The Court returns from summer recess, as always, on “First Monday” — October 3 this year. It typically hears arguments on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in two weeks of each month. As of this post, the Court has released schedules for October and November. We know some of the cases that will be heard later this term (and will be scheduled for argument as the written briefing gets completed) and we’ll have to watch for additional grants of cert. in the coming months.
Also as of this post, there has been no indication of any change in public access to arguments. I am hoping for a return to access to the courtroom for members of the public so we can watch the justices and arguing counsel, but I also hope the online audio will continue regardless. See my page on how to access arguments online.
Below are highlights for arguments in the first two weeks. Important cases on the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Voting Rights Act, states’ rights to regulate factory farming, wrongful convictions, and even Andy Warhol and Prince! Looking ahead, the much-anticipated affirmative action case involving Harvard and asian students, and another involving UNC, will be heard on October 31, but I will write up them and the November cases in my next post.
First Monday, October 3
First up is an important case concerning which waters are regulated by the Clean Water Act. In the specific dispute, Sackett v. EPA, the plaintiffs were prevented from constructing a house over wetlands on their property. The CWA gave the EPA authority over all “navigable waters,” 33 U.S.C. § 1251, but that was in turn defined as “waters of the United States,” 33 U.S.C. § 1362. Although the Court has considered the status of wetlands before and held that at least some wetlands were within CWA coverage, there was not a majority on exactly what the test should be to determine which wetlands were covered and which were not. Scalia and three other Justices held that the CWA encompasses wetlands that have a “physical connection” to “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water.” Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006). Concurring, Justice Kennedy characterized the required relationship as a “significant nexus,” such that the wetlands, “either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’” The Ninth Circuit has applied the Kennedy test, noting that the Scalia opinion did not explicitly reject that version as inconsistent. In this case, the Court granted cert. on “Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are ‘waters of the United States’ under the Clean Water Act.” The case has generated a huge amount of interest from the groups you would expect (some 50 amicus briefs), but for an interesting perspective, see this brief raising concerns about tribal interests.
Next up is a bit of an odd but interesting case: what happens to uncashed “Moneygram Official Checks?” Under federal law, if “a money order, traveler’s check, or other similar written instrument (other than a third party bank check) on which a banking or financial organization or a business association is directly liable” is not cashed, then the financial institution has to pay (escheat) those funds to the state in which it was purchased. Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act, 12 U.S.C. § 2503. In the absence of that statute, the usual rule is that the money goes to the payee’s state or, if unknown, the financial institution’s state of incorporation. Moneygram believed the federal statute did not encompass its “Official Checks,” it didn’t record the residence of the payees, and so it sent the unpaid funds to its state of incorporation, Delaware. Thirty other states disagreed and sued Delaware. This puts the lawsuit under one of the handful of cases in which the Constitution gives the Supreme Court “original jurisdiction,” so there is no lower court decision but rather a recommendation from the Special Master assigned to review the facts and arguments and recommend a resolution to the Court. Note: in what is sure to be a source of confusion for casual listeners, the Special Master refers to the law as the FDA, for Federal Disposition Act. Nevertheless, that report is probably the best source to get a sense of the legal issues involved. That report sided with the states suing Delaware, and you can see Delaware’s objections and other filings on the Delaware v. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin case page.
Tuesday, October 4
A major Voting Rights Act argument is up first, in two consolidated cases (one hour total, but expect it to run quite long), Merrill v. Milligan and Merrill v. Caster. The question presented in both cases is “Whether the state of Alabama’s 2021 redistricting plan for its seven seats in the United States House of Representatives violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.” Section 2 prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, and it specifically provides that a violation “is established if, based on the totality of circumstances, it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens protected by [the VRA] in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” The case has had a number of preliminary rulings, with the plaintiffs winning an injunction in January but the Supreme Court blocking that in February. This case will get a lot of attention so I won’t write more, except to particularly recommend the Brennan Center summary and their brief.
