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.
The Court confirmed today that it would not hold arguments this month. After cancelation of the March arguments, the next set of arguments had been scheduled for April 20-22 and 27-29.
The Court is continuing to do business. Briefs are being filed in pending cases and the Justices are meeting by telephone and issuing decisions in cases that were argued earlier in the term. (And Justice Ginsburg is still using the gym!)
Today’s press release raised the prospect of coming up with something other than in-person arguments for final consideration of postponed and remaining cases if it is not possible to reschedule and resume meetings soon: “The Court will consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the Courtroom before the end of the Term.” That would be truly unprecedented — conference calling did not exist the last time the Court suspended arguments, due to the Spanish Flu in 1918.
Arguments that had been scheduled for the last two weeks of the month are postponed. “The Court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances.”
But the Court also offered us the best lines in any institution’s response to the virus: “The Court’s postponement of argument sessions in light of public health concerns is not unprecedented. The Court postponed scheduled arguments for October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic. The Court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.”
The Supreme Court building “is closed to the public” but “will remain open for official business.” It’s not entirely clear what this means for oral arguments, and particularly for members of the public or members of the Supreme Court Bar who wish to observe the arguments. As of posting, there are no docket entries suggesting that next week’s cases will not be heard as scheduled.
Assuming arguments go forward — and regardless of whether or not you could attend — this may be a good time to learn about the availability of audio recordings and transcripts! From the Court’s website, you can get transcripts the same day as the arguments and the audio is released that Friday. In addition, on Oyez you can get transcript-synchronized audio (the transcript scrolls and highlights automatically as you listen). It’s a great service. Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the latest; go to the case page then click the link in the left column. I’m not sure how long they take, but seem to be fairly quick to produce this after the audio is released.
There are some important and interesting cases coming. I’ll note next week’s cases now, and add a new post for the week of March 30 when there’s more certainty about what’s happening in response to concerns about the pandemic.
Monday, March 23
Two consolidated cases (one hour total) are up first, and involve the statute of limitations for rape under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There’s an interesting amicus brief from a bipartisan group of Members of Congress that provides a useful history of the UCMJ and prior precedents.
Next up is an interesting trademark case, US Patent & Trademark Office v. Booking.com. You cannot trademark a generic term, but can you trademark [generic term].com? For a useful overview, see this “Brief amici curiae of Trademark Scholars in support of neither party.”
Tuesday, March 24
Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc. is an extremely important intellectual property case. A great deal of software relies on existing Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which had been assumed to be open-source because the statue states that copyright protection does not “extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” But the Federal Circuit held that APIs are copyrightable and that Google’s use of Java APIs were not fair use. See the amicus brief from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
An important “no fly list” case brought in part under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Tanzin v. Tanvir, is the second argument. Oyez offers a useful overview:
The plaintiffs, Muslim men born outside of the U.S. but living lawfully inside the country, allege that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed their names on the national “No Fly List,” despite posing no threat to aviation, in retaliation for their refusal to become FBI informants reporting on fellow Muslims. They sued the agents in their official and individual capacities in U.S. federal court under the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the RFRA. They claim that the listing of their names substantially burdened their exercise of religion, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), because their refusal was compelled by Muslim tenets.
Wednesday, March 25
Two First Amendment cases today. First is Carney v. Adams, involving a Delaware law concerning political affiliation of judges. “Whether the First Amendment invalidates a longstanding state constitutional provision that limits judges affiliated with any one political party to no more than a ‘bare majority’ on the state’s three highest courts, with the other seats reserved for judges affiliated with the ‘other major political party.’” The Brennan Center is heavily involved in such issues and has an amicus brief that should provide a good foundation.
Finally, United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., involves First Amendment limits on conditions for federal funding. Congress originally provided funding for HIV intervention programs subject to two restrictions: (1) no funds “may be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution,” and (2) no funds may be used by an organization “that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.” In 2013, Alliance for Open Society won in an earlier Supreme Court case with the same name, which held that the second restriction “violates the First Amendment by compelling as a condition of federal funding the affirmation of a belief that by its nature cannot be confined within the scope of the Government program” Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 570 U.S. 205 (2013). The case today asks whether that principle protects only this US-based organization or extends “to legally distinct foreign entities operating overseas that are affiliated with” the organization.
The next block of arguments will occur in the last week of February and first week of March—with a large number of very significant cases. It starts with an important case involving federal lands that has not received much attention, followed by other important cases including a really interesting one in the context of free speech related to illegal immigration and another questioning the whole “expedited removal” process, then the CFPB case, and finally ending on March 4 with one of the more high-profile cases of the term, involving access to abortion.
