This Week at the Court – June 5, 2017

On Monday, the Court summarily affirmed a finding of liability in yet another voting rights case from North Carolina, issued four opinions, and granted certiorari in one case. In North Carolina v. Covington, the Court summarily affirmed a three-judge district court’s holding that the state legislative map was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. (Only two weeks ago, in Cooper v. Harris, the Court struck down two of the state’s congressional districts for the same reason.) There were no dissents. In the same per curiam opinion, the Court also vacated the district court’s remedial order requiring a special election later this year and instructed the district court to weigh the equities more carefully and explicitly. There are mixed views about the significance of this case. Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress argues that delays in remedies makes it easier for states to get away with illegal gerrymanders, while election law scholar Rick Hasen thinks:

On the merits, the balancing test that the Court puts forward for when a special election should be held makes great sense, and will extend beyond the racial gerrymandering cases. Indeed, with this new multipart test (“the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty”) I would expect plaintiffs to now ask for special elections more regularly and courts applying these sensible factors. So a ruling counseling restraint might actually create more disruption.

The Court also granted certiorari in Carpenter v. United States, in which the Court will grapple with the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment when it comes to cellphone data and whether law enforcement needs a warrant to get information from cellphone companies about their customers’ whereabouts. More specifically, the question presented is whether the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records pertaining to the location and movements of the cell phone user over the course of 127 days. Adam Liptak of the New York Times discusses the Court’s history with this issue, including the “third-party doctrine,” and the Stored Communications Act. Orin Kerr of the Washington Post speculates about why the Court took this case, and notes its importance: “Although the case is formally about cell-site records, it’s really about where to draw lines in terms of what network surveillance triggers the Fourth Amendment and how the Fourth Amendment applies.”

The Court also released unanimous (8-0) opinions in Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc., Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, Honeycutt v. United States, and Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission. In Town of Chester, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court held that intervenors in a federal case must have their own Article III standing where they seek relief that is different from the relief sought by the original plaintiffs, and it remanded for a determination as to whether the intervenors here are seeking different relief. This holding is reminiscent of the Court’s determination in Hollingsworth v. Perry that proponents of California’s gay marriage ban did not have standing to contest the district court’s decision striking down the ban where the state itself, through its elected officials, declined to appeal.

Justice Kagan wrote for the unanimous court in Advocate Health Care Network. The Court held that a pension plan maintained by an organization — here a hospital chain —  associated with or controlled by a church qualifies as a “church plan,” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), even if the church itself did not establish the plan. Church plans are exempt from many legal requirements that other employee benefits plans must meet. Writing for the Constitution Daily, Lyle Denniston explained the implications of this decision, including that church organizations’ ealth care plans will not be required to obey the Obamacare mandate of free contraceptives for women employees – “if that mandate survives an expected move to rewrite it by the new Trump Administration.”

In Honeycutt, the Court unanimously decided that a defendant must actually acquire property as a result of a crime in order for that property to be subject to civil forfeiture pursuant to §853(a)(1) of the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act of 1984. The defendant in this case, Terry Honeycutt, did not personally benefit from illegal drug sales and was therefore not in violation of the Act. Peter J. Henning of the New York Times gave a preview of the case back in April, noting that “[i]f you are wondering how someone can be forced to give up something he never had, then welcome to the intersection of conspiracy and asset forfeiture law.”

Finally, in Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justices unanimously held that a claim by the SEC for disgorgement must be commenced within five years of the date the claim accrued because it operates as a penalty under 28 U.S.C. §2462. An article in The National Law Review argues that this decision “left open the possibility of a further challenge to SEC disgorgement,” based on a footnote in the Court’s decision. Reuters comments on the impact of this decision: “For the more complex cases, this will be a sea change for them, they will have to move more quickly.”

Finally, yet again, the Court did not act on the petitions in the Second Amendment case Peruta v. California or in the case involving a baker who refused to make a cake for a same sex wedding, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Human Rights Commission.

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