The Court returns from the holidays on January 11 with arguments on 4 days (closing for MLK Day and Inauguration Day). It will hear cases involving release on bond while an asylum petition is pending, nominal damages in First Amendment cases, FTC and FCC powers, and an important opening salvo in a major climate change lawsuit.
Monday, January 11
The only case today is Chavez v. Hott, an immigration law issue: who is entitled to a bond hearing? It is largely being treated as a statutory interpretation issue. One statute provides that people facing deportation are entitled to a hearing to determine if they should be released on bond “pending a decision on whether the alien is to be removed,” 8 U.S.C. § 1226, but another statute provides that detention is mandatory once “an alien is ordered removed,” 8 US.C. § 1231. You might envision these provisions working together in the ordinary timeline of a case, but in the cases being heard today, the people were ordered removed, left the US, then faced persecution in their home countries and returned to the US to seek asylum, which an asylum officer found to well founded. They were thus subject to a “reinstated removal order” — once someone is ordered removed, that order remains in place and cannot be challenged — but the actual removal is subject to “withholding” under asylum law, if a judge agrees with the asylum officer’s initial finding and grants asylum status. The government’s position is that the decision on whether they are “ordered removed” has already been made (even if whether to actually execute that order is still being considered) so the mandatory detention statute applies. The immigrants argue, and the 4th Circuit held, that even a “withholding-only proceeding” brings the case within the statute that allows for release on bond. I started this discussion by saying it is “largely” a statutory interpretation issue because Human Rights First has submitted an interesting amicus brief arguing that the statutes should be interpreted to best effect our international law obligations in support of refugee rights.
Tuesday, January 12
Another one-argument day, in an interesting free speech context but focused on more technical pleading and mootness questions. In Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the plaintiffs were students at Georgia Gwinnett College who first were stopped from distributing literature because the campus required them to reserve and remain in one of two “speech zones,” and later were stopped by campus police while in one of those zones because their reservation was only to distribute literature but they were also engaging in conversation. After being sued, the college changed its policies. The court then held that the case was moot and dismissed it. The Complaint only sought “nominal damages” and a declaratory judgment and injunction; the lower court held, and the 11th Circuit agreed, that they were not entitled to an injunction because the college had “unambiguously terminated the Prior Policies and there is no reasonable basis to expect that it will return to them,” and that the demand for nominal damages (instead of greater compensatory damages, as one would often seek) was not enough to overcome dismissal as moot. The Court has accepted cert. on the narrow question of “whether a constitutional challenge to a school policy that seeks nominal damages rendered moot if the unconstitutional policy is revised during litigation.” Take a look at the factual overview on Oyez and the 11th Circuit opinion.
Wednesday, January 13
The case today involves the powers of the Federal Trade Commission and, more specifically, what a court may order when the FTC brings an action against a company. AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission involves an online “payday loan” company, which had “originated more than 5 million payday loans, each generally disbursing between $150 and $800 at a triple-digit interest rate.” The terms were disclosed in seven different online documents, but the site was designed to allow the consumer to “simply ignore the document, electronically sign their names, and click a big green button that said: ‘I AGREE Send Me My Cash!'” (These factual descriptions are from the 9th Circuit opinion.) The FTC brought suit for unfair and deceptive trade practices, alleging that in addition to the above, “the terms disclosed in the Loan Note did not reflect the terms that Tucker actually enforced.” The FTC won on the merits, but the issue the Court will address today is the order to pay approximately $1.27 billion in equitable monetary relief to the Commission. The complication is that 15 U.S.C. § 53(b) only authorizes the court to issue an “injunction” in cases brought by the FTC, but prior precedent is that courts may use their broader equitable powers to order restitution as well. See this interesting brief by former FTC officials.
Tuesday, January 19
First up are two consolidated cases, Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project and National Association of Broadcasters v. Prometheus Radio Project, involving the FCC’s relaxation of media ownership rules. The rules concern how much broadcast media in any local area may be owned by a single company, approval of corporate conglomerates, and other “competition, diversity, and localism,” issues. There has been a complicated back-and-forth among the FCC, courts, corporations, and advocacy groups over many years, helpfully summarized here and most recently involving questions of whether the FCC’s determinations were sufficiently supported by factual evidence. The Court has accepted cert. on “whether the FCC may repeal or modify media ownership rules that it determines are no longer ‘necessary in the public interest as the result of competition’ without statistical evidence about the prospective effect of its rule changes on minority and female ownership.”
The last argument this month, in BP P.L.C. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, is a technical civil procedure issue in the context of an extremely important climate change lawsuit. Baltimore is suing 26 major oil and gas companies, alleging involvement in activities that caused climate change that harmed the city when it resulted in rising sea levels at the port, flood, heatwaves, etc. With echoes of the tobacco litigation from twenty years ago, the suit alleges (as described on Ballotpedia) that “that the companies engaged in an organized, multi-faceted effort to hide the direct link between fossil fuel use and global warming, to discredit publicly available scientific evidence, and actively attempted to undermine public support for regulation of the companies’ business practices, while promoting unrestricted and expanded use of the companies’ fossil fuel products.”
For now, the issue is whether this case will be heard in federal or state court. Baltimore was careful to bring suit under state law, but the companies nevertheless sought to “remove” the case to federal court. Baltimore challenged that removal, and both the federal district court and the 4th Circuit remanded the case back to state court. And right now, the issue is whether that decision (to reject the defendants’ removal and remand it to state court) is appealable. A statute provides that only removal based on federal officers or federal civil rights may be reviewed on appeal; other bases for removal, if rejected by the district court, are not appealable. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d). The defendants here asserted 8 possible grounds for removal, all rejected, and they now want appellate review of all the grounds instead of just the two appealable grounds because it was all encompassed in one court order. The 4th Circuit order covers the issue well.