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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Three court decisions from the Spokane region

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves the stage on Sept. 26, 2018, after speaking to first-year students at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C.  (Jacquelyn Martin)
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves the stage on Sept. 26, 2018, after speaking to first-year students at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin)

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday from complications of cancer. An architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s, the 87-year-old served 27 years on the nation’s highest court.

Her death will likely spark political battle over who will take her spot, placing the Supreme Court vacancy front and center in the presidential campaign.

With the future unknown, here’s a look at the past: a few Supreme Court cases involving local people and Ginsburg’s decisions in them.

Can a penitentiary inmate make a federal case to sue for monetary damages over an unfair prison disciplinary hearing?

Jerry B. Balisok, a Walla Walla prison inmate, was found guilty of violating prison rules, resulting in the loss of 30 days of “good time” credit he had earned toward an early release. But Balisok said the procedures used in his disciplinary hearing violated his right to due process. He asked the court if he could sue for monetary damages over procedures used to deprive them of good time.

“He’s saying, ‘I’m not arguing that I’m entitled to that good time. All I’m saying is I want a fair procedure,’ ” Ginsburg said prior to the court’s decision.

Ultimately, the court ruled in 1997 unanimously. No, Balisok could not invoke the federal law to sue.

A Gonzaga case: Can a student sue a private university to enforce provisions of a federal privacy law?

A student at Gonzaga University, known as Doe, planned to become a public elementary school teacher in Washington, which required new teachers to offer an affidavit of good moral character from their graduating colleges. Gonzaga’s teacher-certification specialist overheard a student saying Doe had engaged in sexual misconduct, contacted the state agency responsible for teacher certification and talked about the allegations against Doe.

Ultimately, the student was told that he would not receive his certification affidavit. The student sued Gonzaga, alleging a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which states that schools can’t receive federal funding if they release students’ education records without their parents’ written consent.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a student cannot sue a private university for damages to enforce provisions of the act. Ginsburg was one of two justices who disagreed .

Justice John Paul Stevens and Ginsburg dissented in 2002, arguing that the court’s opinion “may be read as accepting the proposition that FERPA does indeed create both parental rights of access to student records and student rights of privacy in such records, but that those federal rights are of a lesser value because Congress did not intend them to be enforceable by their owners.”

Can an Idaho couple challenge the EPA in court after being ordered to halt construction on their home?

The U.S. Supreme Court sided unanimously with Mike and Chantell Sackett, who objected to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order that blocked construction of their home near Priest Lake and threatened fines of more than $30,000 a day.

The EPA argued part of the property was a wetland that could not be disturbed without a permit. The property sat undisturbed for five years between when the EPA ordered a halt to the work in 2007 and the 2012 court decision.

The EPA argued that allowing property owners to quickly contest its orders in court would compromise the agency’s ability to prevent water pollution. Property-rights advocates and businesses supporting the Sacketts had hoped for a broader ruling undercutting the EPA’s authority.

“This has put us through a nightmare that no one should ever have to go through in this country,” Mike Sackett said at the time. “It’s a big step … so that we can get on with our life.”

Ginsburg said in a separate opinion that the only issue decided by the court was the Sacketts’ ability to contest the EPA finding. The court did not decide larger issues, Ginsburg said.

“On that understanding, I join the court’s opinion,” she said.

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