Monday, February 24
First is a case that has not received much public attention but represents an important contest over whether the Trump Administration can authorize commercial activity on federal land in apparent violation of enacted laws. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission awarded a right-of-way to Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC so it could construct a natural gas pipeline across the Appalachian Trail within the George Washington Forest, despite laws that specify that such rights-of-way may be granted on federal lands “except lands in the National Park System.” 30 U.S.C. § 185(b)(1). An environmental organization successfully sued to block this action, with the Fourth Circuit holding that the Appalachian Trail is a “unit” of the National Park System and therefore the Mineral Leasing Act “specifically excludes” the Trail “from the authority . . . to grant pipeline rights of way.” The Administration is arguing, among other things, that the Appalachian Trail is not “land” within the meaning of these laws, which one group of amici seized on: “Petitioners’ first response (USFS Br. 19; ACP Br. 18) to that straightforward reading of the relevant statutory texts is that the AT is not ‘land’ at all but is instead merely ‘a trail’ or ‘a footpath’ that metaphysically crosses land. That argument is too clever by half.” I recommend reviewing that brief from NRDC and other groups, which offers a useful overview of the arguments. [There are two cases, US Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Assn. and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC v. Cowpasture River Assn., but they have been consolidated for a total of 1 hour of argument.]
The second case is a terrorism case that also has not received much attention, likely because it involves fairly technical issues of interpretation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The suit is against Sudan and alleges that it sponsored Al-Qaeda and bears liability for deaths and injuries of US government employees and contractors in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Congress amended the FSIA in 2008 to allow for punitive damages in cases of state-sponsored terrorism; the question for the Court today is whether that amendment applies retroactively. Opati v. Republic of Sudan.
Tuesday, February 25
Today is an important First Amendment case in the context of illegal immigration. Federal law provides for imprisonment of anyone who “encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law.” 18 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv). Based on those words alone, the statute might be read to criminalize a wide range of political advocacy that would be Constitutionally protected, such as editorials describing immigration law as immoral and illegitimate bars on entry by people fleeing oppression. Although incitement and solicitation of illegal activity may be criminalized under longstanding First Amendment doctrines, “abstract advocacy” of illegal activity is free speech. The line is often difficult to describe and cases typically address the issue in theoretical terms. That’s the case in today’s US v. Sineneng-Smith. Evelyn Sineneng-Smith continued to file green card applications (and charge her clients) under a specific program even though that program had ended. She was convicted of both mail fraud (which is no longer being contested) and under this “encourage or induce” provision. Speech that is part of a criminal scheme is not protected, but in First Amendment cases, we often look to the language of the statute and courts will strike down the law if it is “overbroad” even if the specific defendant before them did something that the Constitution would allow the government to criminalize under a more carefully drafted statute. Prof. Eugene Volokh’s amicus brief offers a compelling examination of the importance of the questions in this case. There’s also an interesting NYT article about the case.
Wednesday, February 26
The only case today is a technical issue under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, involving how to count the number of “strikes” against a prisoner who has had prior lawsuits dismissed. It’s not one I would recommend to the casual observer. Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez
Monday, March 2
Two important immigration cases today, both involving different aspects of the power of the courts over the immigration process. The first, Nasrallah v. Barr, involves a member of the Druze religion who had been granted asylum in 2006 on the basis of an incident in which Hezbollah fired weapons at him and forced him to jump off a cliff to escape. But in 2013 he was convicted of receiving stolen property, which triggered a removal process. An immigration judge deferred removal, finding that he likely would face persecution if returned to Lebanon, but the Board of Immigration Appeals found that he was not in fact in danger because the guns weren’t aimed at him and he “voluntarily jumped.” The 11th Circuit refused to examine that finding, holding that it lacked power to review factual findings by the BIA. The Supreme Court has granted cert. on “whether the courts of appeals possess jurisdiction to review factual findings underlying denials of withholding (and deferral) of removal relief.” See this interesting amicus brief from a group thirty-three former immigration judges and members of the BIA, which argues that “[i]n light of the immense resource constraints of immigration courts, which amici experienced firsthand, it is crucial to have Article III court review of the underlying basis for a grant or denial of a [Convention Against Torture] claim.”
The second case, DHS v. Thuraissigiam, reviews a 9th Circuit decision that called into question the entire “expedited removal” process, finding that it lacked the “meager procedural protections” that the Supreme Court had required even for enemy combatants in Guantanamo — and therefore the statute denying courts authority to hear habeas petitions was invalid under the Constitution’s “suspension clause.” The Circuit decision itself offers a useful overview of the law and the circumstances this immigrant faced; also see this ABA Journal article and the organization’s amicus brief.
