Supreme Court Concerned: When Is Too Little Not Enough?

Supreme Court Concerned: When Is Too Little Not Enough?
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( – Every once in a while, the Supreme Court hears a case with the potential to change everything. Typically known as “landmark” cases, these proceedings have a long-standing effect on the application of a legal principle, procedure, or law concerning individual rights and freedoms.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in such a case on January 12, 2021. That case, Uzuegbunam v. Georgia Gwinnett College deals with the limits on the free exercise of religion placed on a former student of the college named Chike Uzuegbunam.

Background of the Case

Uzuegbunam faced disciplinary action for passing out religious literature on campus and filed a lawsuit in 2016. He petitioned the court to rule the school’s speech code unconstitutional and bar it from interfering with his rights in the future.

However, the college updated its campus speech code, and Uzuegbunam had graduated by the time the case reached the Supreme Court. His lawyers are now seeking nominal damages, a mechanism allowing an award of a trivial amount of money to a plaintiff who cannot establish any loss or damages.

Nominal damages typically amount to a single dollar but force respondents to admit they violated an individual’s protected rights or liberties.

The Relevance of the Case

The greater issue at stake, in this case, involves a legal principle called stare decisis. Latin for “to stand by things decided,” it means courts are typically bound by precedent.

However, in this instance, Justice Clarence Thomas appears to want to set aside stare decisis and eliminate cases involving nominal damages. During oral arguments, he asserted that the courts should spend their time on “real and substantial” damages to plaintiffs and not listen to lawyers debate over one dollar.

Representing the other side of the debate, Justice Neil Gorsuch — a recent Trump appointee — argued that numerous petitions involving religious liberty fall into the category of nominal damage cases. This is because plaintiffs either cannot establish monetary losses or refuse to accept compensation.

Gorsuch makes a compelling case for the need to preserve stare decisis for cases involving nominal damages, at least when it comes to the free exercise of religion. The court is expected to rule on the case later this year. We will keep you updated.

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