Category Archives: Supreme Court Action

Does the shape of the Supreme Court’s bench affect oral argument?

In Chief Justice Burger and the Bench: How Physically Changing the Shape of the Court’s Bench Reduced Interruptions during Oral Argument, ___ Journal of Supreme Court History ___ (Mar. 2018), Ryan Black, Timothy Johnson and Ryan Owen report on their empiricial study which concludes that the change from a straight bench to a curved bench improved oral arguments because justices were less likely to interrupt each other. — Joe

Claims of neutrality in SCOTUS confirmation hearings have negative effects on the legitimacy of the Court as an institution

Here’s the abstract for Carolyn Shapiro’s The Language of Neutrality in Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings, Dickinson Law Review, Forthcoming:

At Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, then-Judge Gorsuch repeatedly insisted that judging involves no more than examining the legal materials — like statutes and precedents — and applying them to the facts of the case. There is, he emphasized, no room for a Justice’s “personal views,” and he refused even to state his agreement (or disagreement) with such iconic cases as Loving v. Virginia and Griswold v. Connecticut. Instead, then-Judge Gorsuch reiterated only that they were precedents of the Court and thus entitled to respect. Frustrating as his answers may have been to some Senators, however, they differed from answers given by other recent nominees largely in degree and tone, not in kind. Indeed, all four most recent nominees before Gorsuch — but especially Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor — made similar claims, of which Roberts’s invocation of the neutral umpire is only the most famous.

Such forceful claims of neutrality and their attendant implication that there are necessarily right and wrong answers to difficult legal questions — answers that can be determined through deductive reasoning or by examining legal texts through the right lens — are not new, but their role and prominence in Supreme Court confirmation hearings have changed over the years. Using both qualitative and quantitative analysis, including empirical research on confirmation hearings already reported, this Article charts the history of such discussions in Supreme Court confirmation hearings from Justice Harlan’s hearing in 1955 through Justice Gorsuch’s hearing in 2017 — the period of time during which all nominees have been expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. More specifically, the Article focuses on the extent to which nominees and Senators have claimed that there are objectively correct answers to the hard questions faced by the Supreme Court or, alternatively, have acknowledged and discussed the reality that textual and historical sources often do not provide clear answers and that Supreme Court Justices must balance competing interests, precedents, and constitutional principles and apply constitutional provisions and doctrines in new and complex factual circumstances.

Specifically, the Article establishes that during the Warren court years, claims of objectivity were often made by conservative Senators, with relatively little discussion of alternative views of judging by either Senators or nominees. By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, Senators and nominees were having surprisingly candid conversations about the role of the Supreme Court, conversations that acknowledged the importance of judgment and judicial philosophy in resolving many difficult constitutional questions. Since 2000, however, nominees have largely eschewed such discussions and, along with Republican Senators, have embraced claims of objectivity and neutrality.

As the Article demonstrates, however, such claims about the Court and its work are highly inaccurate, and they may have negative effects on the legitimacy of the Court as an institution. After all, when the Court announces its decisions in difficult cases, members of the public can plainly see that different Justices both approach those cases differently and often disagree about the result in predictable ways. News media regularly refer to the “liberal” and “conservative” Justices. So there is a significant disconnect between the claims made during confirmation hearings and the actions the Justices take — and research suggests that such a disconnect can undermine public confidence in the institution. The Article closes by proposing that Senators use their questions during confirmation hearings to combat the myth that judging, especially on the Supreme Court, is necessarily about reaching objectively correct, logically deducible conclusions.

— Joe

Judicial activity increasing dramatically according to empirical inquiry of Supreme Court oral arguments

The New Oral Argument: Justices as Advocates, 94 Notre Dame Law Review ___ (2019) by Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag “conducts a comprehensive empirical inquiry of 55 years of Supreme Court oral argument, showing that judicial activity has increased dramatically, in terms of words used, duration of speech, interruptions made, and comments proffered. The Court is asking no more questions of advocates; instead, the justices are providing conclusions and rebutting their colleagues. In addition, the justices direct more of their comments and questions to the side with whom they ultimately disagree. Furthermore, “losing” justices, be it ideological camps that are outnumbered on the Court or dissenters in specific cases, use oral arguments to push back against the dominant group, reasserting an opposing narrative through oral argument. These forms of judicial behavior constitute advocacy, rather than judging. These are not trends that have gradually emerged over time: rather, we predict and establish that oral arguments changed dramatically in 1995, in response to the rapidly growing political polarization in Congress and the public at large. Partisan division, anger at political opponents, and disappearing middle ground all affect not only political players, but shape how Supreme Court justices behave at oral argument, the one public part of the Court’s decision-making process.” — Joe