Tuesday, March 3
The legitimacy of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is being challenged on the basis of separation-of-powers concerns in Seila Law v. CFPB. The Constitution vests the President with the authority and duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and this has traditionally meant broad authority to remove the heads of administrative agencies. But Congress on occasion creates “independent agencies” (with varying levels of actual independence) that it wants insulated from the political process. That’s been challenged on occasion as inconsistent with the constitutional scheme, but the Court has upheld various restrictions Congress has put on Presidential power over those agencies. CFPB is at the end of the continuum, though: it is funded independently through the Federal Reserve system and has only one director who serves a 5-year term and cannot be removed except for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” The case raises the question of whether Congress may so restrict the President’s authority to remove an administrative officer, but the Court may not reach that issue. It could instead read the “for cause” clause so broadly as to negate any separation-of-powers concerns, or it could hold that the petitioner lacks standing to raise the issue (it’s a law firm that refused to comply with a subpoena when the CFBP was investigating its telemarketing practices for consumer debt-relief services, which is a bit removed from the Constitutional issues). Scotusblog offers a useful overview and a symposium with a range of views.
There’s a lot of politics surrounding this case. Elizabeth Warren had a very significant role in the creation of the CFPB. Trump’s Solicitor General has declined to defend the constitutionality of the CFPB, so the Court asked Paul Clement (the Solicitor General under George W. Bush) to step in (he’s defended the structure but urged the Court not to reach that issue). And Justice Kavanaugh dissented when the issue was raised in a similar case when he was still on the DC Circuit (PHH Corp. v CFPB was decided 7-3 in favor of CFPB by the full DC Circuit in 2018).
The second case is an important but fairly procedural securities law issue. “Disgorgement” is essentially an order to surrender the ill-gotten gains. A 2017 Supreme Court case (Kokesh v. SEC) held that disgorgement is a form of “penalty” that is subject to a statute of limitations, but it left open the question of whether disgorgement was available as an “equitable remedy” (the ancient common law power of courts to craft appropriate responses to findings of guilt) in SEC enforcement actions when the statute of limitation is not a bar. Liu v. SEC asks that question directly. There’s an interesting NYT article that provides and overview and some details of the enforcement action, and this amicus brief by securities law scholars should really help you to follow the arguments.
Wednesday, March 4
Abortion cases are some of the most contentious and heavily watched argument days, and that was before the most recent batch of state laws following the presidential election. The June Medical Services cases (one with Russo as the petitioner and the other with him as the respondent; earlier cases will list Gee, the prior Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health) involve a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges in a hospital with 30 miles. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Court struck down a very similar Texas law in 2016 in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. There, the Court found an “undue burden” after looking at the obstacles the law created as balanced against the benefits of the law. It noted that the benefits were minimal: complications are very rare and most occur in the days following the procedure, after the woman had gone home. As to burden, in the Texas case the record showed that about half the state clinics had been forced to close. Louisiana is focused on the “burden” half of the equation, arguing that it won’t be as serious there because the state only has 3 clinics and 4 abortion doctors total, and one already has admitting privileges and the others should be able to satisfy the new requirement. Again Scotusblog offers a symposium collecting a range of views.
This case will draw a huge crowd. Lines to get into the courtroom will form the day before (with some probably arriving days before), but one former student got in (barely!) for the LGBT/Title VII case in January by joining the line in the early afternoon the day before. So obviously no guarantee, but I’d say that if you’re willing to spend 24 hours in line, you’ve got a chance. If you’re not, then it can be a great experience to go to take in the demonstrations outside the Court. Protests will start during commuter hours the morning of the arguments and continue until the arguing counsel leave the court and give interviews and speeches out front. During and immediately after arguments are typically when the crowds outside are biggest and most active. The two cases are consolidated for one hour of argument, but they are the only arguments scheduled for today so I would expect them to run a little long. With bar admissions and decision announcements starting at 10:00, I would expect arguing counsel to be leaving the Courthouse around 11:30.
I surveyed some recent and upcoming Supreme Court cases for a segment on Law & Disorder with Heidi Boghosian and Michael Smith. My segment starts at 31:45.
At the end, they were kind enough to ask where people can follow my writing, and I felt quite outdated in giving a website. So I have now created a Twitter account. Follow @profzwolfe to know when there are new posts here (and, perhaps eventually and rarely, other content).
The Court returns from the holidays for oral arguments on January 13. This month starts with “bridgegate,” takes up other important criminal law and other issues, and ends with a major church-state case.
