Week of June 26, 2017 at the Court – End of Term

The biggest news this week was the Supreme Court’s  decision to hear the travel ban cases while partially staying the lower court injunctions. The Court had before it two petitions for certiorari filed by the government — one from the Fourth Circuit and one from the Ninth Circuit, which had both upheld lower courts’ injunctions of the President’s Executive Order. (The Ninth Circuit had vacated the part of the injunction that precluded the government from undertaking a review of how certain decisions about admitting non-citizens to the United States are made.) The Court also had to rule on the government’s requests to stay the lower court injunctions in their entirety. The Court ruled on all of these pending matters on Monday, even issuing a short per curiam opinion explaining its order. First, the Court granted certiorari in both cases and directed that oral argument be scheduled for October. Second, the Court granted the government’s request to stay the lower court injunctions in part. Specifically, it directed that the injunctions remain in effect for anyone who has a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” but it stayed the injunctions with respect to other foreign nationals. Explaining this ruling, the Court said that a “close familial relationship” would be required for individuals to be admitted, and it indicated that the relationship with an “entity” could be satisfied by, for example, a job offer or admission to study at a university. It also said that a nonprofit could not create the necessary relationship simply by accepting a foreign national as a client in order to evade the Executive Order. This holding, of course, leaves many grey areas. Of particular note, the opinion was not explicit as to how the holding should apply to refugees who are working with resettlement agencies in this country but who may not otherwise have relationships with a requisite person or agency.

There are many important features of the Court’s ruling. Here are a few:

  1. The Court was not unanimous. Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, would have stayed the injunctions altogether, allowing the Executive Order to take full effect. They indicated their belief that the government should ultimately prevail on the merits.
  2. The Court emphasized that the government should be able to complete the review the Executive Order called for before the case is heard in October. And the 90 days of the travel ban will also expire before then, and the suspension of the refugee program soon after.. (The timing of this is a bit complicated. See Leah Litman’s excellent post for more details about this and other administrability issues related to the Court’s action.) As a result, it is quite likely that the case will be moot before the the Supreme Court can decide it. Marty Lederman of the Georgetown University Law Center argues this point forcefully here.
  3. The Supreme Court’s application of the standards for granting a stay was … unorthodox. As Daniel Hemel of the University of Chicago Law School explains, the Court has the luxury of skirting doctrinal niceties. Here, he argues the Court opted for “the spirit of compromise” and preserving “institutional legitimacy over doctrinal consistency.” He goes on: “Most Americans will see an evenhanded decision that commands the support of Democratic and Republican appointees alike.” Others — including Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch — do not agree.
  4. The opinion is a bit of a Rorshach test, with different people seeing different things in it. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared it a victory. Others on the right praised what they saw as an appropriate reaction to attempts to limit executive power. On the other hand, as detailed in The Los Angeles Times, some saw an “implicit rebuke” to Trump’s claim of “unfettered powers.” And Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed his concern that the Court’s action “ignores the anti-Muslim bigotry that is at the heart of the travel ban executive orders and will inevitably embolden Islamphobes in the administration.”

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court took the bench for the last time this Term and handed down decisions in three cases in which it had heard oral argument. The most closely watched of these cases was Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. In this case, the State of Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran public funds to resurface its preschool’s playground because of a state constitutional provision prohibiting public funds from being given to religious organizations. The Court ruled that excluding religious affiliated organizations from funds available to other charitable organizations is a violation of the First Amendment, and more specifically the free exercise of religion. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, cannot stand.” He was joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Kagan, and — except for a single footnote — by Justices Alito and Gorsuch. Alito and Gorsuch objected to the footnote because they found it too limiting and would have gone much farther in permitting state funds to be given to religious institutions. Justice Breyer wrote separately to concur in the judgment and to emphasize, in his view, the narrowness of the question presented, comparing the health and safety program at issue here with police and fire protection that are uncontroversially provided to religious institutions. Justices Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg forcefully dissented. In the dissent, which she read from the bench, Sotomayor said that the decision “weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both,” and “[t]he Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.” Check out The St. Louis Post-Dispatch,  Forbes, and  Fox News for more information on this decision, and the SCOTUSblog symposium, which includes discussion of the implications of this case for future church-state controversies.

In the first of two 5-4 decisions on Monday, California Public Employees Retirement System v. ANZ Securities, Inc., the Court decided that a suit filed by a would-be plaintiff who opts out of a class action is untimely if it is filed after the statute of repose. The National Law Review explains that this case stems from 2008 when the Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. CalPERS filed a lawsuit against the firm more than three years after the purchase of securities at issue. The district court and the court of appeals held that CalPERS’ Section 11 claims were time-barred and yesterday, Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion, joined by the four conservatives, and affirmed. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Pensions & Investments notes that while CalPERS is disappointed with the result, the decision “reiterates the importance of remaining vigilant on behalf of our members in the future securities class-action cases.”

The Court also handed down Davila v. Davis, another 5-4 decision split on ideological lines. In writing for the majority, Justice Thomas explained that ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default. In other words, if a criminal defendant fails to raise a claim on appeal because his appellate counsel is ineffective, he cannot raise that claim directly in federal court on habeas review. Late last week, The Atlantic recounted the Court’s decisions from this term relating to the death penalty noting, “…death-penalty opponents achieve[d] some notable victories even as the Court moved further away from abolishing capital punishment.” The article was written before the release of yesterday’s opinion, but Davila kept with the theme that abolishment of the death penalty seems to be out of sight. In light of the significant number of death penalty decisions this Term, SCOTUSblog is hosting a symposium on the Court’s capital punishment cases.

Monday’s Order List contained some news as well. First, the Court announced that it would hear Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which addresses whether and to what extent antidiscrimination laws must accommodate religious beliefs. Specifically, the case involves a baker who was held liable for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Masterpiece Cakeshop had been relisted for Conference repeatedly, leading many to believe that it would be denied, with a dissent from the denial of certiorari filed. At the same time, in Pavan v. Smith, the Court summarily reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court and held that the state must list a same-sex spouse as parent on a birth certificate if it does so for opposite-sex spouses. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, dissented. The Court also denied certiorari in Peruta v. California, a Second Amendment case about the right to carry a weapon outside the home. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, dissented from the denial of certiorari.

Three cases in which the Court heard argument this Term were left unresolved. In Hernandez v. Mesa – about a cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenager by an American border guard, the Court remanded for reconsideration in light of its decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi, which arguably narrows the availability of lawsuits against federal officials. And it set two case for reargument next Term, presumably because it was split 4-4 and needs Justice Gorsuch to be the tiebreaker. Those cases are Jennings v. Rodriguez, an important case about detained immigrants’ right to release on bond while awaiting deportation hearings, and Sessions v. Dimaya, addressing what qualifies as an aggravated felony for purposes of mandatory deportation. Other than Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Court granted cert in a number of additional cases. Those case include Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, in which plaintiffs seek to seize artifacts owned by Iran but on loan to the University of Chicago for decades in order to satisfy a judgment related to a terrorist act, and Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (and a companion case), about federal regulation of state restrictions on sports betting.

There will be much analysis of the past Term and the impact of the new justice in the coming week. But here is one to start with: In its article Neil Gorsuch is Paying Off for Trump So Far, FiveThirtyEight.com notes that in two of the three decisions handed down yesterday, “Gorsuch’s vote was pivotal, leaving the final tally at five votes to four.” The article goes on to asses Gorsuch first 10-weeks on the Court and where he falls on the ideological spectrum thus far. And ISCOTUS Co-Director Carolyn Shapiro appeared on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight on Monday night to discuss the Court’s recent rulings.


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