Justices Thomas and Sotomayor debate legislative history in dueling concurrences

A unanimous Supreme Court struck a blow for the plain reading of the law last week in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers (No. 16-1276, Feb. 21, 2018) but a pair of dueling concurrences deserve broader attention for what they say about the different methods of legal interpretation on the High Court today. At issue — legislative history. On The Volokh Conspiracy, see Justices Thomas and Sotomayor Debate Legislative History. — Joe

SCOTUS Notes transcribes notes written by Supreme Court justices during conference meetings

SCOTUS Notes is the newest crowdsourcing project under the Zooniverse platform originated at the University of Minnesota. “In this project, members of the public transcribe handwritten notes from U.S. Supreme Court justices. Unlike members of Congress, justices cast their votes in complete privacy during weekly conference meetings. Only justices are allowed in the Chief Justice’s conference room when they discuss, deliberate, and make initial decisions on cases that focus on some of the nation’s most pressing legal issues. The only record of what has been said, and by whom, is provided by the handwritten personal notes the justices themselves take during conference. These crucial documents detail the discussions and debates that took place in thousands of cases spanning multiple decades.”

The project is seeking volunteers. Interesting. H/T to beSpacific. — Joe

ProPublica spots factual errors in very limited sample of SCOTUS opinions

“ProPublica found seven errors in a modest sampling of Supreme Court opinions written from 2011 through 2015. In some cases, the errors were introduced by individual justices apparently doing their own research. In others, the errors resulted from false or deeply flawed submissions made to the court by people or organizations seeking to persuade the justices to rule one way or the other.” It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find. Interesting.

H/T beSpacific. — Joe

Supreme Court website redesigned

Take a peak here. On SCOTUSblog, Andrew Hamm writes:

The court’s Public Information Office boasts that the site update includes “a more consistent menu structure, a more interactive calendar, faster access through Quick Links, improved page load times, and reduced page scrolling.” For example, instead of indicating only that the court will hear oral argument on a given day, the updated calendar provides case names for each argument day, with links to the docket entries and the questions at issue in each case.

The homepage also provides access to transcripts, audio and other case information.

Judging from the Twitter reactions of multiple Supreme Court practitioners and commentators, the most appealing element of the update – what John Elwood called a “tantalizing glimpse” – may be the light at the end of this newly-opened tunnel. According to the PIO, “the improvements will better support future digitization and the addition of electronic filing, and will enhance mobile access to information on the site.”

— Joe

What books did SCOTUS justices cite last term?

In Foreword: The Books of Justices, 115 Mich. L. Rev. 733 (2017), Linda Greehouse reports on the results of her study of SCOTUS justices’ practice of citing “books” during the 2015-16 Supreme Court term: “For this Michigan Law Review issue devoted to recently published books about law, I thought it would be interesting to see what books made an appearance in the past year’s work of the Supreme Court. I catalogued every citation to every book in those forty opinions in order to see what patterns emerged: what books the justices cited, which justices cited which books, and what use they made of the citations.”

Here is a capsule view of her findings:

Categories of Books Cited

Treatises and practice manuals 51 times cited
Primary sources, historical 27 times
History and political science 17 times
Law 16 times
Dictionaries 7 times
Restatements 6 times
Literature 5 times
Primary sources, modern 3 times cited

— Joe

SCOTUS vacates and remands decision on IDEA educational standards by SCOTUS nominee during Senate confirmation hearings

I believe this is a first. From SCOTUSblog’s Thursday round-up by Edith Roberts:

In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a unanimous court ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires a school to offer an “individualized education program” reasonably calculated to allow the student to progress in the child’s circumstances. Coverage of the decision comes from Emma Brown and Ann Marimow in The Washington Post, who report that the court “raised the bar for the educational benefits owed to millions of children with disabilities in one of the most significant special-education cases to reach the high court in decades.” In The Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin reports that although “the specific decision overruled was decided in 2015, the phrase the justices rejected derives from a 2008 ruling by Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who had been defending that very decision at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing when word of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion reached the Hart Senate Office Building.