[arguments on Jan 13 involve technical ERISA and preclusion issues and are not recommended for the casual observer]
Tuesday, January 14
Kelly v. US is a really interesting public corruption case, involving criminal prosecutions that followed “bridgegate” – the September 2013 decision to create a traffic nightmare on the George Washington Bridge to punish the Fort Lee mayor for refusing to back then-NJ Gov Chris Christie. After all the public scandal, prosecutors noted that public funds had been wasted in putting on a fake “traffic study” as cover for the true motives, as well as changing and then restoring the traffic pattern. Two people were ultimately convicted of felonies: they used deception to cause the Port Authority to expend resources, which meets the statutory offenses of fraud and wire fraud (because some of the scheme was conducted by email). The Third Circuit upheld those convictions. In seeking Supreme Court review, the defendants urge that reading the fraud statutes so broadly “would put every official action in the sights of the fraud laws, turning them into broad government ethics codes.” Scotusblog has a useful overview of the factual events and a symposium with a range of views.
The second case today, Romag Fasteners Inc. v. Fossil Inc., is not one I would ordinarily recommend to a casual observer but may be worth staying for after the first argument. It is a question of interpretation of the Lanham Act, involving trademark and copyright infringement. Some courts have read a “willfulness requirement” into the statute, requiring the infringer to turn over (“disgorge”) all profits only if the infringement was willful. Here, Fossil was found to have acted in “callous disregard” for Romag’s intellectual property, but not willfully. Most of the legal organizations are lining up against Fossil, arguing that willfulness is not required if the judge otherwise finds that the circumstances of the infringement support an award of profits. A useful summary of the sides is here.
Wednesday, January 15
The only case today asks whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act requires but-for causation or only that age was a motivating factor, in the context of federal employees. ADEA requires (for employees aged 40 and over) that employment actions in the federal sector “shall be made free from any discrimination based on age.” For many employment discrimination laws, it is well established that a plaintiff need only prove that the discrimination was a motivating factor, not that the action would not have been taken “but for” the employee’s race, religion, etc. For example, after much litigation on this, in 1991 Congress amended Title VII to make explicit that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” 42 U.S.C. §2000-e2(m). However, in 2008 the Supreme Court held in Gross v. FBL Financial Svcs that the ADEA provision involving private sector employees required but-for causation. But the provision involving private sector employees prohibits actions “because of such individual’s age,” and the plaintiffs here (federal employees) argue that the earlier-quoted language that applies to them, “free from any discrimination” is broader. See the Harvard CR-CL discussion for more detail about this case, Babb v. Wilkie.
[The Court observes Dr. King Day on the 20th]
Tuesday, January 21
Shuar v. US is an important consideration of the Armed Career Criminal Act. If a defendant is convicted of unlawful gun possession under federal law, ACCA requires the court to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years if the defendant had three prior convictions for a “violent felony” or “serious drug offense.” What constitutes a “violent felony” has been heavily litigated, and the Court has settled on a “categorical approach,” which considers only the nature of the crime rather than the individual’s specific conduct. So a conviction for burglary is a prior conviction for a violent felony, even if no force or violence was actually employed in that particular burglary. The Court has never squarely addressed whether this categorical approach applies to determining what is a “serious drug offense” as well. That’s the issue in this case, but with an unexpected wrinkle: if the court looks only to the statutory elements of the drug crimes for which Shuar was previously convicted (and not to his actual conduct), they would not be “serious” under the ACCA. This case has not received much public attention, but the NACDL amicus brief is quite readable and should help to provide a good grounding in the issues.
Today’s second case is not recommended for the casual observer. Although mandatory arbitration is a developing and important area of the law, GE Energy Power Conversion France SAS v. Outokumpu Stainless USA is a more technical issue: “Whether the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards permits a nonsignatory to an arbitration agreement to compel arbitration based on the doctrine of equitable estoppel.”
Wednesday, January 22
The separation of church and state is before the Court today in Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue. It involves tax breaks for donations to scholarships supporting attendance at private schools, and whether those scholarships can be used at religious schools. The tax office initially prohibited using those scholarships at religious schools. In order to avoid either discriminating against or supporting religion, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the whole program; no taxpayer support of religious or non-religious private schools. Church-state issues have been before the Court repeatedly in recent years, but we still lack a clear and coherent framework for resolving just how much (as the state put it) “room for play in the joints” there is between the free exercise clause (that prohibits unduly discriminating against religion and religious schools) and the establishment clause (that prohibits excessive governmental support for religion). Scotusblog has a good symposium; start with Amy Howe’s overview and then look at some of the disparate arguments.
[The Court does not hear arguments on Veterans Day.]
Tuesday, November 12
The morning starts with three cases (consolidated for 80 minutes of argument total: DHS v. Regents of the Univ. Calif., Trump v. NAACP, and McAleenan v. Vidal) involving DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This is a famous controversy and much has been written about these cases (Scotusblog has a great symposium), but I will offer a quick background and a suggestion about issues and lines of argument to look for.
