGAN: And the next car and the next car and the next car.

BREYER: Yeah, correct, correct. And moreover, you're going to put him in jail for 15 years, who - maybe he deserves it. But his cousin Harry James (ph) only robbed one car, but there were four people on it. And then he gave up his life of crime. And you're saying not just Jesse but Harry, too, will spend 15 years in jail extra.

CORNISH: And so is burglary considered a violent crime?

TOTENBERG: Yes, it is considered a violent crime under the act.

CORNISH: Any other cases we should look out for?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, we're going to have cases on abortion, on guns and on religion come November and December. But I must say that being back felt so normal that I actually went in a corner and straightened out my hosiery (laughter).

CORNISH: OK. That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.