NPR reports “[w]hen questioned on his record, in light of this new ruling, during his hearing today by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, [Judge Gorsuch] said ‘I was wrong, senator, because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I’m sorry.'” — Joe

SCOTUS Style Manual available for purchase

In Supreme Court’s Style Manual is Private No More, Tony Mauro reports that the US Supreme Court Style Guide, 2013 ed. can be purchased through Amazon without Court approval because a court aficionado named Jack Metzler is making it available for sale under his own imprint. Metzler reportedly photocopied the 200+ page long manual in the Supreme Court’s law library. The style manual “could be an important resource for brief-writing advocates as well as judges and clerks of other courts seeking to match the sometimes quirky style rules of the nation’s highest court,” writes Mauro. — Joe

Justice Scalia

The fact that Justice Scalia passed away over the weekend from natural causes is, of course, all over the news.  There are any number of articles speculating on how nominating a successor would affect the coming presidential election; who are the potential nominees; how this changes the ideological make-up of the Court, and so one.  All are worthy questions for speculation.  I’d like to highlight what this event means for coming decisions.  The Court has had a certain stability despite the two appointments resulting in the confirmation of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.  As a side note on that, check out the CNN story by David Axelrod where Justice Scalia quietly expressed a preference for Elena Kagan to replace Justice Souter.  He got his wish when Justice Stevens retired.

Court watchers were always interested in Justice Scalia’s questions in oral argument given the Court’s ideological split, mostly 4-4 with Justice Kennedy in the middle.  While he was identified as a conservative, he didn’t always side with a conservative point of view.  I remember that he was fairly protective of the Fourth Amendment (See U.S. v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012) as an example) when the trend in Federal Courts seemed to find plenty of exceptions in its prohibitions).  Justice Scalia’s questions were as much a clue to his influence on the resulting decision as it was a bit of theater.  He certainly seemed to enjoy the intellectual banter with those presenting arguments.  CNN has another article listing six cases the site highlights as more significant cases than others.  How the Court will handle these and other issues will send Court watchers back to re-analyze the arguments.

The cases that concerns me is the potential appeal of the Google Books case and the Apple antitrust case, both affirmed by the Second Circuit.  The Authors Guild has filed a petition for cert which is pending.  Apple has yet to file its petition but has indicated that it intends to do so.  Justice Scalia will not be a participant in the case whether the Court accepts the cases or hears them.  These cases may stand if the Court splits 4-4 on the issues.  If it makes any difference, Justice Scalia joined Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in the Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. first sale doctrine case.

I have a minor personal story about Justice Scalia.  He came to DePaul several years ago and spoke to the faculty in our Rare Book Room.  Security was exceptionally tight.  I believe it was the first time ever I had to show multiple IDs just to get into the building.  I was sitting at the Reference Desk when the Justice was shuttled up to his engagement via the service elevator.  That was less than 100 feet from where I was sitting.  That is effectively the closest I will likely get to a member of the Court.  It was amusing to have security watch me while I answered the occasional reference question.

I have written pointed things about Justice Scalia in the past.  I’ll remember him as the Justice who rejected legislative history in all possible forms as a vehicle for interpreting statutes.  He did not join all of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Kirtsaeng.  He skipped every section that mentioned legislative history, even if appearing only in a footnote.  His attention to original intent had him questioning whether the King could hide a sentry in a coach as an analogy to whether the government could place a tracker on a defendant’s car in some circumstances.  That’s from the Jones case mentioned above.

Goodbye Justice Scalia.  You were larger than life on the Court.  While you will be replaced, there will never be a Justice exactly like you.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Habeas Corpus and Apply the Federal Arbitration Act to State Proceedings

The Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning.  The first is a habeas corpus case where the underlying issue is where a juror was struck for cause due to ambiguous statements made about applying the death penalty during the voir dire.  That case is White v. Wheeler (14-1372).  Wheeler was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death in Kentucky.  One juror, identified as Juror 638, responded to questions about his ability to impose the death as a sentencing option with answers that went back and forth.  The opinion describes these statements:

