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The Week Ahead – April 24, 2017

This morning, the Court issued orders from the April 21 Conference, and convened to hear arguments in McWilliams v. Dunn and Davila v. Davis. The Order List was somewhat anticlimactic, as the Court did not grant any new cases. Many were expecting to see some grants now that Justice Gorsuch has joined the Court, but as it turned out, he did not participate in most of the orders, and several high profile cases remain pending. Among today’s denials of certiorari was Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston, in which a district court granted summary judgment to an officer who shot the plaintiff despite a disagreement between the plaintiff and the officer about exactly what happened. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented from the denial of certiorari, while Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, wrote a brief opinion explaining that the case involved the kind of case-specific error-correction that the Court generally avoids. William Baude takes issue with Alito’s argument, here, and Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog has more on today’s Order List.

The issue in the first case being argued on Monday, McWilliams, is whether, following the Court’s holding in Ake v. Oklahoma, an indigent defendant is entitled to independent expert psychiatric assistance. In 1986, James McWilliams was tried and convicted of for the rape and murder of Patricia Reynolds. Before the sentencing hearing, the court appointed a psychiatrist who examined McWilliams and issued a report to the prosecution, the defense, and the court two days before the hearing. The Eleventh Circuit determined that McWilliams was given adequate expert assistance required by Ake, but McWilliams, in his appeal, contends that the assistance is only adequate if the expert is independent and reports only to the defendant. As Alan Blinder of the New York Times explains, the issue in McWilliams is also presented in two pending cases in Arkansas, where officials have been trying to carry out an unusually large number of executions in a short period of time before their supply of drugs expires. In the two cases that parallel McWilliams, both the Arkansas Supreme Court and SCOTUS have agreed that the executions should be stayed until that case is decided.

Davila concerns a plea for habeas relief filed by Erick Daniel Davila. Davila was convicted of capital murder in 2009. Davila lost his direct appeal in front of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and was then denied state habeas. He then filed for federal habeas relief, citing that he received ineffective counsel at the trial, appellate, and state habeas levels. The federal district court denied this claim, concluding that because Davila did not raise his claim of ineffective appellate counsel at the state habeas level, his federal claim was procedurally flawed, a holding that was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit. Davila appeals to the Court, arguing that precedent established in Martinez v. Ryan and Travino v. Thaler – that ineffective state habeas counsel can overcome the procedural default (failure to raise in state court) of an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim – should also be applied to overcome the procedural default of an ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim. In his article “Supreme Court to consider when a criminal defendant must pay with his life for his lawyer’s error,” Michael Dorf of Justia analyzes ineffective counsel law and precedent.

Tuesday’s theme is personal jurisdiction, as the Court will hear arguments in two cases concerning general and specific jurisdiction: Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California and BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell. The issue in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. is whether 575 non-California residents (along with 86 California residents) are able to bring a class-action suit against Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) for injuries received from Plavix, a drug manufactured by BMS. Leslie Brueckner from the Legal Examiner provides a synopsis of the case here and describes the personal jurisdiction defense brought by BMS, which argues that it would be fundamentally unfair to bring the corporation into a jurisdiction that it had only a minimal connection to. She also describes an amicus brief (that she coauthored) filed by Public Justice on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing “that there is nothing unfair about suing a national corporation in a state where it has aggressively marketed and sold massive numbers of defective products to an unsuspecting public, particularly where it was simultaneously being sued on identical claims by dozens of in-state residents. In fact, given the extent of Bristol Myers’ contacts with California, and the fact that it is has conceded jurisdiction over identical claims brought by in-state residents, the notion that it would be “unfair” to require the company to be “haled” into a California court on the plaintiffs’ claims is almost laughable.”

BNSF Railway Co. is another case about personal jurisdiction, and it comes from the Supreme Court of Montana. The issue is whether or not the state court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant who is not at home in the forum state in a FELA suit filed against the defendant, contrary to the Court’s holding in Daimler AG v. Bauman. Will Baude, in an article for the Washington Post, describes a notable amicus brief filed by Professor Stephen Sachs, from Duke University School of Law. The brief urges the Court to rule solely on the statutory question in the case, and not the constitutional argument raised by BSNF, that FELA, as enacted in 1910, would allow state courts to exercise personal jurisdiction in a way that violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Baude describes the importance of briefs that urge the Court not to act, stating that they “perform an important service by trying to prevent bad precedent from being made or extended, especially in cases where that may not be the first priority of the parties and may not be obvious to the court. . . such briefs are more likely to be effective than briefs which ask the court to adopt an unargued academic theory, since they make the more modest request to ‘do no harm.’”

