Should Buying Bath Salts Land You in Jail? Four Cases the Supreme Court Will Hear in April

Tiffany Bates / Elizabeth Slattery /

The Supreme Court justices will be hard at work churning out decisions through the end of June, but April brings to a close oral arguments for the 2014-2015 term. Over the next two weeks, the justices will hear oral arguments in seven cases, including cases involving criminal law, overregulation, same-sex marriage and the death penalty.

1. McFadden v. United States: Bath & Body Works enthusiasts take note: Buying or selling bath salts could land you in prison. Stephen McFadden ran an online business selling overstocked goods from bulk suppliers, and he added to his inventory bath salts that could be burned and used for aromatherapy. Federal law criminalizes “knowingly or intentionally” selling a “controlled substance” or an analogue (knock-off) that has a “substantially similar” chemical structure and effect to a controlled substance.

It turns out that bath salts can have similar effects to cocaine and methamphetamine if ingested, and McFadden was convicted of distributing a controlled substance analogue. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the government didn’t prove that he knew the bath salts were substantially similar to illegal drugs.

The government recorded phone calls between McFadden and a Drug Enforcement Administration informant in which McFadden compared the effect of his bath salts to illegal drugs. Is that enough? The Supreme Court will decide soon.

2. Horne v. United States Department of Agriculture: Under a New Deal era marketing order intended to maintain profits for domestic raisin producers, farmers are required to sell their raisin crops to raisin handlers. Handlers then remove a portion of the crop from the market for the federal government to destroy or sell overseas at bargain barrel prices, and the government sets the compensation price that the producers are to be paid for the surrendered raisins.

The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause requires that the government pay “just compensation” when it “physically takes possession of an interest in property.” For 2002-2003, the government set the compensation price for raisins below the cost of production and required the farmers to hand over 47 percent of their crop; in 2003-2004, the government set the price at zero dollars for 30 percent.

At that point, California raisin farmers Marvin and Laura Horne challenged the scheme. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Hornes, holding that the takings rule only applies to real property (e.g., the Hornes’ farm), but not personal property (e.g., the Hornes’ raisins). This is the Hornes’ second trip to the Supreme Court. In 2013, the justices held that the Hornes had standing to sue the government, and now the Court will evaluate whether the government’s raisin scheme violates the Constitution.

3. Obergefell v. Hodges: Does the Constitution require states to license same-sex marriages? Must states recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in another state? Since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s federal definition of marriage, traditional marriage laws and constitutional amendments have fallen across the country.

Same-sex couples in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee challenged the states’ definition of marriage and refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, claiming this violates their rights under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Last November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit became the first federal appellate court to uphold traditional marriage laws, ruling that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage and the issue should be left to the customary political process. It’s one of the biggest legal showdowns of the year, and the justices will hear two and a half hours of extended oral argument.

 4. Glossip v. Gross: Since 2011, the European Union has banned exporting sodium thiopental and several other barbiturates used for lethal injection. Amid this drug shortage, some states have experimented with other legal injection drug protocols. But following a string of botched executions, states’ use of lethal injection has come under increased scrutiny.

Oklahoma administers three drugs when carrying out the death penalty, the first of which (midazolam) is a sedative meant to prevent substantial pain caused by the other drugs. Several Oklahoma death-row inmates claim the state’s use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” because the drug is not a reliable sedative.

Oklahoma claims, and the lower courts agreed, that because it uses such a high dosage of midazolam, it is a “virtual certainty” that its use would render a person unconscious. Oklahoma maintains that midazolam is “the most humane form of execution available.”  In Baze v. Rees (2008), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Eighth Amendment neither prohibits capital punishment nor “demand[s] the avoidance of all risk of pain.”

However the Supreme Court rules, this won’t be the last you hear about the death penalty. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear several death penalty cases next term.

Check out the other big cases of this term.