DACA began in 2012 under President Obama. Non-citizens who had come to the US under the age of 16 and could meet certain standards (good criminal history, in school or graduated or a veteran) could apply for DACA status and, if approved, receive a letter declaring that the government would not seek to deport them despite their undocumented status. This is a form of “prosecutorial discretion” — a well-recognized legal term for the obvious reality that the government lacks resources to enforce all laws 100% of the time, and so the executive has discretion to decide what to prioritize when enforcing the law.
In 2017, under the Trump Administration, DACA was criticized by then-AG Sessions and ultimately rescinded. Importantly, the documented reasons for rescinding the policy was that it had been challenged in court and the AG had written that DACA “was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”
That is important because government agencies must have a valid reason for taking action (which includes rescinding a prior action), and so actions based on an improper legal conclusion are almost always invalid under the Administrative Procedures Act. Although controversial, the best legal analysis is that DACA was constitutional — as above, the executive has to set priorities in deciding how to enforce laws with limited resources, and this was just a decision not to focus on child arrivals. The Trump administration could have said they have different priorities and so are rescinding DACA for that reason. But it didn’t; it said the reason was its conclusion that DACA was unconstitutional, which is not a valid legal conclusion. All three courts in these cases found that the asserted unconstitutionality of DACA was not defensible, and that therefore the decision to rescind DACA was not based on any valid reasoning.
In this context, it is worth remembering last term’s decision on the proposed addition of a “citizenship question” in the census, Dept of Commerce v. New York. Chief Justice Roberts was the 5th vote against the Trump Administration. He noted that the government would have been entitled to add a citizenship question for any of a number of reasons, including simply to appease a certain political constituency. But there, the Secretary instead claimed he was adding the question in order to help the Department of Justice better enforce the Voting Rights Act; a great deal of evidence showed that this explanation was “contrived.” And so Chief Justice Roberts joined the progressive justices in striking down that action. The final lines of his opinion are worth remembering before arguments in this case: “We do not hold that the agency decision here was substantively invalid. But agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”
Cross-border shooting / Bivens
The second argument today involves a cross-border shooting and the scope of Bivens actions. Briefly, a Border Patrol officer standing on US soil fired his weapon toward a group of people on Mexican land, hitting a teenager in the face and killing him. Ordinarily, plaintiffs need a Congressional statute that authorizes their lawsuit, and there is no federal statute that the boy’s family could use to seek redress. But the 1971 case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics stands for the proposition that the Constitution itself provides a basis for bringing suit for violations of constitutional rights. The case today does not address whether this shooting was unconstitutional (the prohibition on deprivation of life without due process is a constitutional right that has been held to apply to non-citizens generally, although the cross-border nature obviously complicates things); the merits would have to wait for another day. The Court today will consider only whether Bivens actions at least potentially apply to this situation. For more, please see the thorough preview on Scotusblog.
Wednesday, November 13
The first case today involves the 1866 Civil Rights Act (not a typo; the Reconstruction-era law). The law (now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1981) requires that all citizens have the same right to “make and enforce contacts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.” In Comcast v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, an association claims that Comcast refused to carry their channels because of racial animus. Comcast denies any such motive, but the trial court never reached that question and instead dismissed the case because it read the complaint as alleging mixed motives (that Comcast had legitimate reasons as well as illegitimate motives). The trial court held that § 1981 actions require but-for causation (the action would not have occurred but for the plaintiff’s race). In contrast, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been amended to clarify that employment discrimination is unlawful if race was a “motivating factor” (not necessarily the sole factor) in the decision to take that employment action. But since this is not an employment case, the question is whether a § 1981 case requires the plaintiff to show that race was the reason, rather than a reason. See the full description of the arguments on both sides at Scotusblog.
[The second case today is not one that would recommend to a casual observer. It involves procedural questions in bankruptcy cases.]
“First Monday” this year is October 7, when the Court returns from summer recess to hear the first set of arguments this term. The Court typically hears arguments on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays for two weeks in a row each calendar month. Further information amount attending arguments are on this page. This term, the Court will quickly take on some high-profile cases, involving Title VII coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, a defendant’s right to a unanimous verdict, life without parole for one of the DC-area snipers, and other issues. Those cases are discussed below.
Looking ahead, I will offer a post before the November arguments, which will include cases involving DACA and other immigration issues, the Clean Water Act, and police accountability. Looking even further ahead, the Court has agreed to hear, but has not yet scheduled arguments in, cases involving environmental law, the Second Amendment, the death penalty, religious establishment, mismanagement of employee retirement funds, and other issues. I will offer recommendations regarding those cases in the weeks before they are argued. This term is going to include a lot of cases that will generate great public interest.