On Wednesday, the Court will hear arguments in Sandoz Inc. v. Amgen Inc. and Maslenjak v. United States. Sandoz Inc. is an intellectual property case that asks whether or not Sandoz properly complied with the notice requirement stipulated by the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009, and if the company did not, whether Amgen Inc. is entitled to damages, despite the fact that they are not alleging patent infringement. Sanya Sukduang and Jonathan R. Davies, partners at Finnegan, a large intellectual property firm, discuss Sandoz, Inc. and its impact on patenting biosimilar products, in a podcast here.

Maslenjak comes from the Sixth Circuit and concerns whether or not a naturalized American citizen can lose her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement of fact. Divna Maslenjak and her family were granted refugee status following the Bosnian civil war, after Maslenjak told an immigration official that her family feared persecution in modern-day Bosnia because her husband, Ratko, had avoided being drafted into the Bosnian Serb militia. Maslenjak became a naturalized citizen in 2007, which is the same year that Ratko was convicted of making false statements during his immigration process, as he concealed the fact that he actually was an officer in the Serbian military during the same period that the Serbian military orchestrated a genocide against Bosnian Muslim civilians. Maslenjak was charged and convicted of naturalization fraud because of these false statements and was deported back to Serbia. In contrast to holdings in the 1st, 4th, 7th and 9th Circuits, the 6th Circuit affirmed Maslenjak’s conviction and concluded that the lower court was correct to strip her citizenship even though the false statements she provided were immaterial. Amy Howe of SCOTUSBlog provides an argument preview here, and describes other implications that the holding in this case might have for other immigrants. “The stakes in this case are high, not just for Divna Maslenjak but also for the millions of people who became naturalized U.S. citizens in recent years,” she write. “Most of those naturalized citizens, of course, did not make false statements during the process of securing citizenship. But a ruling in the government’s favor could potentially expose many new citizens to the possibility of losing their right to live in the United States, even if their false statements did not necessarily influence the government’s decision to give them citizenship.”

The Weekly Roundup – April 21, 2016

Having a full complement of justices can be a matter of life and death, as became clear this week. In Justice Gorsuch’s first vote as a Supreme Court Justice, he provided fifth vote to overturn a stay issued by the Eighth Circuit, thus allowing Arkansas to proceed with the first in a series of executions, which occurred last night. Before last night, Arkansas had not carried out an execution since 2005, but had decided to execute as many as eight men in an 11-day period because one of its execution drugs was nearing its expiration date. Ledell Lee was convicted of the 1995 murder of Debra Reese but had maintained his innocence. Among other arguments, his lawyers sought DNA testing that, they said, could exonerate him. Without Justice Gorsuch’s vote, the Court would have split 4-4, leaving the Eighth Circuit order in place. Justice Breyer issued a written dissent highlighting what he viewed as the arbitrariness of the execution. The New York Times reports here.

On Monday the Court heard arguments in three cases. In Perry v. Merit Systems Protection Board, the plaintiff, who was an employee of the Census Bureau, had complaints about his treatment and complained to the federal Merit System’s Protection Board (“MPSB”). His complaint included a discrimination claim, and the issue presented involves which court should review such an MPSB decision. Perry was the first case heard by Justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and many reported on his performance. Michael Doyle of McClatchy DC Bureau said that Gorsuch exuded “considerable self-confidence” and displayed a “seamless blend of preparation, persistence and humor.” The Justice asked his questions based with a textualist leaning, asking repeatedly why the Court should not just follow the plain text of the statute. Mark Joseph Stern of provided a more critical review of Gorsuch’s performance and noted that at least two of his colleagues — Justices Alito and Kagan — seemed to think that his textualism would not be able to resolve the case.

Additionally on Monday, the Court heard arguments in Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates was also before the Court on Monday.  Former Chicago-Kent Law Professor Michael Scodro notes in Chicago Lawyer Magazine that this case will bring an end to a civil procedure question that has divided lower courts for years, whether or not Article III of the Constitution demands that third parties in a lawsuit must have their own standing to join the case. ISCOTUSnow discussed this case earlier this week, along with a third case argued on Monday, California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. ANZ Securities, Inc. ISCOTUSnow also discussed the two Tuesday cases — Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission, and in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc. In Kokesh the Court will decide if the SEC can order defendants to return illegal profits that were taken over five years ago. In  Henson, the Court must decide if a company that buys debts but was not the original debtor considered a debt collector subject the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Wrapping up the week’s arguments, on Wednesday the Court heard Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, and Weaver v. Massachusetts. Trinity involves the separation of church and state, making this case highly anticipated due to Justice Gorsuch’s prior rulings in favor of religious plaintiffs. The Court must decide if the Equal Protection Clause invalidates the Missouri Constitution’s prohibition of providing state funds to religious groups for secular purposes. According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, the majority of the Court, including Justice Kagan seemed to favor the church. The final case for the week, Weaver, will determine if defendants must show prejudice in a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel that may have resulted in a structural error.

