This page is primarily for recommending Supreme Court cases to my undergraduate students. I won’t mention all cases (see scotusblog for that), but rather will highlight days when at least one case is likely to be interesting and accessible to a casual observer with interests that coincide with my course themes. If a case intrigues you enough, see this page for tips on attending the argument. Browse the other pages for more info about me and my courses.
April 25 is the last day of oral argument this term — when they will take up the “Muslim travel ban” (after sentencing guidelines and Congressional redistricting cases earlier in the week). After that, the Court will sit each Monday until the end of June in order to announce its decisions in cases argued this term, then will go on summer recess until First Monday in October.
Monday, April 23
The morning cases are rather technical and not recommended for the casual observer, but there is an unusual afternoon argument today that may be of interest. Chavez-Meza v. United States involves the ongoing confusion regarding sentencing guidelines. This time, the issue is how thoroughly the judge must explain a sentencing reduction on the record. Scotusblog has a useful preview.
Afternoon arguments are rare and it’s hard to predict how difficult it will be to get in. Arguments begin at 1:00; morning arguments are 10:00-noon, then there’s a lunch break during which the courtroom is cleared. Often, it’s been enough to get in line by 11:00.
Tuesday, April 24
Redistricting is before the Court yet again this morning — the third time this term alone. Abbott v. Perez involves protracted litigation over claims that Texas violated the Voting Rights Act when it redrew Congressional districts in 2011. The history of the various lawsuits and interim rulings is critical to understanding this case and being able to follow the arguments, so review the overview from Brennan Center and follow at least some of those links for key documents in the case (the links near the bottom, and particularly the NAACP LDEF amicus brief, will be especially helpful).
The case has been scheduled for 70 minutes, which is slightly more time than usual. There will be 4 arguing counsel (2 on each side) and 35 minutes total for each side.
The second case today, Animal Science Products v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co., is an antitrust case that raises the question of to what extent US courts should defer to foreign courts’ interpretations of foreign law. See the overview here.
Wednesday, April 25 — the “Muslim Travel Ban”
The Court’s last scheduled argument of the term is Trump v. Hawaii — perhaps the most politicized case in years, as well as one that raises some interesting unanswered academic legal questions. Obviously, a great deal has been said and written about this case, but below I suggest some specific reading that should help you to follow the legal arguments before the Court.
A general overview will obviously help, but I also suggest some more reading on each of the official “questions presented,” as specified in the grant of cert.:
(1) Whether the respondents’ challenge to the president’s suspension of entry of aliens abroad is justiciable;
[This involves the “political question” or “plenary-power” doctrine and the question of whether certain matters are entrusted by the Constitution to the executive branch alone. See the argument here.]
(2) whether the proclamation – which suspends entry, subject to exceptions and case-by-case waivers, of certain categories of aliens abroad from eight countries that do not share adequate information with the United States or that present other risk factors – is a lawful exercise of the president’s authority to suspend entry of aliens abroad;
[This question is essentially one of administrative law and statutory interpretation. The decision below will give a good sense of the argument that the president lacked that authority.]
(3) whether the global injunction barring enforcement of the proclamation’s entry suspensions worldwide, except as to nationals of two countries and as to persons without a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States, is impermissibly overbroad;
[This is a difficult and unresolved legal question — just what is the scope of authority of a district court, for a single region and with specific plaintiffs before it, when the issue in the case is one of national policy with unspecified individuals who may be subject to it? See the discussion here.]
(4) whether the proclamation violates the establishment clause of the Constitution.
[Here, the Court will take up the argument that the order reflects unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of religion. See this amicus brief from a collection of civil rights organizations arguing that the order should be seen as an act of religious discrimination.]
There are also an extraordinary number of amicus briefs filed in this case, and you may wish to see if any are from organizations you would like to hear from.
Expect the arguments to run long. So far, the Court has not ordered additional time (although it denied the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s request to participate in oral arguments), but it is the only case on the docket today.
People will begin lining up to see the arguments very early, and I wouldn’t be surprised if no one gets in from the public line who wasn’t in line (or paying a line-stander) for at least 24 hours. Even if that’s not possible for you, there will be much to see and do on the sidewalk in front of the Court — multiple and competing demonstrations before and during arguments, followed by press conferences as soon as the arguing lawyers leave the building.