In response to the judge’s questions about his personal beliefs on the death penalty, Juror 638 said, “I’m not sure that I have formed an opinion one way or the other. I believe there are arguments on both sides of the—of it.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 126a. When asked by the prosecution about his ability to consider all available penalties, Juror 638 noted he had “never been confronted with that situation in a, in a real-life sense of having to make that kind of determination.” Id., at 131a. “So it’s difficult for me,” he explained, “to judge how I would I guess act, uh.” Ibid. The prosecution sought to clarify Juror 638’s answer, asking if the juror meant he was “not absolutely certain whether [he] could realistically consider” the death penalty. Id., at 132a. Juror 638 replied, “I think that would be the most accurate way I could answer your question.” Ibid. During defense counsel’s examination, Juror 638 described himself as “a bit more contemplative on the issue of taking a life and, uh, whether or not we have the right to take that life.” Id., at 133a. Later, however, he expressed his belief that he could consider all the penalty options. Id., at 134a.

The judge considered the prosecution’s motion to strike and, after reviewing the juror’s statements, granted the motion.  The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld Wheeler’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal.  Wheeler filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court.  The District Court dismissed but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted the petition.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It emphasized the deferential approach to state courts required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) unless the decision was contrary to federal law as decided by the Supreme Court.  The Court reviewed its precedents and concluded that under the deference requirement the Sixth Circuit erred in granting the petition.  The Court issued the opinion per curiam.  There were no dissents.

The second case involved the application of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) as controlling over state law.  Readers may remember that the Court enforced an arbitration clause in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, awhile back.  That case came out of federal court where the Ninth Circuit enforced precedent (the Discover Bank case) that made waivers of class action suits unenforceable. The Court instead said the FAA preempted state law to the contrary and enforced the arbitration clause.

The present case, DIRECTV, INC. v.  Imburgia (14-462), concerns a variation of the Concepcion holding.  DIRECTV was sued in state court by individuals believing early termination fees violated California law.  The arbitration clause included in DIRECTV contracts limited dispute resolution to arbitration with a provision that waived class arbitration.  There was another provision stating that if “law of your state” makes the class arbitration waiver unenforceable then the entire arbitration clause was void.  The California trial court denied a request to send the matter to binding arbitration.  The California Court of Appeals agreed citing Discover Bank.

The Supreme Court essentially ruled that “law of your state” did not include state law that was invalid under federal law.  The Court cited multiple reasons for this conclusion, reasoning that in other circumstances courts would not rely on invalid state law in making decisions.   The “law” in this case includes the ruling in Concepcion which nullified the application of Discover Bank.  The Court made it pretty clear that there was no way of getting around the Concepcion ruling.  Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Kagan.  Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas believes that the FAA does not apply to proceedings in state court.  Justice Ginsburg would read the entire contract as benefitting the consumer rather than corporate drafters.  He expresses similar views as to Justice Thomas but with a little more depth.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Convening Three-Judge Panels in Gerrymandering Cases

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  The case is Shapiro v. McManus (14-990).  Petitioners in this case challenged the constitutionality of Maryland’s congressional apportionment map under First Amendment/Freedom of Associations grounds.  They gave the District Judge a petition to convene a three-judge court to hear the matter.  28 U.S.C. §2284(a) states that when this type of lawsuit is filed and the judge is presented with a petition a three-judge court to hear the matter, the judge shall notify the chief judge of the Circuit who shall designate two other judges to serve on the panel.

The statute contains one qualification: “unless he determines that three judges are not required.”  The District Judge in this case decided that three judges were not required as he did not believe any relief was available to the petitioners in that they were free to join with others to express a political opinion.  Rather than notifying the Chief Judge, he dismissed the case.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion.

The Supreme Court reversed.  The Court stated that the statute is written in mandatory terms.  The only discretion the Judge has when presented with a petition for a three-judge panel is analyzing whether the parties properly belong in federal court, not whether the plaintiff’s case has any merit.  The petitioner’s claims clears the bar for jurisdiction.  The petitioner’s claims may or may not have merit, but they are entitled to a hearing before a three-judge court under the statute.  Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Suits Against Foreign Entities and the FSIA

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  The case is OBB Personenverkehr v. Sachs (13-1067).   The case involves a gruesome and unfortunate accident that befell Sachs as she attempted to board a train in Innsbruck, Austria. She fell on the tracks and before she could recover a moving train crushed her legs necessitating the amputation of both above the knee.  The train was operated by OBB which the parties agree is an instrumentality of Austria.  Sachs sued OBB in the Northern District of California for her injuries and alleged that jurisdiction was proper under the commercial activities exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.  One month before her accident she purchased a Eurail pass via the Internet from The Rail Pass Experts, a Massachusetts-based travel agent.  This was the only activity related to OBB that took place in the United States.