Also this week, the Court issued several opinions, although none of them were in cases that had garnered significant public attention. Most notably, on Wednesday, the Court ruled in Nelson v. Colorado, holding that the state must return fees paid by people who have had their convictions overturned without having to establish their innocence. That decision was 7-1, with only Justice Thomas dissenting. The other cases decided this week were Manrique v. United States, a 6-2 decision about the timing of notices of appeals from restitution orders, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, in which the Court held 8-0 that a sanction for misconduct cannot require payment for fees not incurred as a result of that misconduct, and Coventry Health Care of Missouri, Inc. v. Nevils, an 8-0 decision holding that a federal law governing federal employees’ health insurance preempts state law. Justice Gorsuch did not participate in any of these decision.

In other news, Senator Chuck Grassley has predicted a Supreme Court vacancy as early as this summer. ABC News reported that the Senator expects one of the Justices to resign, as he stated an upcoming resignation is “rumored.”

And a correction: ISCOTUSnow reported Monday that Justice Gorsuch participated in last week’s Conference. But in fact, according to a footnote in Monday’s Order List, he did not. His first Conference is presumably today, and as SCOTUSblog reports, there are a host of important petitions awaiting his participation.

Did you miss your Supreme Court news this week? Let our Weekly Roundup help. (To stay on top of the latest Supreme Court happenings, follow @ISCOTUS on Twitter.)


The Week Ahead – April 17, 2017

The Court began the week by welcoming Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch to the bench. As Richard Wolf of USA Today reports, Gorsuch was not shy about asking questions, and his questions focused forcefully on the text of the statutes the Court was considering. On Monday, the Court also issued its Orders List from the first Conference that Justice Gorsuch participated in. [Correction: Justice Gorsuch did not in fact participate.] It did not issue any new grants of certiorari, and it denied certiorari in one closely watched case: Mickelson v. County of Ramsey, which challenged charging fees to people who have been arrested but not convicted. Once again, however, the Court did not act in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Commission on Civil Rights, a case about the clash between a baker’s religious convictions and a state’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. ISCOTUSnow discussed Mickelson and Masterpiece Cakeshop here, along with several other cases the Court has yet to act on.

On Monday, the Court heard arguments in Perry v. Merit Systems Protection Board, Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc., and – in a rare afternoon session – California Public Employee’s Retirement System v. ANZ Securities, Inc. Perry addresses whether a Merit Systems Protection Board decision is subject to review in the district court or in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Howard Wasserman in a USA Today article notes that this is the type of “detailed, procedural, one-off” opinion that is usually pawned off on the junior-most justice. Justice Gorsuch was particularly active in the questioning in this case, as SCOTUSblog reports

Town of Chester focuses on whether a party that does not itself have Article III standing may nonetheless intervene in a suit over which a federal court has jurisdiction. Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells argued the case on behalf of the Town of Chester. Katyal, who served as Acting Solicitor General in the Obama Administration, supported Gorsuch’s nomination both by writing an op-ed in The New York Times entitled Why Liberals Should Back Neil Gorsuch and by introducing Gorsuch at his confirmation hearing. As a result of Katyal’s vocal support for Gorsuch’s confirmation, there was speculation about whether Gorsuch would recuse himself from Town of Chester, as the National Law Journal reported. Justice Gorsuch in fact stayed on the bench during the argument, although he did not ask Katyal any questions, according to USA Today.

Lastly on Monday, in California Public Employee’s Retirement Systems (CalPERS), the Court heard argument about the timely filing of class actions in securities cases. Alison Frankel of Reuters explains the background of the case, including delving into the differences between statutes of limitation and statutes of repose, and also reports on the “trash talking” that ensued among the advocates on either side before the argument.

On Tuesday, the Court will hear oral arguments in Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission and Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc. In Kokesh, the Court’s second securities case of the week, the Court will consider whether a five-year statute of limitations applies to claims for “disgorgement” sought by the SEC. Disgorgement is an action against a wrongdoer to return to the rightful owner whatever profits the wrongdoer gained in the course of the illegal activity. BloombergBNA discusses the case further, here. In Henson, the Court will decide what constitutes a “debt collector” for purposes of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Lexology explains that the circuits are split on the issue, and how important this issue is to state debt collection and enforcement activity.

