First Monday brings environmental law and age discrimination cases, with other cases this month involving sex offender registration, execution of people with mental disabilities, arbitration agreements, detention of noncitizens, and liability for Navy sailors’ exposure to asbestos.
I also want to highlight a few cases that will be heard sometime this term but have not yet been set for argument. I’ll have posts on each in the weeks before the argument.
- Gamble v. United States asks “Whether the Supreme Court should overrule the ‘separate sovereigns’ exception to the double jeopardy clause.” This is the doctrine that allows the federal government to charge someone even if they have been tried (and even if acquitted) for the same conduct in a state trial (assuming the same conduct is illegal under both federal and state law). This could have extremely far-reaching implications.
- Timbs v. Indiana: “Whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.” So odd that this has not been resolved by now!
- Nieves v. Bartlett: “Whether probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory-arrest claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Ie, do you have a case if you did something illegal but it’s clear that the real reason the police arrested you was because they didn’t like the content of your speech?
And outside the Supreme Court (for now!), the climate change lawsuit brought by young people against the EPA has survived the initial efforts to dismiss the case and is worth watching.
Now, on to the first two weeks of the term:
Monday, October 1
The first case, Weyerhaeuser v. US Fish & Wildlife Service, involves the Endangered Species Act and deference to administrative agency interpretations. US Fish and Wildlife designated land owned by Weyerhaeuser as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. The frog has not actually been on that land for decades, but the land could be made suitable for them, and FWS interpreted the ESA as allowing such land to be considered critical habitat, even if not currently habitable. In siding against Weyerhaeuser, the Fifth Circuit held that the agency’s interpretation was entitled to deference. That’s an important concept in administrative law and likely will be a focus of the argument, so it’s worth reading the Circuit Opinion as well as this general overview.
Next is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, interpreting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. ADEA defines covered employers to mean “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees . . . . The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 630(b). The 9th Circuit read the two sentences as separate, so even small political entities (like the fire district here) are covered. Other Circuits have held the opposite, and the Court has accepted cert. to resolve the “circuit split.” It should be an interesting argument; before attending, take a look at an amicus brief from the employee side and another from the government’s side.
Tuesday, October 2
Two criminal law cases today. The first, Gundy v. United States, involves the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act and the nondelegation doctrine. Nondelegation holds that Congress may not grant too much lawmaking authority to the Executive branch. Congress routinely grants administrative agencies and officers considerable powers to make regulations, but it must at least spell out an “intelligible principle” that the Executive must follow (and that courts can require them to follow) in carrying out that discretion. The nondelegation doctrine struggles to allow for the complex administrative state we have without completely abandoning the system of checks and balances. In this case, SORNA authorizes the Attorney General to decide the circumstances under which the law would have retroactive effect. Take a look at the amicus brief from a group of legal scholars.
Next up is a death penalty case, in the context of a mental disability that leaves the prisoner with no memory of committing the offense. See the interesting discussion from the American Psychological Association. The official legal question presented in Madison v. Alabama is:
Whether, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman, a state may execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of his commission of the capital offense; and (2) whether evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment bar the execution of a prisoner whose competency has been compromised by vascular dementia and multiple strokes causing severe cognitive dysfunction and a degenerative medical condition that prevents him from remembering the crime for which he was convicted or understanding the circumstances of his scheduled execution.
Wednesday, October 3
The first case today, Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, is not one that I would generally recommend for a casual observer. It involves the takings clause, which always gets some interest, but this particular case has some procedural complications and is only addressing the “exhaustion of remedies” issue. But if you’re interested in it, or going for the second case, then read up on it here.
Arbitration agreements have become increasingly common, and in the past several years the Supreme Court has been holding that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts a wide array of state law doctrines that had limited their enforceability. Generally, if someone files a lawsuit but there’s a valid arbitration agreement, then the FAA requires the court to dismiss the case and send the dispute to arbitration. Today the Court takes on “arbitrability” — who decides if there is a valid arbitration agreement? Some arbitration agreements require that an arbitrator decide all questions, including whether the arbitration agreement covers the particular dispute. New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira involves transportation workers, and the FAA specifically exempts transportation workers, so the lower courts held that they did not need to consider those recent FAA preemption cases. But the Court has granted cert. on:
(1) Whether a dispute over applicability of the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exemption is an arbitrability issue that must be resolved in arbitration pursuant to a valid delegation clause; and (2) whether the FAA’s Section 1 exemption, which applies on its face only to “contracts of employment,” is inapplicable to independent contractor agreements.
This one will be heavily watched by business and consumer and employee advocates. Take a look at the Public Citizen overview and its amicus brief. Also note that the Court has accepted cert. in two other arbitration cases this term: Lamps Plus and Henry Schein will be argued Oct 29; more on them to come in a later post.
[the Court does not hear arguments on Columbus Day]
Tuesday, October 9
All three cases today involve statutory interpretation of terms in the Armed Career Criminal Act. Stokeling v. United States will be argued first and separately, and involves the requirement of enhanced penalties for people with prior “violence felonies.” Stokeling argues that his prior robbery conviction did not involve a use of force sufficient to constitute violence, but precedent has required a “categorical approach” to deciding if the prior conviction was for a crime that is a violent felony. US v. Sims and US v. Stitt are consolidated for one hour total and both involve the same question: “Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.”
Wednesday, October 10
Nielsen v. Preap is about detention of noncitizens who have been convicted of a crime. Ballotpedia offers a useful summary; follow the link for more and key documents:
Under the mandatory detention provision of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, the government is required to detain noncitizen U.S. residents who were convicted of certain crimes “when…released” from criminal custody. The government had relied on this provision to begin detaining lawful permanent residents years after their release from criminal custody. Three filed suit, alleging that because they were not detained immediately when they were released from criminal custody, the government could not rely on the mandatory detention provision to hold them without bond. The Ninth Circuit agreed, ruling that the mandatory detention provision only applies to noncitizens who are detained by immigration authorities promptly following their release from criminal custody.
The second case today, Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries, raises some technical jurisdictional and common law issues, but comes in the context of wrongful death claims by widows of Navy sailors who died from cancer after exposure to asbestos in the course of their service. They brought suit against the manufacturers of products that contained asbestos. There has been a lot of asbestos litigation over the years, resulting in development of various liability doctrines. But because of the context, the Court has accepted cert. on something new: “Whether products-liability defendants can be held liable under maritime law for injuries caused by products that they did not make, sell or distribute.”