In the last two weeks of March, the Court will hear an extremely important case involving First Amendment claims in the abortion context, another gerrymandering case, and other cases.
Tuesday, March 20
[Monday’s cases involve technical issues of limited interest or accessibility for the casual observer.]
Abortion is before the Court today, and this always draws a large line for the arguments and a spirited set of crowds out front. National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra involves the California Reproductive FACT Act, which, briefly, requires licensed medical clinics to post information regarding free and low-cost abortion services available through the state and requires pregnancy counseling services that are not licensed medical centers to state in all advertising that they are not healthcare providers. The clinics claim this is a form of compelled speech that violates the First Amendment. California asserts that this falls within the scope of constitutionally permissible regulation of professional services, and is needed to inform women of available services and to prevent women from being confused as to the nature of the “clinic.”
Interestingly, in a number of states, the mandated speech goes the other way, requiring abortion clinics to post information designed to dissuade women from choosing to abort. There’s an interesting article in Slate exploring the problems that could arise for such laws if the clinics were to win this case. Scotusblog also offers a symposium of competing views. And, of course, there are a huge number of amici briefs.
The Solicitor General submitted an amicus brief supporting neither side. It then sought (and was granted) leave to participate in oral arguments, and both sides agreed to give up 5 minutes each. Very unusual!
The case is scheduled for the usual hour, but it is the only case on the docket today and will probably run a little long. Lines will form early–probably days early… But there will also be protests and press conferences happening out front, which are interesting to observe or join.
Wednesday, March 21
Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren is a technical issue of state court jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty. Briefly, both the Lundgrens and the tribe assert ownership over a strip of land. The Lundgrens brought suit to “quiet title” (have a court decide who has ownership) and the tribe asserted the state court had no jurisdiction over the dispute.
These arguments will be difficult to follow, but it is worth reading up on the case and attending if these issues interest you. A key concept is “in rem” jurisdiction — not jurisdiction over the party, but over a thing (in this case, not the tribe but a piece of land). Start with the overview here, then read the Washington Supreme Court decision, and then select some briefs to read as well.
Wednesday, March 28
[Monday’s and Tuesday’s cases are not recommended. However, Tuesday’s cases involve sentencing guidelines (Hughes and Koons); specific and technical issues regarding them, but still may be of interest to some.]
Partisan gerrymandering is once again before the court this morning. Benisek v. Lamone has been before the Supreme Court before; in 2015, the plaintiff won the right to a 3-judge panel, and now, the decision of that panel is up for review. The case involves the Maryland 6th, which had been a “safe” Republican seat until redistricting rendered it a “likely” Democratic seat. (Oyez overview; Common Cause fact sheet.) In addition to the links above, read at least a couple of the many briefs filed in the case before attending.
In the last two weeks of the month, the Court will hear arguments regarding union agency or “fair share” fees, political t-shirts worn to the voting booth, subpoenas to US companies for information stored on foreign servers, and other important issues.
Tuesday, February 20
(the Court observes Presidents Day on Monday)
Currier v. Virginia is a fairly technical issue regarding double jeopardy. The doctrine of “issue preclusion” aka “collateral estoppel” prevents re-trial of a fact that was necessarily determined by a jury in a prior case. So even if the defendant is not charged with the same crime, it might still constitute double jeopardy if the second criminal offense relies on a factual question that a jury resolved in favor of the defendant in an earlier trial. In this case, the defendant was accused of stealing guns. He had a prior felony conviction, so it would have been illegal for him to even possess the guns. With his agreement, the state first tired him for larceny and breaking and entering, and severed the charge of “felon in possession of a firearm.” The jury found in favor of the defendant in the first trial, but the state proceeded to try him for possession anyway, and this time convinced the jury. The issue is whether issue preclusion, and thus the double jeopardy clause, applies even where the defendant agreed to sever the charges. The arguments on both sides are described in scotusblog’s preview.