On Wednesday the Court will hear arguments in cases with less technical issues, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer and Weaver v. Massachusetts. Trinity stems from a challenge to Missouri’s denial of grant to resurface a daycare playground. The denial stems from a provision of the state constitution that prohibits state aid from going to religious institutions. The Church argues this is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Above the Law addresses how Judge Gorsuch, given his prior decisions about the separation between church and state, could affect this case. And the case presents a new procedural twist. Last week, the Missouri governor announced that the state would now allow churches to receive funds under the playground surfacing program. The Court ordered the parties to submit letter briefs about whether this decision moots the case by noon on the day before argument.

In Weaver, the Court will analyzes ineffective counsel, structural error, and prejudice. The case involves a criminal defendant whose lawyer failed to object to the public (including the defendant’s mother and other supporters) being excluded from the courtroom during jury selection. Normally, the denial of a public trial is considered a “structural error” and the defendant does not need to demonstrate that he was prejudiced to receive a new trial. Here, however, the defendant’s public-trial claim is nested within an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. To win a new trial for ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show that he was prejudiced by his attorney’s ineffectiveness. The state and intermediate federal courts have split on whether prejudice must be shown where structural error is the underlying basis for an ineffectiveness claim. And aside from the core issue of this case, there is a question of what constitutes a “public trial,” and what happens if a courtroom cannot accommodate everyone who would like to observe? Rory Little of SCOTUSblog explores further.

Finally, the Court may release opinions on Tuesday and/or Wednesday this week, and it will meet for Conference on Friday.

Weekly Roundup – (delayed from) April 14, 2017

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On Monday, April 10, Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as the next associate Supreme Court justice, filling the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia which remained vacant for the past 422 days. ISCOTUSnow described the swearing-in ceremonies in the Week Ahead post here.

During the second ceremony, Gorsuch was sworn in by Justice Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch clerked in 1993. As Julie Hirschfield Davis of the New York Times notes, this is the first time in Supreme Court history that a sitting justice will serve alongside a justice who had previously served as his clerk, noting that “Justice Kennedy’s presence was symbolic personally for Justice Gorsuch” as he considers him a mentor. In an article for CNN, Joan Biskupic speculates as to when Justice Kennedy might retire, mentioning that he has privately hinted to close friends and former law clerks that he intends to retire in the next few years. Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988, is a center-right justice who has joined the liberal voting bloc in several high-profile cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage and for which Kennedy penned the majority opinion. His departure from the Court would, as Biskupic describes, “be more momentous than the one filled on Monday after the February 13, 2016 death of rigid conservative Scalia. If President Donald Trump were to choose someone on the right-wing like Gorsuch to succeed Kennedy, the nation’s highest court would become significantly more conservative.”

Seung Min Kim of Politico addresses the fallout of the “nuclear option” triggered by Senate Republicans to secure Gorsuch’s confirmation. Kim quotes Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass), who vowed to restore the 60-vote threshold formerly needed to break a filibuster on confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees should Democrats relinquish control of the Senate: “We will ensure that for the Supreme Court, there is that special margin that any candidate has to reach because that is essential to ensuring that our country has a confidence in those people who are nominated. Rather than just someone who passes a litmus test.” Kim suggests, however, that “[i]f history is any guide, Democrats are unlikely to actually revive that 60-vote threshold, particularly if they also win the White House along with the Senate majority [in 2020]. Though Republicans were enraged after Senate Democrats deployed the nuclear option in 2013 for all nominations other than the Supreme Court, the GOP chose to keep the lower threshold for nominees when they retook the Senate majority in 2014.”

On Wednesday, Terry Gross, in a segment of Fresh Air on NPR, discussed Leonard Leo, a conservative lawyer who has had extensive involvement in the selection of Justices Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch. Gross interviewed Jeffrey Toobin, who profiled Leo in a recent article for the New Yorker titled “The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court.” Leo is the executive vice- president of the Federalist Society, a nationwide organization of conservative lawyers that has been “very engaged in identifying and recruiting for judges candidates who are ultra-conservatives.” Toobin argues that “Gorsuch is likely to be only the first of Leo’s Trump Administration appointees: he is preparing for yet more vacancies on the Supreme Court, and also finding candidates for some of the hundred-plus vacancies on the lower courts, deepening his imprint on the judiciary.”

The Week Ahead – April 10, 2017

As of this morning, with the swearing in of Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court is back to its full complement of nine justices. As The Los Angeles Times reports, Gorsuch had two swearing-in ceremonies. The first was a private ceremony at the Supreme Court, at which Chief Justice Roberts presided and, Mark Walsh of SCOTUSblog explains, at which Gorsuch took the constitutional oath. The second ceremony was in the White House Rose Garden, and Justice Kennedy — for whom Gorsuch clerked — administered the judicial oath. In a longer piece, Mark Walsh explains the difference between the oaths provides some background on the history of the oaths taken by Supreme Court justices.