The second case involves compelling personal circumstances and facts in a highly technical/procedural dispute involving filing deadlines and equitable tolling for VA claims. In Arellano v. McDonough, Arellano was serving on board the USS Midway when it collided with the Panamanian merchant ship Cactus in 1980. The VA recognizes that he suffered disabling mental health issues as a result, but those conditions prevented him from recognizing his disability and filing for benefits until 2011. There is a one-year statute of limitations for service-related injuries, so the VA refused to award retroactive benefits. 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1). However, Arellano invokes the doctrine of “equitable tolling” which can toll (pause) the limitations period under some circumstances. The VA ruled that equitable tolling is not available in claims for retroactive benefits, and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals was equally divided on that question (which results in affirming the VA; you need a majority of appellate court votes to reverse, or else the lower judgment stands). And so that’s the personal backstory behind the official and technical question presented: “Whether the rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling from Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs applies to the one-year statutory deadline in 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1) for seeking retroactive disability benefits, and, if so, whether the government has rebutted that presumption; and (2) whether, if 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1) is amenable to equitable tolling, this case should be remanded so the agency can consider the particular facts and circumstances in the first instance.”
Wednesday, October 5
Today is Yom Kippur, which officially is not recognized as a Court holiday but no arguments are scheduled.
Monday, October 10
This is a legal holiday (Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day).
Tuesday, October 11
First up is the legality of California’s Prop 12, which prohibits the sale (in California) of pork unless the pigs were raised and slaughtered under specified humane conditions, in light of the dormant commerce clause. In broad strokes, a state unconstitutionally intrudes on Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce when it enacts legislation that directly conflicts with federal law or if it excessively burdens interstate commerce by imposing regulations that Congress has chosen not to impose. As the NAAG explains (and the full write-up is helpful and worth reviewing), the pork producers argue that “compliance with Proposition 12 will require pork producers (who are overwhelmingly out-of-state) to engage in massive and costly alteration to existing sow housing nationwide” and that it fails the traditional balancing test required for state laws that burden interstate commerce. The case and argument could be interesting politically — states’ rights and animal rights are on the same side, with business and federal power together on the other! National Pork Producers Council v. Ross.
Next is a criminal procedure issue in the context of DNA testing and claims of wrongful conviction, Reed v. Goertz. The NAACP LDF has a useful summary of the case and a compelling brief, but the official question presented is a technical one: whether the countdown for the statute of limitations to ask the federal courts to intervene starts when the first state court denies your DNA testing request, or not until after the highest state court denies your appeal. Or more fully, “Whether the statute of limitations for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run at the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has held), or whether it begins to run at the moment the state trial court denies DNA testing, despite any subsequent appeal (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, held below).”
Wednesday, October 12
Art comes to the Supreme Court! Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith involves the “Prince Series” — Warhol works based on Lynn Goldsmith’s photographs of Prince in concert. Goldsmith claimed that Warhol infringed her copyright by copying her works in the course of his creative process. The trial court found this to be “fair use,” most importantly because the Warhol paintings were “transformative works” and were not “market substitutes” that would have harmed the market for Goldsmith’s photos. But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed on all points and reversed. The Court will consider “Whether a work of art is ‘transformative’ when it conveys a different meaning or message from its source material (as the Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and other courts of appeals have held), or whether a court is forbidden from considering the meaning of the accused work where it ‘recognizably deriv[es] from’ its source material (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has held).”
The last argument in the Court’s first two-week block involves overtime pay for highly compensated salaried professionals. Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc. v. Hewitt involves a supervisor for an offshore oil and gas company who was paid by the day (at least $963/day) and earned more than $200,000 each year, but often worked more than 40 hours/week. The Department of Labor has a helpful factsheet on the Fair Labor Standards Act, overtime pay, and exemptions for highly compensated employees. As the Fifth Circuit explained in siding with employee, “earning a certain level of income is necessary, but insufficient on its own, to avoid the overtime protections of the FLSA. The employee must also be paid on a salary basis, as well as perform certain duties. And unless those tests are met, the employee is ‘not exempt … no matter how highly paid they might be.’ . . . It is the salary-basis test that is sharply contested in this case.” That court concluded that a day rate is not a salary, and so he was not exempt from the overtime pay requirement. The case will turn on the precise interpretation of and interplay between two regulations concerning the salary-basis test, 29 C.F.R. § 541.601 and § 541.604.