Sachs made five claims:

Sachs sued OBB in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, asserting five causes of action: (1) negligence; (2) strict liability for design defects in the train and platform; (3) strict liability for failure to warn of those design defects; (4) breach of an implied warranty of merchantability for providing a train and platform unsafe for their intended uses; and (5) breach of an implied warranty of fitness for providing a train and platform unfit for their intended uses.

The District Court dismissed the case stating that her claims did not fall within the commercial exception located at 28 U.S.C. §1605(a)(2).  A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  A rehearing en banc reversed the divided panel and said the sale of the ticket fell within the exception.  The Supreme Court reversed concluding that the sale of the ticket in the United States was too remote from the elements of Sachs’ claims to fall within the exception.

The Court’s analysis turned on whether the commercial activity was directly related to injuries she claimed in her complaint.  The Court said there was nothing wrongful about the sale of the ticket that could be the basis of a suit that survives the FSIA.  Otherwise, the Court stated, many more suits could be filed against sovereigns using creative pleading.  The Court rejected other arguments as well as they were raised for the first time in the Supreme Court hearing.  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Qualified Immunity When Deadly Force is Used By Officers During A Car Chase

The Supreme Court issued one opinion today.  The case, Mullenix v. Luna (14-1143), decided whether a Texas state trooper (Mullenix) was entitled to qualified immunity when he fired shots at a suspect’s car during a high speed chase, killing the suspect.  The Court’s restatement of the facts show that Israel Leija, Jr. resisted an attempt to arrest him and fled in his car.  Another officer, Sergeant Randy Baker, pursued Leija in a chase reaching speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour.  Other officers joined the pursuit.  Leija called local police dispatchers twice and informed them that he was armed and would shoot officers if the chase was not called off.  This information was relayed to the pursuing officers along with information that Leija may be intoxicated.

Some officers set up road spikes at a location Leija was expected to pass.  Mullenix intended to set up spikes as well but decided he might disable the car by shooting at it.  He radioed his decision to his supervisor, Sergeant Byrd, who said to stand by and see if the spikes worked first.  Mullenix was joined by  Officer Shipman and they discussed Mullenix’ plan to shoot at the car.  Leija approached and Mullenix fired six shots.  Leija’s car hit the spikes and rolled over two and a half times.  Four of six shots Mullenix fired hit Leija in the upper body and killed him.  There was no evidence that any of the bullets hit any portion of the car that could have disabled it.

Leija’s family sued Mullenix on civil rights violations, specifically that Leija’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  Mullenix filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.  The district court denied the motion and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.  The Fifth Circuit withdrew its first opinion but substantially upheld the denial in a second opinion.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It stated the standard for applying qualified immunity is whether the conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The Court explained that lower courts should not apply the standard in a general sense and that the application is fact dependent.  The Court noted there were only two prior cases where it ruled on excessive/deadly force involving car chases.  In those two:

The Court has thus never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity.

Further, lower court cases decided subsequently have not established that the use of force in situations similar to the present case is inappropriate.  The mere fact that other courts have found the level of force appropriate in more extreme cases does not render the use inappropriate here.

The Court issued the case as a per curiam opinion.  Justice Scalia concurred in the judgment.  Justice Sotomayor dissented.

Mark

 

End of Supreme Court Term Is Not The End of Controversy

I never got a chance to write about the end of the Supreme Court term.  Different commentators have called the term “historic.”  Given the major decisions at the end of term

and a few others, this term provided more controversy than previous terms.  The dissents were fast and furious, with emphasis on the furious.

Justice Scalia observed in the King case:

Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.

And that was one of the nicer passages.  He concluded with:

Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence. And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.