The second case today, City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt, involves the right against self-incrimination, interestingly in the context of alleged police misconduct. Under threat of being fired, a police officer told his supervisors how he came into possession of a knife while on duty. He was then charged with a range of crimes, and although the charges were dropped before trial, the officer’s statements regarding the knife were used against him during a probable cause hearing. When he had trouble finding another job, he sued the City for violating his constitutional rights. The Fifth Amendment prohibits being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against [oneself].” It’s fairly settled that threat of termination is compelled, but is use during a preliminary proceeding covered by the amendment? The City is being represented by the UVA Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, which has an useful story about the case. The Court accepted cert. on the question “Whether the Fifth Amendment is violated when statements are used at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial.” A collection of government employers filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hold that the city cannot be held liable for the decision of the prosecutors; it will be interesting the see if the Court views this as within the scope of the question they agreed to review.
Wednesday, February 21
Both cases today will be a bit technical for the casual observer, but nevertheless should be interesting.
First, Rosales-Mireles v. U.S. involves waiver and plain error, in the context of illegal immigration. The defendant pleaded guilty to “illegal reentry” (returning to the US after being deported). He had a prior criminal history, which increases the sentence. However, the trial court counted a prior conviction for misdemeanor assault twice. The government concedes that this was in error and placed him in the wrong sentencing guidelines category (77-96 months instead of the correct 70-87 months; he got 78 months). However, there was no objection at the time of sentencing, which means that an appellate court may only correct it if it constitutes “plain error.” In the Fifth Circuit, this means not only obviously wrong but is the kind of error “that would shock the conscience of the common man, serve as a powerful indictment against our system of justice, or seriously call into question the competence or integrity of the district judge.” The Circuit held that this error was not of that nature, and declined or order re-sentencing. The Supreme Court has accepted cert. to resolve whether that final condition for plain error review is appropriate.
For the second case, Dahda v. U.S., the official question presented is probably sufficient: “Whether Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2520, requires suppression of evidence obtained pursuant to a wiretap order that is facially insufficient because the order exceeds the judge’s territorial jurisdiction.”
Monday, February 26
An extremely important case involving union “agency fees” or “fair share fees” is up first today, Janus v. AFSCME. In order to prevent discrimination based on union membership, the National Labor Relations Act requires that all employees be covered by a union contract — so workers are not getting different wages or working conditions depending solely on whether or not they joined the union. But negotiating, administering, and enforcing a contract costs money. Therefore, the Supreme Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that even employees who decline to join the union can be required to pay the union for these expenses. Unions are required to calculate their spending precisely, and bill non-members an appropriate fraction of the membership fee; only money collected from voluntary members may be spent on non-workplace activities (like electoral campaigns). This principle has been under attack in recent years, and many people predicted that Justice Scalia would have been the fifth vote to reverse these precedents if he hadn’t died after cert. was granted in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass’n but before a decision was issued. The resulting 4-4 split left in place the Circuit court’s decision, which had ruled for the union based on those longstanding precedents. This case brings the issue back to the Court. Scotusblog has a useful overview as well as an online symposium with a range of views. This is a very important case and will draw a lot of attention — and early and long lines to get inside, but also press conferences and protests out front.
Ohio v. American Express is an antitrust case, arising out of differences in how AmEx, compared with Visa and MasterCard, set prices and work with merchants. The Second Circuit sided with AmEx, but an unusually wide range of organizations are lining up on the other side.
Tuesday, February 27
The clash of new technology and old legal presumptions is on display in US v. Microsoft. The federal government served a subpoena on Microsoft at their Washington state headquarters for emails of a suspected drug dealer. It agreed to turn over records stored in the US, but not the content of the emails, which were stored in servers in Ireland. There is a general presumption that US laws do not apply outside the US (extraterritorial application), and the Court has never resolved how this relates to the Stored Communications Act or technology of this nature in general. There are lots of interesting and nuanced concerns about effectiveness of our laws but the need to avoid putting international actors in a conflict with other countries’ laws. Scotusblog has an overview and an online symposium with some really compelling insights.
An absurd example of First Amendment retaliation hits an 11th Circuit doctrine in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida. During the public comment portion of a City Council meeting, Mr. Lozman was instructed by a council member not to discuss his opposition to an eminent domain plan, and he was arrested when he persisted. The transcript of an earlier meeting revealed a plan by council members to “intimidate” him. He sued, but lost the trial and sought a new trial on various grounds. The 11th Circuit held that the police officer had probable cause to arrest him for disrupting a public meeting, and therefore there could be no lawsuit for unconstitutional retaliation or any other grounds, because of the Circuit’s rule that a finding of probable cause bars any other such claims. See this overview and the ACLU position.