Justice Gorsuch will not hear his first arguments until next week. The first cases that he will hear on the Court involve the legality of the exclusion of churches from state funding in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Sixth Amendment, defendant’s rights, and inadequate counsel, the revocation of a naturalized citizen’s citizenship, and the proper timing of class action securities lawsuits. Check out Fox News for more details on these cases. USA Today and the Washington Post also provided articles on Gorsuch’s likely impact that will start next week. Gorsuch is not likely to upset the ideological balance of the court given the previous occupant of his seat was Justice Scalia, but he will bring the Court back in full swing now that there are nine justices in place and no worries of deadlocked decisions.

Justice Gorsuch does not even have until next week to get used to his new job. The justices meet for their next Conference on Thursday. Among the duties of the most junior justice is taking notes at Conference and — even more prosaically — answering the door. As Justice Kagan explained — to Gorsuch himself at a public interview last summer — this can happen because “you know, one of the justices forgot his glasses. The other justice forgot her cup of coffee.” And as Kagan also explained, the junior justice sits on the cafeteria committee.

There will also be serious business. As usual, SCOTUSblog identifies petitions worth watching that are listed for the next Conference. One such case is for a writ of certiorari is Dot Foods, Inc v. Department of Revenue for the State of Washington. Law360 describes the case, in which Dot Foods argues its due process rights were violated when it was stripped of its tax-exempt status due to a retroactive application of a Washington statutory amendment that regulated in state sales and commerce of out of state businesses.

Another case worth watching is Carpenter v. United States. As CATO Institute explains, this case involves the constitutionality of warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records under the Fourth Amendment. The plaintiffs were convicted of armed robberies and are appealing their conviction arguing that it violated the Fourth Amendment for the government to  use the cell phone records for information about their whereabouts.

Another case distributed for Thursday’s conference is Mickelson v. County of Ramsey. The issue in this case is whether it is a due process violation for the government to confiscate money from innocent people due to an arrest, and make them prove they are entitled to have it back. Adam Liptak of  The New York Times explains that Corey Statham was arrested and had his charges dismissed, but the county kept a portion of his confiscated money as a “booking fee.” A number of states bill people merely for being arrested and held in jail, and Statham’s attorney Michael A. Carvin argues that, “providing a profit motive to make arrests gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests.”  The issues in this case are similar (though not identical) to the civil forfeiture issues Justice Thomas recently highlighted in an opinion respecting the denial of certiorari.

Finally, the Supreme Court will be considering whether to grant cert in the repeatedly relisted Masterpiece Cake Shop, Ltd. v. Colorado Commission on Civil Rights, which addresses whether an antidiscrimination law can be constitutionally applied to a baker who makes wedding cakes but refuses to do so for same-sex couples for religious reasons. This is one case in which Gorsuch’s arrival could make a substantial difference, as CNN reports here.

Weekly Roundup – April 7, 2017

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The big news this week involved the Senate’s action on Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to replace Justice Scalia. This morning, the Senate confirmed Gorsuch on a 55-45 vote. Three Democrats (Joe Donnelley of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) joined all Republicans in voting yes. Roll Call reports that this voting breakdown means that Gorsuch received the smallest number of opposition party votes of anyone on the Court. Presumably, Gorsuch will be sworn in immediately and will join the Court next week to discuss cert petitions at Conference and on April 17 to hear oral argument. (The Court’s calendar is here.)

The Gorsuch nomination engendered a major procedural upheaval in the Senate — the so-called nuclear option. As The New York Times explained, after more than 41 Democrats voted against ending debate on the nomination — thus successfully maintaining a filibuster, which ordinarily can be ended only with at least 60 votes — the Republican-controlled Senate changed its rules so that only 51 votes are needed to end debate on a SCOTUS nomination. Although Democrats had made a similar rules-change during the Obama presidency for presidential executive-branch appointees and lower court judges, they had pointedly left the filibuster intact for SCOTUS nominations. On Thursday, on a straight party-line vote, the Republicans eliminated that supermajority requirement.

Not surprisingly, numerous commentators have weighed in on the likely effects of the Senate’s action on the Supreme Court going forward. ISCOTUS co-director Carolyn Shapiro argues that in the long run, eliminating the filibuster may allow Democrats to appoint more liberal justices. Others, like Scott Lemieux, predict an increasingly large conservative majority on SCOTUS. Jonathan Adler argues that because the absence of the filibuster will make it harder to stop a nomination, incentives to obstruct will decrease and presidents of both parties will be freer to nominate justices with less traditional resumes.

