In announcing its fall docket this week, the Supreme Court dealt with two drug-policy related cases. The court rejected without comment an appeal from Regina McKnight, a South Carolina woman convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for 12 years for using cocaine while pregnant and giving birth to a stillborn child. McKnight had challenged both the constitutionality of the law and her sentence, which she argued constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
McKnight was convicted under a unique South Carolina law that makes it a crime to cause the death of a child younger than 11 while committing abuse or neglect if the behavior constitutes "an extreme indifference to human life." Prosecutors argued that McKnight qualified because she knew using cocaine while pregnant could harm the fetus.
In a case that cuts close to the enduring debate over abortion and fetal rights, McKnight's attorneys argued unsuccessfully that no court had convicted a woman under general criminal statutes for conduct that harmed her fetus. They also attempted to argue that treating her as a murderer for contributing to a stillbirth was so outside the norm as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
South Carolina is especially interested in treating drug-using pregnant women as criminals. In one widely noted case, the state prosecuted women for drug crimes based on the results of urine tests run without their consent or knowledge. That was too much for the courts, but sending Regina McKnight to prison for years was not too much for the Supreme Court.
The court will hear (in fact, it heard oral arguments this week) the case of Joel Hernandez, a Phoenix man fired from Hughes Missile Systems after 25-years after testing positive for cocaine in 1991. He later applied for a new job with Hughes (since bought up by Raytheon), but was rejected because of a company policy against rehiring anyone fired for breaking company rules.
Hernandez sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifically protects recovering and recovered alcohol and drug abusers as "disabled." But Raytheon argued that it did not discriminate against drug abusers; it simply followed a policy against rehiring people who broke company rules. The ADA "does not give drug addicts or drug users (or former drug users) a free pass; it simply expects employers to consider them without discrimination. That is exactly what Hughes did here," Raytheon argued in court documents.
A California federal court judge dismissed the case, but Hernandez appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed the case should go to trial. Raytheon in turn appealed to the Supreme Court.