Wednesday, February 28
First Amendment protection for political expression at the voting booth is the issue in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky: “Whether Minnesota statute Section 211B.11, which broadly bans all political apparel at the polling place, is facially overbroad under the First Amendment.” Again, Scotusblog has a useful overview and interesting symposium.
Today, my friend Heidi Boghosian and I have filed an amici curiae brief urging the Supreme Court Court to review the conviction and sentence of Ross Ulbricht in the “Silk Road” case. The petition for cert. was Scotusblog’s “petition of the day” last month. Our brief describes two major areas of concern that the Supreme Court should review and correct.
Since the blog is almost exclusively for the benefit of my students, I take a break from keeping up with it when the Court is in session but GW classes are not and students are not around. Which is why there’s been no post about the first set of January cases. But the two cases on January 17 are worth noting:
Encino Motorcars v. Navarro is an issue of statutory construction, in the context of employee rights to overtime pay. The same case was before the Supreme Court in 2016, but the only issue was the deference given to the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the statute. Judicial deference to administrative agencies is of particular importance and interest, especially since the new administration came to power. But that part of the case is resolved, and now the Court deals only with how courts should interpret the statutory language. Scotusblog has a useful overview, with an interesting discussion of the briefing itself.
For the next case, McCoy v. Louisiana, I will also rely on the good work from Scotusblog, this time going so far as to let the title of their article convey what the case is about: When a defendant in a capital case says “not guilty,” can his attorney say “guilty”?
[After today, the Court next hears argument on February 20. Previews of those cases to come in early February.]
What may be the most highly watched case of the term — Masterpiece Cakeshop, involving nondiscrimination laws and same-sex couples — will be argued on December 5. Before then, we also have important cases involving Dodd-Frank whistleblowers and privacy rights in phone records.
[Update: PBS Newshour, Analysis: 3 cases that make December a blockbuster month for the Supreme Court]
There are important patent cases on Monday, November 27. They will not be of interest or easy to follow for the casual observer, but if you’re interested in PTO procedures or patent law, see the case pages here and here.
Tuesday, Nov 28
The first case today is a technical issue of civil procedure for class actions under the Securities Act.
However, the second case, Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, could significantly expand or contract the rights of whistleblowers under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Wednesday, Nov 29
Carpenter v. United States raises important issues about privacy rights in the vast amount of data that is stored by companies we rely upon for modern technology. A 1986 federal law, the Stored Communications Act, allows phone companies to turn over records to law enforcement without a warrant. Now, of course, phones transmit much more information than anyone could have anticipated three decades ago. The Court has accepted cert. on the question “Whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment.” A useful overview is here, and be sure to follow the link there to the EFF brief.
This is the only case scheduled for today. No change to the usual one-hour argument has been ordered, but it may run a little long.
Tuesday, December 5 — Masterpiece Cakeshop
This may be the most anticipated case of the term, involving nondiscrimination laws and the rights of same-sex couples and private businesses. Briefly, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that a bakery violated state law when it refused to prepare a cake for a same-sex wedding. The baker claims that his First Amendment rights should bar the state from enforcing its nondiscrimination laws. A great deal has been written about this case in non-legal forums, but before attending arguments, it would be wise to review the Scotusblog overview, Mary Bonauto’s article, and the couple’s petition for cert.
This case is sure to draw a huge crowd, probably with lines forming the night (or afternoon) before. On the other hand, I would expect demonstrations and press conferences outside the courthouse before, during, and after arguments. So plan to get there exceedingly early if you want to attend the arguments, but you also could just take in the events outside.
This is the only case scheduled for argument today. The Court has not extended argument time, but it also has not (as of Nov 20) acted on the Solicitor General’s motion to split time with the bakery. Regardless of how the Court divvies up the time, I would expect arguments to run at least a little past the usual hour.
Most of the cases this week are focused on technical issues that would not be terribly interesting or easily accessible to most casual observers. The exception if the first case on Monday, Ayestas v. Davis.