Although the Supreme Court did not hear argument this week, it did hand down two unanimous decisions on Monday. In Chief Justice Robert’s Dean v. United States opinion, the Court decided that a judge, when calculating the sentence for a predicate offense, does not have to ignore the fact that the defendant will serve mandatory minimums imposed under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Court reversed and remanded a decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that Levon Dean’s sentence of more than 33 years was reasonable. The Court reasoned that a) “sentencing courts have long enjoyed discretion in the sort of information they may consider when setting an appropriate sentence” and b) § 924(c) does not specify how long the sentences should be for predicate offenses nor does it specify what courts can consider when determining those sentences. Above the Law explores what prison time accomplishes and “when is enough enough?”

In McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Court held that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. The Court reasoned three main conclusions: (1) reviewing for abuse of discretion is a “longstanding practice” of appeals courts, (2) district judges’ expertise is well suited to decide whether evidence sought is relevant to a specific charge or whether a subpoena is unduly burdensome in light of circumstances, and (3) deferential review will streamline the litigation process by freeing appellate courts from the obligation of reconsidering evidence and facts that district courts have already considered. The National Law Review discusses the case in more detail.

The Court also granted certiorari in two cases: Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC and Ayestas v. Davis. The Court will likely revisit its 2013 Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum decision in order to decide if, under the Alien Tort Statute, corporations can be held liable for human rights violations, the New York Law Journal reports. In Ayestas, the Jurist explains that the Court will address a defendant’s right to federal funding for an expert for a habeas petition.


The Week Ahead – April 3, 2017

As ISCOTUSnow noted earlier today, this is showdown week for the Gorsuch nomination. Since this morning’s post, there have been two big developments. First, as expected, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of confirming Gorsuch on a party-line vote. Second, as was less certain, enough Democrats announced their intention to vote against cloture, which is the procedure that ends a filibuster. As ABC News reports, four Democrats today (Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, and Mark Warner) announced their intention to against cloture, bringing the total to the 41 necessary to maintain a filibuster. (Since then, Ben Cardin (MD) has also said that he wil vote against cloture.) In the past few days, three Democrats — Joe Donnelley (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Manchin (WV), all from states that Trump won — announced that they will vote for cloture.

The focus now shifts to the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader McConnell has announced that the Senate will vote on the Gorsuch nomination on Friday. And he has reiterated his threat to invoke the “nuclear option,” eliminating the supermajority needed to end debate and proceed to a merits vote for Supreme Court nominees. Making good on this threat would require the votes of 51 Senators, however, meaning that McConnell can afford only one defection from his caucus. It remains to be seen if he will be successful. Ted Barrett, in an opinion piece for CNN written before today’s events, explains that

“The Senate may be a week away from turning into the House. Senators from each party . . . worry that by getting rid of the 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster on the nomination, the Senate is one step away from turning into a mirror-image of the House — a chamber where bipartisanship isn’t needed to pass bills and whichever party is in the majority can govern with little or no input from the minority party.”

There has been much commentary about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of a filibuster by the Democrats (see our earlier post for some links), but today there is also some interesting commentary about how the Democrats got to this point. According to a New York Times op-ed by a former staffer to now-retired Senator Harry Reid, who served as both majority and minority leader for the Democrats, the Democratic Senators went into the confirmation hearing with an open mind but were offended and angered by Gorsuch’s demeanor and — more so — his refusal to answer even the most uncontroversial questions. The Victoria Bassetti of the Brennan Center makes a similar argument in more detail.

The Supreme Court has no oral arguments scheduled this week, but it issued orders and opinions today, Monday, April 3. In the first of two grants, Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, the Court will consider the extent to which the Alien Tort Claims Act imposes liability on corporations. (The defendant bank in Jesner is accused of helping to finance terrorist activity.) Ayestas v. Davis, the second case granted today, focuses on federal courts’ obligations to provide resources to habeas petitioners who need help developing their ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

In the first of two opinions issued today, Justice Sotomayor wrote for seven justices in McLane v. EEOC, ruling that appellate review of district court determinations whether to enforce or quash EEOC subpoenas is based on abuse of discretion, not de novo review. Justice Ginsburg concurred in part and dissented in part. And in Dean v. United States, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for a unanimous Court, holding that a district court judge may take into account mandatory sentences that must run consecutive to other sentences in exercising sentencing discretion.