Monday, October 7
The term opens with a case involving legal insanity and the death penalty, Kahler v. Kansas. Legal insanity means different things in different states. Some states instruct the jury to consider whether the defendant was capable of understanding right from wrong and was morally responsible. But in Kansas, a jury can consider mental capacity only as indication that the defendant did not have the mens rea (essentially, the intent required under the law) — in the case of murder, an intent to kill. So in a classic example that the ABA notes in its brief, a father “who knowingly and intentionally killed his son under the psychotic delusion that he was the biblical Abraham, and his son the biblical Isaac” would not be legally insane under the Kansas standard. Predictably, this case has generated a large number of amicus briefs, and I strongly recommend reviewing at least one or two before the arguments to get a sense of some of the legal tests and positions that will be argued. I also recommend arriving very early — these sorts of cases always draw a large crowd, as does First Monday even without a case that’s so contentious.
The second case this morning will not generate nearly as much public interest. Peter v. NantKwest Inc. involves the fees that someone has to pay to appeal the denial of a patent. If you plan to stay for this argument (there will be a short break and many people will leave the courtroom after Kahler), read the overview here.
The Court will also hear an afternoon argument — an important one involving the right to a unanimous jury verdict. Ten jurors found Ramos guilty of second degree murder, but two jurors voted to acquit. At the time, that was good enough to convict him under Louisiana law (although that changed with a state constitutional amendment in 2018, requiring unanimous verdicts going forward; only Oregon still allows split juries). The current state of the law is confused, at least according to Ramos’s attorneys. The last time the Supreme Court directly decided this issue was in 1972, when it ruled that states could authorize convictions with less-than-unanimous juries. However, it was a plurality opinion — no single view of the constitutional issues commanded a majority of the justices. Moreover, since then, the Court has been more emphatic that there should be “no daylight” between state and federal standards when Bill of Rights principles are “incorporated” by the 14th Amendment as applying to the states; and the Court has held that the 6th Amendment requires unanimous verdicts in federal criminal trials. This “incorporation doctrine” will be important in the arguments. Also note the racism that underlies these provisions: at the founding, all states and the federal system required unanimous verdicts, but Louisiana changed that after Reconstruction allowed for black jurors and Oregon did so in 1934 amid public outrage over immigration. The primary brief covers these and the legal issues quite well, and there are a large number of briefs from advocacy organizations on his side; Louisiana is alone, but you can see all the briefs here.
Lines for afternoon arguments are hard to predict because they are relatively rare (although there’s another one next week). Many members of the public don’t know about afternoon arguments, although this one is significant enough that it could draw a crowd of interested lawyers and law students. Some people who arrive for the 10am arguments but don’t get in may also decide to be first in line for this 1pm argument.
Tuesday, October 8
The cases today involve employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — some of the most high-profile cases of the term. Although many states and cities have non-discrimination laws that specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many others do not and federal law does not include such phrases. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts prohibits discrimination “because of . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. Courts and others have disagreed about whether this language includes sexual orientation and gender discrimination. It’s unlikely Congress had this type of discrimination in mind when it wrote the law, and for some, that is enough to defeat such claims. For an example of the opposite conclusion, there’s a remarkable 7th Circuit case, Hively v. Ivy Tech., in which the majority found for a lesbian based on a logical analysis that her sex was the reason for the discrimination: a) the employer discriminated against her because she was in a relationship with a woman; b) if an otherwise identical employee were male and in a relationship with a woman, the employer would not have treated her this way; c) therefore, sex is the definitive variable and the discrimination was because of the employee’s sex. The majority reasoned that this analysis comports more with the judge’s role to apply the plain language of the law, not guess at what Congress had in mind when it chose that language. In a concurring opinion, Judge Posner (a much-celebrated jurist who has since retired) was more bold, declaring a refusal to be an “obedient servant of the 88th Congress” and instead saying he was engaged in “judicial interpretive updating” of the law.
But that’s not the case being heard today…. I just find the two opinions to represent fascinating reasoning and exchange, and a good starting point for understanding why this is an issue. For the cases today, listen to this ScotusTalk podcast and review the scotusblog overview, and see the many filings in the cases at the following links. Briefly, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County both involve sexual orientation discrimination. They will be argued together in the first hour. In the second hour, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC will take on transgender discrimination.
People will begin lining up to hear these arguments some time on Monday, if not before. If you are not willing to spend the night on the sidewalk, consider going to the Court to hear and/or take part in the demonstrations. I would expect protests starting around 8am and they certainly will continue until after noon, when the arguments will end and arguing counsel will make their way to the sidewalk in front of the court to give speeches and interviews.
[No arguments are scheduled for Wednesday the 9th, and the Court is closed on Monday the 14th for Columbus Day.]