In federal death penalty cases, the law requires that when counsel is appointed for indigent defendants, there also be funding for “investigative, expert, or other services [that] are reasonably necessary for the representation.” 18 USC § 3599(f). This case is a habeas case — an appeal to the federal courts of a verdict in state court — and the Fifth Circuit has interpreted “reasonably necessary” to mean that the defendant must show that there is a “substantial need” for the investigation by presenting “substantiated argument, not speculation, about what the prior counsel did or omitted doing.” The concern is that this standard requires defense counsel to prove what an investigation would uncover before there can be an investigation. A very useful article about the case is on Scotusblog. The Court has accepted cert. on “whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds ‘reasonably necessary’ resources to investigate and develop an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the Section 3599(f) motion is made.”
The second case today, Wilson v. Sellers, is also a federal death penalty case, but the question is more arcane. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) creates high barriers to federal courts overturning state court sentences of death. A key concept is deference to adjudications “on the merits.” Sometimes, various appeals in the state courts will result in some opinions that provide a full reasoning and others that offer only a summary affirmance of the decision. Courts historically have “looked through” one-sentence decisions to the last full opinion as being the one for consideration as a decision on the merits, but a 2011 Supreme Court case seemed to hold that even summary decisions are “on the merits” in some circumstances. This is an important issue, but very tied up in civil procedure matters that can be hard to follow. If you plan to attend, read this article and, if you have time, a couple of amicus briefs — intriguingly, a group of retired state supreme court justices are on the opposite side from a group of state governments.
[Looking ahead, there is
a voting rights case on November 8,* a Dodd-Frank whistleblower case on Nov 28, NCAA cases on Dec 4, and the much-anticipated Masterpiece Cakeshop case on Dec 5. I will provide full descriptions of these cases in various posts as the oral argument dates for each get closer.]
* The voting rights case has been removed from the docket due to a medical issue with one of the lawyers who was going to argue the case. We expect it to be argued early in 2018.
The new Supreme Court term begins with some very significant cases, including Trump’s Muslim travel ban and a profoundly important case involving partisan gerrymandering. I highlight some significant October cases below, and will add cases to be argued in future months as those schedules become available. (The Court does not schedule oral argument when it grants cert., but rather waits until written briefing is complete.)
One of the cases receiving a lot of national attention, Masterpiece Cakeshop (involving discrimination, in violation of state law, by refusing to prepare a cake for a same-sex marriage), is not likely to be heard until 2018. The Cakeshop’s brief is due on August 31, with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s brief coming October 23, followed finally by the company’s reply brief on November 22. So I would expect oral arguments in January or February, although it could be as early as December.
“First Monday,” October 2
The 2017 term opens with the issue of mandatory arbitration clauses. The Court has taken on a number of arbitration disputes in recent years, typically finding that the Federal Arbitration Act requires state courts to enforce these provisions against a variety of legal challenges. In these three consolidated cases (one hour total, for NLRB v. Murphy Oil, Ernst & Young v. Morris, and Epic Systems v. Lewis), the issue is whether arbitration clauses are enforceable when they infringe on rights protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Most of the briefing in these cases was completed before the 2017 Presidential Election, so there is an odd set of conflicting positions in briefs filed by the NLRB initially and by the Solicitor General after Trump took office.
The Court will also re-hear argument in the first of two immigration law cases it heard last year but did not decide, presumably because it was split 4-4. This one, Sessions v. Dimaya, involves the vagueness of the terms “aggravated felony” and “crime of violence.” Dimaya was ordered removed from the US on the basis of two burglaries of unoccupied homes–no violence was involved, but it’s the kind of crime that can involve violence.
Tuesday, October 3
The first case today takes on the important but vexing issue of partisan gerrymandering, and deserves to be one of the most-watched cases of the term. In Gill v. Whitford, there does not seem to be any dispute that the Wisconsin legislature engaged in “packing” and “cracking” to concentrate Democratic votes in as few districts as possible and ensure they were small minorities in all other districts. The issue is whether this is the sort of political practice that is unconstitutional, and whether the courts can craft a set of criteria that allow for legal challenge without exceeding the judiciary’s role. A good summary is here, with a set of thoughtful positions collected here.
The second case today is the second of the two immigration law cases it heard last year but did not decide, presumably because it was split 4-4. This one, Jennings v. Rodriguez, involves a detained immigrant’s right to post bond for pre-hearing release.