Justice Scalia called the Court a threat to democracy in his dissent in the Obergefell case.  He further stated:

Those civil consequences—and the public approval that conferring the name of marriage evidences—can perhaps have adverse social effects, but no more adverse than the effects of many other controversial laws. So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact—and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent in the Arizona redistricting case:

The ballot initiative in this case, unlike those that the Court has previously treated so dismissively, was unusually democracy reducing. It did not ask the people to approve a particular redistricting plan through direct democracy, but instead to take districting away from the people’s representatives and give it to an unelected committee, thereby reducing democratic control over the process in the future. The Court’s characterization of this as direct democracy at its best is rather like praising a plebiscite in a “banana republic” that installs a strongman as President for Life. And wrapping the analysis in a cloak of federalism does little to conceal the flaws in the Court’s reasoning.

It’s almost as if the two Justices took personal offence at the outcome of each case.

There is no doubt that several of the cases the Court decided were highly charged political issues where the outcome did not end the debate.  Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was very displeased with the same-sex marriage decision.  The Oklahoma legislature is doing its best to opt out of Obamacare despite the ruling in King.

The Court, in theory, never acts politically—in theory. There are multiple stories suggesting that the Chief Justice is solidifying his legacy with successive rulings upholding the ACA.  Gallup reports that the reaction to the Court is dramatically split over political lines. The Court’s job approval rating by Republicans is 18%.  Democrats, on the other hand, give the Court a 76% rating.  Further polls show that support for same-sex marriage is stable after the Obergefell decision with 58% of the population in support.  A majority of Democrats support same-sex marriage at 74% while Republicans are opposed at 67%.  Politics and society have become more and more polarized over the years where it seems to be the norm at this point.  I personally regret that this is creeping into the Supreme Court.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Patents, Fourth Amendment, Excessive Force Claims, and the Takings Clause

The Supreme Court issued four opinions this morning.  I’m guessing the same-sex marriage case and the Obamacare case will be decided on June 29th, which appears to be the last day of the term.  Today’s cases, while not having the social impact, are interesting nonetheless.

The first case is Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment LLC (13-720).  Kimble entered into a contract with Marvel (the pre-Disney owned Marvel) where Marvel would buy Kimble’s patent on a Spiderman for a lump sum and a 3% royalty on each toy sold.  Sometime near the end of the 20-year patent term Marvel’s spidey sense began to tingle and the company discovered the case of Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U.S. 29 (1964 ).  That case held that a patent holder could not charge royalties once the patent had expired.  Marvel sued for and won a declaratory judgment that royalty payments would cease once the patent expired.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court upheld Brulotte and affirmed the lower court decisions on the basis of stare decisis.  The Court said that relief from the rule rests with Congress and not the Court.  It also suggested that the royalty contract could be structured in other ways to spread the payments beyond the expiration of the patent.  Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas.  The dissent argued that the Court made up the Brulotte rule when the case was decided (wrongly, in its view) and could just as easily get rid of it as there is nothing in the patent laws that direct that result.

The second case is Los Angeles v. Patel (13-1175).  The City of Los Angeles has an ordinance that requires hotel operators to record specific detailed information about their guests.  The ordinance also requires that the records “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” provided that “[w]henever possible, the inspection shall be conducted at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.”  A group of motel owners sued on the basis that the statute was facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment as it afforded no opportunity to challenge the inspection beforehand.  The District Court held for the City ruling that the owners had no privacy interest in the records.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed but then reversed en banc.

The Court held that a facial challenge to the ordinance can be made.  Even though the “search” in this case is administrative, it is still unconstitutional as it does not allow pre-compliance review before a neutral party.  Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Thomas.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Thomas.  The dissents argue essentially that the challenge should fail as the Court decides whether the application of a law is unconstitutional rather than the text of the law in and of itself.

The third case is Kingsley v. Hendrickson (13-6368).  Kingsley was a prisoner awaiting trial when he became uncooperative in his cell.  On one occasion he refused an order to leave his cell and was forcibly removed.  He was handcuffed and stunned with a Taser.  He also alleged officers slammed his head into a concrete bunk.  He filed a §1983 suit.  The trial court issued jury instructions calling for a subjective standard to decide liability.  The jury found for the officers.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed in a divided panel.

