Argument Review: March 26, 2018 — Access to Courts

During the last week of March, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in five cases. Two of those cases involved questions about access to courts, albeit in extremely different contexts. In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, argued on March 26, involves a challenge to a policy of shackling the arms and feet of criminal defendants during pretrial appearances in federal court, with no individualized assessment of the need for shackles. The argument did not focus on that question, however. Instead, as SCOTUSblog’s Howard M. Wasserman observed, the Court primarily addressed whether there could be immediate appellate review of this confinement policy, whether under the collateral-order doctrine (which allows appeals from interlocutory rulings) or by a writ of mandamus (an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering that official fulfill their proper duties). The government argued that the issue in the case was moot, as the criminal proceedings were over and there was no allegation that the shackling affected their results. Justice Roberts, however, observed that two of the defendants party to the case were both apprehended again and shackled in the same manner., and Justice Kagan pointed out that immigration cases where lawful reentry is at issue have “extremely high levels of recidivism.” Thus, the likelihood that criminal defendants again finds themselves shackled, per the policy, was potentially high. And during the oral argument, Justice Breyer appeared particularly sympathetic to the need for some kind of appellate review, expressing concern that “people will come in bound and gagged in body armor, hung upside down,” and not have a judicial remedy. The National Law Review recounts the oral arguments in more detail.

On the same day, the Court also heard oral argument in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh. The issue here is whether plaintiffs were barred from filing a class action complaint after the 2-year statute of limitations had run on their securities fraud claims. Normally, under American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, equitable tolling applies to the claims of individual plaintiffs after a class action has been filed, meaning that the statute of limitations stops running, or is tolled, during that time. If class certification is denied, the statute of limitations begins to run again, but a plaintiff may still bring a claim against the defendant even until it runs out. In China Agritech, the issue is whether the equitable tolling doctrine of American Pipe applies to successive class actions as well as individual claims, as the Ninth Circuit held.

During oral arguments, China Agritech, Inc. argued that the equitable tolling doctrine enunciated in American Pipe is only available to individual plaintiffs upon a showing of diligence and extraordinary circumstances. Although each named plaintiff in this particular case has shown diligence by filing their claims, the absent class members have slept on their rights until after the statute of limitations has run and therefore have not shown the necessary level of diligence.  Plaintiffs argued, on the other hand, that as long as the plaintiff brings a meritorious and timely claim as an individual matter, all Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should be available, including Rule 23, authorizing class actions. In addition, allowing a single class action rather than several individual actions promotes judicial efficiency by incentivizing people not to bring duplicative claims. In addition, the class action allows for plaintiffs with low-dollar claims to aggregate such claims and have their day in court – which is one of the stated purposes of Rule 23. Lexology discusses this week’s arguments in China Agritech, here.

In addition to China Agritech and Sanchez-Gomez, on Tuesday, March 27, the Court also heard arguments in Koons v. United States, a case concerning whether defendants subject to statutory mandatory minimum sentences, but who received sentences below the minimum because they substantially assisted the government, are eligible for additional sentence reductions.

The other two cases argued that week were Benisek v. Lamone, a partisan gerrymandering case, Hughes v. United States which addresses the legal authority of fractured decisions of the Supreme Court. ISCOTUSnow will discuss those cases in upcoming posts.

ISCOTUS Fellows Michael Halpin, Eva Dickey, and Elisabeth Heiber contributed to this post, which was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, and overseen by ISCOTUS Co-Director Carolyn Shapiro.

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