Wednesday, October 4
This is a criminal law day, with both cases coming out of Washington, DC. The first involves probable cause and qualified immunity. Under DC law, the crime of unlawful entry (trespassing) requires that the person knew or should have known that the entry is unlawful. In DC v Wesby, MPD officers responded to complaints about a loud party and arrested the partiers for unlawful entry even though they said they had permission from a person who was leasing the house. Police spoke with that person, who confirmed, but then called the owner, who said the lease had not begun yet. Lower courts held that there was not probable cause to believe that the partiers knew they did not have the owner’s permission. They also held that the police should have known that an arrest under these circumstances would violate the 4th Amendment, so were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court has accepted review of both questions.
The second case, Class v. US, is a criminal procedure case in the context of gun laws. Mr. Class brought three guns from his home in North Carolina to Washington, DC, leaving the guns inside his car when he went to tour the US Capitol. He says he did not realize the parking lot was on Capitol grounds, where firearms are prohibited. A Capitol Police officer noticed something suspicious in the car, and Class was arrested upon returning to the car. He raised various Second Amendment and due process claims, but ultimately pled guilty after the trial court rejected those constitutional claims. He then appealed, but the appellate court held the guilty plea waived his right to appeal. The Court has granted cert on the question “Does a guilty plea inherently waive a defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction?” This case also had briefs filed by both the Obama and Trump administrations, although both sided against Mr. Class (first arguing that the Court should not grant review, and then arguing that it should reject his arguments).
(the Court does not hear cases on Monday, which is Columbus Day)
Tuesday, October 10
This will be one of the most highly watched arguments of the year–the “Muslim travel ban” cases, Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project and Trump v. Hawaii. I don’t have anything to add to the extensive commentary on these cases…. Scotusblog has a useful introduction and then a series of thoughtful articles from a variety of perspectives. It is also worth reviewing a few of the amici briefs that have been filed in this case (especially those by the “Former National Security Officials” and the “Constitutional Law Scholars”).
The other case this morning, Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services, is a technical issue of appellate procedure.
Wednesday, October 11
The first case scheduled for this morning involves court jurisdiction for Clean Water Act cases, under the “Obama Water Rule.” I say scheduled because Trump has said he will rescind the rule, so the case may become moot and get removed from the docket.
The second case involves corporate liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The ATCA has received a lot of attention from the Supreme Court in recent years, after almost no attention for centuries (it was enacted by the first Congress, in 1789). Jesner v. Arab Bank is brought by victims of attacks in the West Bank and Gaza now living in the US, who claim that US branches of the bank were involved in laundering funds for Hamas. The Court has accept cert. on the question of whether corporations can be sued under the ATCA. Scotusblog has some good background.
There is a major religion case and an interesting criminal procedure case tomorrow, and a death penalty case on Monday. Otherwise, this and next week are mostly taken up with cases that involve hard-to-follow matters of procedure and specialized areas of law, so with the exception of the cases below, this is generally not the best month for the casual observer.
Wednesday, April 19
The competing religion clauses are once again up for examination and attempt at reconciliation in the first case this morning, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. The First Amendment prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In order to avoid violating the first clause, Missouri prohibits public money from being disbursed “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.” In this case, that meant a church-owned playground could not be reimbursed for refurbishing its playground with a rubber surface made from recycled tires under a program that is available to non-religious nonprofit organizations. The church sued, claiming this effort to comply with the first religion clause violates the second religion clause, by singling out churches for less favorable treatment compared with all other nonprofits. There is a web of not-always-consistent legal doctrines and tests for the constitutionality of regulations that impact religion, developed in the Supreme Court over the past several decades. Intriguingly, the state is emphasizing the text of the Constitution, noting that refusing to give money for a playground renovation in no way prohibits exercise of religion. The argument is even more intriguing given that the briefing predated the nomination of the textualist, but generally pro-religion, now-Justice Gorsuch. A full overview of the case and arguments is available here.
The second case today involves appellate review of “errors” in a criminal trial. Some types of error require a showing of prejudice — to get a new trial, it’s not enough that the trial judge did the wrong thing, the defendant has to show that the error likely impacted the outcome of the trial. Other types of errors are “structural,” undermining the integrity of the proceedings as a whole, and are deemed always and necessarily prejudicial. In Weaver v. Massachusetts, the judge closed the courtroom during jury selection, denying entry to the defendant’s mother and others. By all accounts, this was simply because so many potential jurors were called, in an effort to find enough impartial jurors, that the room was full (although some potential jurors could simply have been told to wait outside). Nevertheless, it is fundamental that the Constitution requires public trials (except under very unusual circumstances) and this was structural error, requiring no special showing of prejudice to warrant reversal and a new trial. But the defendant’s lawyer failed to object to the closing of the courtroom, and ineffective assistance of counsel is a type of error that requires a showing of prejudice. So which rule applies, and does the defendant need to show prejudice in order to get a new trial?