The Supreme Court reversed holding that the correct standard was an objective unreasonableness standard in deciding an excessive force claim.  The Court stated that it was consistent with precedent, it is the standard in the pattern jury instructions, officers are trained to a standard, and based on circumstances, the officers may be justified in their actions and given some form of immunity.  Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Thomas.  Justice Alito filed a separate dissent. Justice Scalia argues that “any intentional application of force that is objectively unreasonable in degree is a use of excessive force that “amount[s] to punishment.””  Justice Alito would dismiss the appeal as other questions need to be answered in the case first.

The fourth case has been to the Court before on procedural issues over jurisdiction.  The Court today decides the substantive issue in the case of Horne v. Department of Agriculture (14-275).  The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 lets the Secretary of Agriculture create marketing orders to maintain stable markets.  Horne and his family grow raisins and acts as a handler for other growers by buying their crop and marketing them.  The marketing order establishes the Raisin Administrative Committee.  The Committee imposes a 47% reserve allowing that portion of the crop to be given to the government to sell in noncompetitive markets, give away, or otherwise dispose of.  Any profits after expenses are returned to the grower.

Horne refused to turn over raisins to the government.  He was fined the fair market value of the withheld crop and other civil penalties.  He ultimately sued the government alleging that the program violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that this was not a per se taking as personal property is afforded less protection than real property.  That court also stated that the Hornes could avoid the problem by growing different crops.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Fifth Amendment applies equally to personal property as to real property, requiring just compensation from the government.  The history of the Fifth Amendment justifies this.  The Committee’s taking of the 47% of the crop is clearly a taking and the net profits are not just compensation.  The Hornes are not required to pay the fine and then seek its return in other proceedings.  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined the opinion as to Parts I and II.  Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion.  Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part and was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.  Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Breyer would remand the case to determine if any money was due to the Hornes after the accounting.  Justice Sotomayor argues that precedent relied on by the Court does not make the circumstances a per se taking.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: License Plates and a Host of Others

The Supreme Court issued six opinions yesterday.  The most controversial is the Texas specialty license plate case, Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (14-144).  The facts are straightforward.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans applied for a vanity plate that featured the organization and included a confederate flag.  A Google image search of [sons of confederate veterans license plate] will bring up ample amounts of results showing the design.  It is also appended to the end of the majority opinion.  Interestingly, it appears that other states have issued plates with the design.  Texas, however, said no to the confederate flag.  The SCV naturally sued.  The federal district court upheld the denial and the Fifth Circuit reversed.

The issue concerned whether plate design was government speech or private speech.  If it was the former, Texas had the right to control its own governmental message appearing on its license plates.  If it was private speech, the First Amendment would prohibit government from censoring the message.  The majority ruled that Texas had the right to refuse the design as it was characterized as government speech.  The Court based this holding mostly on the prior case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460 (2009).  In Summum, the Court rejected a private organization’s attempt to place a religious monument in a city park where other privately erected monuments already existed on the basis that the government could control its own message.  The nature of the park did not turn it into a private forum.  The Court analogized the park setting with that of vanity license plates.

The Court’s opinion was delivered by Justice Breyer and he was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Kennedy.  The dissent argues that the Summum case is distinguishable and that the majority passes off government speech with private speech.

The other cases involve subjecting the mentally handicapped to the death penalty, Brumfield v. Cain (13-1433, (the defendant has a right to prove he is mentally handicapped); introduction of statements made earlier by a 3-year old child about abuse does not violate the confrontation clause, Ohio v. Clark (13-1352); whether the state has to prove intent and knowledge when a defendant is charged with selling drug analogues appearing on schedules from the Controlled Substances Act (it does), McFadden v. United States (14-387); and whether a church can be fined for not removing temporary directional signs in time limits contained in its sign code (it can’t in that the applicable code was not content neutral), Reed v. Town of Gilbert (13-502).

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Recognition of A Foreign Sovereign and Executive Powers, and a Little Legal Research Lesson

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  That case, Zivotosky v. Kerry (13-628), resolves a long standing court battle on whether a U.S. passport issued to a citizen born in Jerusalem can state the country of birth as Israel.  The current administration, as well as every previous administration since the United States recognition of Israel in 1948, has declared that Jerusalem is not under the control of any one country.  The Foreign Affairs Manual requires that passports recording of birth location be consistent with administration policy.

Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003 in 2002.  Section 214 of the Act is titled “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel.”  Congress explicitly authorized passports to state the country of birth as Israel for those U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem.   Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem in 2002 and his parents requested his country of birth be listed as Jerusalem.  Consular officials declined the request, setting up the present suit.