Finally, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will speak at two events in upstate New York on Tuesday, April 4. First, she will speak at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the Troy campus of the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York. The event is part of Centennial Celebration of the Sage Colleges, and will feature a question and answer discussion with Justice Sotomayor. Later on Tuesday, she will headline a speaking event at the University at Albany – State University of New York. She will be discussing her 2013 best-selling autobiography My Beloved World and the event will also include a question and answer discussion.


Week in Review – March 31, 2017

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In the first of two opinions issued this week, the Supreme Court overturned a death penalty ruling on Tuesday. In Moore v. Texas, Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death for murdering a store clerk during a robbery, but he claimed that he could not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. (The Court has previously held, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits executing the intellectually disabled.) At issue in this case was whether Texas needed to update its standards for determining intellectual disability from the 1992 factors it relied on. In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Kagan, Kennedy, and Sotomayor, the Court held that although states have “flexibility” in determining how to identify intellectual disability and did not have to constantly update its approach to reflect current expert understandings, Texas could not rely on such “an outdated understanding of mental disability.” Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas. The dissent argued that the majority of the Court “crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability. But clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment.” David Savage of The LA Times and Robert Barnes of the The Washington Post analyze the opinions and provide some additional factual background.

On Wednesday, the Court unanimously vacated a lower court decision in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman. USA Today reports the Court held that laws restricting merchants from advertising credit card surcharges (or cash discounts) implicate the First Amendment right of free speech, and it remanded for the New York state courts to determine if those rights were in fact violated. Although the holding was unanimous, only five Justices joined the opinion for the Court. Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment, as did Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Alito in a very unusual pairing.

On Monday, the Court heard arguments in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands. Adam Liptak of The New York Times explains that case boils down to an issue of “forum shopping” by plaintiffs in order to gain the upper hand in patent lawsuits. For example, over 40% of patent lawsuits are filed in a federal court in Texas, where “patent trolls” (those that buy up patents in order to sue for royalties and infringement) frequently file suit due to the plaintiff-friendly outcomes. Liptak describes the argument, during which Justice Kagan suggesed that the lower courts, and in particular the Federal Circuit, have not been following Supreme Court precedent, but that she seemed “surprisingly sanguine about this state of affairs.”

Also on Monday, the Court heard arguments in multiple cases regarding the ability of religious-affiliated organizations, such as hospitals, to claim exemption in guaranteeing employee pensions under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). As the Economist notes, Churches are exempted from ERISA to prevent possible issues of separation of church and state. The ACLU filed an amicus brief arguing that it would be “impermissible religious favoritism,” to “allow hospitals and other religious affiliated organizations that are not houses of worship to arrogate to themselves the legal status of a church.” (ISCOTUSnow’s weekly preview provides more information on the other arguments the Court heard this week.)

Earlier this week ISCOTUS co-director Christopher Schmidt provided his commentary on the Gorsuch confirmation in a post entitled Why the Democrats Lost the Gorsuch Hearings, and check back soon for a new edition of The Gorsuch Report on ISCOTUSnow.

The Week Ahead – March 27, 2017

The Court has oral arguments in eight cases scheduled for this week. On Monday, the Court will hear arguments in four cases, three of which are consolidated. The three consolidated cases of Dignity Health v. Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, and Saint Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan present the issue of whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974’s (ERISA) church-plan exemption applies to plans operated by organizations, such as hospitals, that are affiliated with churches although not themselves churches.

The defendants in the cases are all religiously affiliated operators of hospitals whose employees sued, alleging that the plans do not qualify for the exemption. Advocate Health Care Network is a ministry of the Lutheran and Church of Christ denominations that operates Illinois hospitals. Saint Peter’s Healthcare System is a Catholic ministry that operates a New Jersey hospital. Dignity Health operates several California hospitals sponsored by nuns. The federal agencies that administer ERISA (the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) have treated the pension plans of such hospitals as exempt from ERISA for more than 30 years.

The exemption from ERISA depends on a definition of “church plan” in the Act. ERISA, as originally drafted, exempted any plan “established and maintained for its employees by a church.” Amendments in 1980 state that a “plan established and maintained for its employees … by a church … includes a plan maintained by an organization … controlled by or associated with a church.” The Atlantic discusses this case in depth, here.

On Monday, the Court also will hear arguments in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, which analyzes whether the patent venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), providing that patent infringement actions “may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides[,]” may be supplemented by 28 U.S.C. § 1391, which contains a subsection (c) that, in some cases, deems a corporate entity to reside in multiple judicial districts. Kraft Foods sued in Delaware, alleging that TC Heartland had infringed Kraft’s patent for a “liquid water enhancer” – a product that allows people to add flavoring to plain water.  Heartland sought to transfer the case to Indiana, its state of incorporation, arguing that Section 1400 does not authorize the case to be heard in a Delaware forum. SCOTUSblog explains that the case allow the Court to focus on forum shopping so extreme in patent ligitation that a single judge in  Marshall, Texas has been was assigned approximately one quarter of the nation’s patent cases in the last three years.