Monday, April 24
First up is a death penalty case involving the right to independent psychological experts. In McWilliams v. Dunn, the judge ordered psychological examination of the defendant, which was first conducted by a Department of Corrections doctor who recommended evaluation by an independent expert. The report by an independent expert was not delivered until the day before sentencing, and the judge denied a request for time for the defense counsel to review the report with an expert. The Court has granted cert on the question of whether this violates the right (declared in other cases) to “meaningful expert assistance.”
The second case today is a complex issue involving the right to effective assistance of counsel. The Court has held that the constitutional right to counsel requires effective assistance at trial and on direct appeals, but not during discretionary or collateral post-conviction proceedings (like requests to reduce the sentence for reasons other than legal error at trial). However, some states require ineffective assistance claims to be raised in collateral proceedings, and difficult issues arise when claims are “nested” among actions by counsel in various proceedings. It’s a complex area of criminal appellate law, and the argument will not be easy to follow for the casual observer. If you plan to attend, start here and follow the links.
[April 25 & 26: Tuesday cases and the first cases on Wednesday involve technical FDA and civil procedure cases, which I wouldn’t recommend for a casual observer. The second hour on Wednesday involves denaturalization so may be of some interest, although it too is a relatively technical issue.]
This month, the Court will consider a wrongful death claim involving a cross-border shooting by a Border Patrol agent, arbitration agreements in the context of alleged wrongful death of nursing home residents, and sex offender laws in immigration and free speech contexts.
Tuesday, Feb 21
A tragic case made more politically interesting in the context of current US-Mexico tensions is up first today, in Hernández v. Mesa. A 15 year-old boy was shot and killed by a US Border Patrol agent. The agent fired from US territory, but the boy was in Mexico. That much is undisputed; the parents say he was playing a game that involved touching the fence and running back, while the agent says this was part of an illegal border crossing that involved a group throwing rocks at agents. But the Court will decide only whether this dispute can get as far as trial: does the 4th Amendment apply to use of force under these circumstances, and can the parents bring a suit like this? A through description of all the legal issues is available here.
McLane Co v. EEOC is a more procedural issue without much suspense. Federal courts enforce or quash (cancel) subpoenas issued by federal agencies like the EEOC. All but one Circuit court decides based on whether the EEOC abused its discretion (which is deferential toward the agency), but the 9th does so based on de novo review (its own original determination, with no deference to the agency). Interesting arguments on both sides are described here.
Wednesday, Feb 22
The Court hears only one case today, involving arbitration agreements, which have been the subject of much controversy recently. Historically, the Court has held that the Federal Arbitration Act serves as a very serious obstacle to any state laws that would restrict the enforceability of arbitration agreements. Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark involves deceased residents of a nursing home whose “principals” (individuals who held their power of attorney) sued the home for for wrongful death, personal injury, and violations of certain Kentucky laws protecting nursing home residents. The home sought to dismiss the cases based on the mandatory arbitration agreement those principles had signed on behalf of the residents, but the Kentucky Supreme Court held that they lacked authority to enter the arbitration agreement because the right to a jury trial and to appeal to higher courts are fundamental constitutional rights that cannot be waived absent express authority to do so. A thorough discussion of the case is available here.
Monday, February 27
The Court takes on sex offender laws in two cases today, in immigration and free speech contexts.
The question in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions is: Whether a conviction under one of the seven state statutes criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and someone almost 18 constitutes an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor” under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act – and therefore constitutes grounds for mandatory removal.
In Packingham v. North Carolina, the issue is: Whether, under the court’s First Amendment precedents, a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state’s registry of former sex offenders to “access” a wide array of websites – including Facebook, YouTube, and nytimes.com – that enable communication, expression, and the exchange of information among their users, if the site is “know[n]” to allow minors to have accounts, is permissible, both on its face and as applied to petitioner, who was convicted based on a Facebook post in which he celebrated dismissal of a traffic ticket, declaring “God is Good!”