There is a long history of this case proceeding up and down the federal court system.  The Supreme Court issued a procedural opinion in 2012 (Zivotofsky v. Clinton) ruling essentially that the federal courts could decide the question.  Three years later the Court rules on the substantive issue, stating that the Act is unconstitutional.  The rationale for this is an analysis of constitutional language,  historical practice, and past precedent touching on presidential power to conduct foreign relations.  The Court acknowledges that Congress can pass legislation that can regulate passports in some circumstances.  Congress, cannot, however, pass legislation that affects the power of the President to recognize (or not) foreign sovereigns.  This Act falls into that latter category.

What struck me most about the opinion is the number of historical secondary sources cited by the Court.  It’s almost a lesson in legal research.  Some of the sources include:

  • Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law of the United States §203, Comment a, p. 84 (1986)
  •  2 M. Whiteman, Digest of International Law §1, p. 1 (1963)
  • 1 J. Moore, Digest of International Law §27, p. 73 (1906)
  • I. Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law 93 (7th ed. 2008) (Brownlie)
  • The Federalist No. 69, p. 420 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961)
  • E. de Vattel, The Law of Nations §78, p. 461 (1758) (J. Chitty ed. 1853)
  • 2 C. van Bynkershoek, On Questions of Public Law 156–157 (1737) (T. Frank ed. 1930)
  •  2 H. Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace 440–441 (1625) (F. Kelsey ed. 1925)
  • 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1560, p. 416 (1833)

There are more.  I point this out as someone who has taught Advanced Legal Research, emphasizing that researching international and constitutional law issues requires attention to historical literature.  There is more to interpretation than the latest hornbooks.    The Court’s opinion today validates that.  The Clerks did a marvelous job in working on this case.  I’ll leave the impact of today’s decision to the commentators in the new.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion.  Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment and dissenting in part.  That makes it 6-3.  Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Alito.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.

Mark

Supreme Court Action: Limitations Period for Filing Claims Under the False Claims Act

The Supreme Court issued three opinions this morning.  I’m writing about one of them today because I’m suffering from the dreaded “first day back at work after a three day holiday blues;” that and an unexpected dental appointment this morning to fix a broken tooth.  The cases cover bankruptcy (Wellness Int’l Network, Ltd. v. Sharif (13-935)), patents (Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (13-896)), and when qui tam suits under the Federal Claims Act (FCA) may or may not be barred by a limitations provision (Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter (12-1497)).

Carter was an employee of a government contractor who provided water purification services to the government in Iraq.  The contractor, Carter claims, billed the government for services that were either performed improperly or not performed at all.  The FCA has two provisions at issue here.  One is a “first-to-file” provision that bars subsequent suits that involve the same facts or incidents.  The other is the FCA’s statute of limitations provision requiring a qui tam action must be brought within six years of a violation or within three years of the date by which the United States should have known about a violation.  There is a 10 year limitation against suits in any event.

Carter brought suit within the time allowed but was dismissed in 2010 because there was a pending suit (Thorpe) in another court on the same issue.  The court dismissed Carter’s suit without prejudice.  Carter filed a second suit when Thorpe was dismissed for failure to prosecute.  That suit was also dismissed because Carter’s appeal of the first dismissal was pending.  Carter dismissed the appeal and filed a third suit.  The district court dismissed that third suit, this time with prejudice, on the grounds that two other cases, one in Texas and one in Maryland, had already been initiated on the same facts.  The district court also ruled that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA), which suspends the Statute of Limitations for “any offense” involving fraud against the federal government, only applies to criminal cases and not Carter’s civil case.  Only one of Carter’s claims would survive the limitations clause

Carter appealed the dismissal and the Fourth Circuit held that the dismissal of the pending cases from Texas and Maryland removed the first-to-file impediment.  It also ruled that the WSLA applied to civil as well as criminal cases.  The contractors appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court spent the bulk of the opinion on the applicability of the WSLA to Carter’s case and concluded that the language, structure, and history of the statute limited it to criminal cases.  The Court then resolved the question of whether Carter’s third complaint should be dismissed with prejudice given that at least one claim would survive.  The Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit that when previous cases are dismissed without resolution that the first-to-file bar ceases.

Mark