On Tuesday the Court will hear arguments in Lee v. United States. Lee analyzes whether a noncitizen defendant was prejudiced by inadequate legal advice when he rejected a plea offer notwithstanding strong evidence of guilt, and the plea would have resulted in mandatory and permanent deportation. The petitioner in the case, Jae Lee, is a Tennessee man from South Korea. Lee immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 and became a restaurateur. He was charged in 2009 with possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute. Lee’s attorney recommended that Lee plead guilty to receive a shorter sentence, and falsely told him that a guilty plea would not result in Lee’s permanent and mandatory deportation.  Lee sought to vacate his conviction, arguing that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to have adequate counsel. Although the government agreed that the attorney had given inadequate advice, the lower courts ruled that Lee could not show that he was prejudiced by that advice because evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. The ABA Journal discusses the legal question and relevant precedents in more depth.

On Wednesday the Court will hear two consolidated cases that arise from the 1984 murder of a District of Columbia woman: Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States. The cases ask whether the petitioners’ convictions must be set aside under Brady v. Maryland, which held that suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has requested it violates due process where the evidence is material to guilt or punishment, regardless of the prosecution’s good or bad faith. The petitioners are D.C. men who were convicted, based largely on testimony from alleged eyewitnesses. Decades later, it was revealed that prosecutors had not turned over multiple pieces of discovery that would have strengthened the defendants’ cases. The men sought unsuccessfully in lower courts to vacate their convictions.

Constitution Daily has more on the cases’ history.

Finally on Wednesday, the Court will hear arguments in Honeycutt v. United States, where the Court will analyze whether 21 U.S.C. § 853(a)(1) mandates joint and several liability among co-conspirators for forfeiture of the reasonably foreseeable proceeds of a drug conspiracy. The Honeycutt brothers, Tony and Terry, operated a hardware store in Brainerd, Tennessee. Tony owned the store with their father; Terry was a salaried sales employee. In less than three years, the store sold more than 15,000 bottles of a water purifying product called “Polar Pure.” The police told the family that the product’s iodine ingredient could be used to cook methamphetamine, but they kept selling it. The government indicted the brothers on conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine precursors, among other crimes. Tony pled guilty and accepted a forfeiture judgment. Terry went to trial, and was convicted of 11 counts. The district court declined to order forfeiture against Terry, on grounds that he had no ownership in the store, was salaried, and “did not stand to benefit personally from the illegal sales.” The ruling was reversed and remanded on appeal. The Court will decide whether the statute may empower a federal court to order a defendant to forfeit proceeds that he did not “obtain” under a theory of joint and several liability. The New York Law Journal takes a deeper look at the case and the issue of joint and several liability in forfeiture cases.

On Monday, the Court granted cert in two new cases – a bankruptcy case called U.S. Bank National Association v. Village at Lakeridge, and a securities case about the duty to disclose called Leidos, Inc. v. Indiana Public Retirement System. It also called for the views of the Solicitor General in Snyder v. Doe, which is about the application of the Ex Post Facto clause to sex offender registration. On Friday the Court will meet for Conference, and orders will be released next Monday.

This Day in Supreme Court History—March 27, 2013

On this day in 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, a landmark case in the evolution of marriage equality rights.

Windsor was a challenge to a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996. The provision at issue stated that under federal law, “marriage” and “spouse” applied only to marriages between a man and a woman. The effect of this provision was to deny same-sex couples federal marriage benefits.

The New York couple at the center of the lawsuit, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, wed in Canada in 2007. New York legally recognized their marriage. Spyer died in 2009, leaving her estate to Windsor. But since their marriage was not recognized under federal law, Windsor did not quality for a marital tax exemption and she had to pay $363,000 in federal taxes. Windsor filed suit, arguing that the provision of DOMA limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violated her due process and equal protection rights.

The Supreme Court ruled in Windsor’s favor. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy noted that DOMA’s provision ran up against federalism principles, “which allow states to largely chart their own course,” as well as equal protection concerns. The issue, he wrote, was one of “basic fairness and human dignity.” The effect of DOMA was to impose a “disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma” on same sex couples that denied them equal protection under the law.    

The Court held that same-sex couples are guaranteed federal benefits if they lived in a state that recognized same-sex marriage. The decision did not however, guarantee a federal right to same-sex marriage. This issue would not be decided until two years later, in 2015, when the Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges.