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 Slate.com 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.
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