Tuesday, October 15
There are 5 cases today, all consolidated to be argued together. The cases involve the authority of members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board created by the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. Congress gave the Board broad powers, in response to a “fiscal crisis” — and it also authorized the President to appoint Board members without them being confirmed by the Senate. That’s a problem because the “appointments clause” says all Officers of the United States shall be appointed “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate” and Congress only has the authority to authorize the President alone to appoint “inferior Officers.” U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2. The line can be a little murky–the Supreme Court has said Officers are those who exercise “significant authority”–but these Board members had authority to rescind or revise laws and exercise other powers that almost certainly are inconsistent with their being mere “inferior Officers.” So a hedge fund and a union representing government workers sued to reverse Board actions on the basis that the Board Members did not have any authority because they were not confirmed as required by the Constitution. The First Circuit agreed that their appointments were unconstitutional but declined to reverse their actions, on the basis of the “de facto officer doctrine” and a finding that there would be “negative consequences for the many, if not thousands, of innocent third parties who have relied on the Board’s actions until now.” The Supreme Court has granted cert. on the question “Whether the de facto officer doctrine allows for unconstitutionally appointed principal Officers of the United States to continue acting, leaving the party that challenges their appointment with an ongoing injury and without an appropriate relief.”
Wednesday, October 16
The first case today raises complex issues relating to preemption doctrine — but it does so in the context of undocumented immigration. Garcia was already under investigation by a financial crimes detective when he was pulled over for speeding and told the traffic officer he was rushing to his job. The routine check revealed the ongoing financial investigation, the officer and detective talked, and the next day the detective obtained Garcia’s I-9 form from the employer. That form used a Social Security Number issued to another person. Garcia was then charged under state laws against identity theft. This has obvious political implications. The legal issue is that the I-9 form is part of a federal system, and the federal law specifies that the form and information on it “may not be used for purposes other than for enforcement of this chapter and [certain specified federal laws].” 8 U.S.C. § 1324a(b)(5). The Kansas Supreme Court held that “Garcia’s conviction must be reversed because the State’s prosecution based on the Social Security number was expressly preempted.” The US Supreme Court has accepted cert. on “(1) Whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act expressly pre-empts the states from using any information entered on or appended to a federal Form I-9, including common information such as name, date of birth, and social security number, in a prosecution of any person (citizen or alien) when that same, commonly used information also appears in non-IRCA documents, such as state tax forms, leases, and credit applications; and (2) whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act impliedly preempts Kansas’ prosecution of respondents.”
The second case today, Rotkiske v. Klemm, asks when the statute of limitations begins to run under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. A debt collector filed suit against Rotkiske but could not serve him because he no longer lived at the address and so withdrew the suit, but then refiled and served someone at the same old address, which the collector should have known was outdated. Rotkiske had no idea, and had a default judgment entered against him. He did not learn of this until years later, when he tried to obtain a mortgage. The issue for the Court is whether the statute of limitations begins to run when the misconduct occurs or when the plaintiff discovers the misconduct. The Fourth and Ninth Circuits have found a “discovery rule” but the Third Circuit in this case disagreed, holding that “the Act says what it means and means what it says: the statute of limitations runs from “the date on which the violation occurs.”
There is also an afternoon (1pm) argument today, challenging the life without parole sentence for one of the “DC area snipers” who was 17 at the time of the murders. This is another case with a lot of publicity. Malvo was sentenced in Virginia in 2004 to a term of two life sentences without the possibility of parole. The sentences were pursuant to pleas, under pressure of being charged with capital offenses. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional when the offense was committed by a minor. In 2010, Miller v. Alabama held that mandatory life without parole was unconstitutional when the offense was committed by a minor. And in 2016, the Court clarified, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that these rulings were to be applied retroactively. Therefore in this case, the 4th Circuit held that Marvo had to be re-sentenced. He might still face life imprisonment, but the trial court was instructed “to determine (1) whether Malvo qualifies as one of the rare juvenile offenders who may, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole because his ‘crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility’ or (2) whether those crimes instead ‘reflect the transient immaturity of youth,’ in which case he must receive a sentence short of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” The state, on the other hand, urges that these cases apply only to sentencing schemes that require life without parole, while Virginia’s law provided for judicial discretion. Take a look at the briefs in this case and be prepared for a large and emotional crowd.
The Court has heard the last oral argument until the next term opens on the first Monday in October. However, the Court will sit on most Mondays until the end of June in order to announce decisions and orders.
When there is a decision in a case argued earlier in the term, the author of the majority opinion will announce the ruling and take a few minutes to discuss the opinion. Sometimes, the author of a dissenting opinion will announce that opinion as well (and if it’s Justice Ginsburg, she might be wearing her “dissent jabot”!). These are interesting to observe and can feel quite meaningful if it’s a case you care about — definitely worth going to if you’re able.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know when any given case will be decided. Earlier-argued cases tend to be decided earlier, but not necessarily, and even the parties do not know until the morning of the announcement. On the other hand, it’s usually fairly easy to get into the courtroom (compared with the long and early-forming lines on argument days), with the possible exception of the last announcement day if there is a major case still unresolved. The Court has not scheduled a decision day for the week of May 6, but expect announcements at 10am on May 13, 20, and 28 (a Tuesday; the 27th is Memorial Day) and June 3, 10, 17, and 24.
As of this post, we’re still awaiting a decision in:
- one case argued back in October (Gundy, involving the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act),
- one from November (Virginia Uranium, Inc., a federal preemption issue),
- three from December, including Apple Inc. v. Pepper (antitrust liability), Carpenter v. Murphy (related to tribal sovereignty) and
- Gamble, which could be a very significant case, questioning the “separate sovereigns” exception to the double jeopardy clause
- and 34 others from Jan-April 2019, including
- American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a significant religious establishment case (argued in February),
- Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek, important cases involving partisan gerrymandering (agued March 26),
- Department of Commerce v. New York, the “citizenship question” on the Census (argued quite late in the term, on April 23)
After the decisions are announce, the Court will go on summer recess. This blog will too, until I’ll start posting about October 2019 term cases about a month before First Monday.
This month, the Court completes oral arguments on all cases scheduled for this term. I particularly recommend cases involving offensive trademarks, access to corporate information via FOIA, and the addition of a “citizenship question” to the Census.
Monday, April 15
The first case today reopens debates about offensive trademarks. In 2017, the Supreme Court held in Matel v. Tam that the clause in the 1946 Lanham Act prohibiting registration of marks that “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead,” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a), was unconstitutional. It is possible to engage in commerce and even sue to protect your brand without registering the mark with the Patent and Trademark Office, and this is commercial (rather than political) speech so a lesser standard arguably applies, but the Court held that under any possible standard, the government has no legitimate interest in suppressing speech merely because it is offensive.
The vote was 8-0 to strike down the clause, but there were two opinions joined by 4 Justices each, so there is some confusion about how far a majority is willing to go in undoing other aspects of the Lanham Act. Which is where this case, Iancu v. Brunetti, comes in. Monday’s argument involves a dispute involving the apparel company FUCT, which was denied registration based on a similar provision, pertaining to “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks. It is a potentially closer case because obscene material gets less First Amendment scrutiny. There is useful background here and an argumentative recitation of parties’ positions here.
Today’s second case is not one I would ordinarily recommend to a casual observer, but may be worth staying for. Emulex Corp. v. Varjabedian involves interpretation of the various clauses in the Securities and Exchange Act’s § 14(e): “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to make any untrue statement of a material fact or omit to state any material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they are made, not misleading, or to engage in any fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative acts or practices, in connection with any tender offer.” 15 U.S.C. § 78n(e). Most Circuits have held that the final clause’s explicit mention of fraud should be imported to require that the misconduct described in the earlier clauses also are actionable only if there was deliberate deception, but the 9th Circuit in his case held that negligence was sufficient.
[Cases on Tuesday and Wednesday are not one’s I would recommend for most observers.]
Monday, April 22
The Freedom of Information Act’s “exemption 4” provides that government agencies should not release “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” Circuits have come to different conclusions about what is required for information to be deemed “confidential.” The court has suggested it may resolves those splits in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. A useful overview of the case is here, but I also recommend at least glancing at a couple of amicus briefs from each side — the case has, predictably, drawn considerable interests from watchdog groups and trade associations.
Today’s second argument is a technical procedural question but an important one: “Whether Title VII’s administrative-exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, as three circuits have held, or a waivable claim-processing rule, as eight circuits have held.” Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis.
Tuesday, April 23
The addition of a “citizenship question” to the Census is before the Court today. Department of Commerce v. New York is one of the more contentious cases this term; I won’t say much about it here since it has received so much publicity. The Court first accepted 2 issues:
(1) Whether the district court erred in enjoining the secretary of the Department of Commerce from reinstating a question about citizenship to the 2020 decennial census on the ground that the secretary’s decision violated the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 701 et seq;
(2) whether, in an action seeking to set aside agency action under the APA, a district court may order discovery outside the administrative record to probe the mental processes of the agency decisionmaker — including by compelling the testimony of high-ranking executive branch officials — without a strong showing that the decisionmaker disbelieved the objective reasons in the administrative record, irreversibly prejudged the issue, or acted on a legally forbidden basis;
But in March it added another question:
The parties are directed to brief and argue the following additional question: Whether the Secretary of Commerce’s decision to add a citizenship question to the Decennial Census violated the Enumeration Clause of the U.S. Constitution, art. I, §2, cl. 3.
There is also an afternoon (1pm) case today that involves an important issue: Whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Mitchell v. Wisconsin.