April 2023 Arguments

The last set of regularly scheduled arguments will be April 17-26 (Mondays to Wednesdays). There is one case that was granted cert. and has not yet been scheduled for argument, but it probably will be re-listed for argument next term. It’s also possible the Court will add an argument day (that would be extremely unusual, but so is the looming circuit split over Mifepristone….) but in all likelihood the Court will not hear cases after April 26 but will issue decisions roughly weekly until the end of June and then be on summer recess until First Monday in October.

Most of the April cases are on procedural issues or otherwise not ones I’d recommend for the casual observer, but there are a few important and interesting cases that deserve mention and your attention. I have also updated the information on attending in-person, and these cases should be particularly good choices for anyone looking for that experience!

Tuesday, April 18

A very important issue involving the scope of an employer’s Title VII obligation to accommodate religious observances is up first today, in Groff v. DeJoy. The text of Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1), and defines that to include failure to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless the employer can demonstrate that it cannot do so “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” 42 U.S.C. 2000e( j). What that means, in turn, is the issue for today. In a seminal case in 1977, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), the Supreme Court held that an employer did not have to accommodate an employee’s observance of the Sabbath where the employer showed it would either have to operate shorthanded or pay other employees overtime. That holding is not as seriously questioned as the reason the Court gave for that holding — that an undue burden is one requiring the employer to bear “more than a de minimis cost.” In the years since, the lower courts have generally — but not universally — adopted the EEOC’s position that things like being shorthanded or having to pay premium wages are hallmarks of an undue burden, while largely ignoring the “more than a de minimis cost” line. The US Department of Justice has taken the position that “[l]ower courts have sometimes been led astray by Hardison’sde minimis‘ language, and the Court can and should clarify that the EEOC has correctly interpreted Hardison to be consistent with substantial protection for religious observance and practice” while otherwise leaving the precedent in tact. The Court has also accepted cert. on the question of whether an accommodation that “burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself” meets the Title VII requirement, and the AFL-CIO has an amicus brief that focuses on that question, arguing that “[t]he fact that a proposed accommodation would interfere with an agreed-upon method of ensuring seven-day-per week coverage and fairly allocating undesirable shifts among employees is relevant to whether the accommodation would burden the ‘conduct’ of the employer’s business, regardless of whether an employer can prove it would cause any determinate level of economic harm. That is particularly true when the arrangement is embodied in a collective bargaining agreement.”

The second argument is on a pair of consolidated cases concerning the False Claims Act and its requirement that the false claim was submitted “knowingly.” It’s not one I would ordinarily recommend to a casual observer, but if you’re going to the above argument in person, it definitely would be worth staying for. In United States ex rel. Schutte v. SuperValu Inc., (a note on the name: Schutte is the “relator” (pronounced re-lay-tor), bringing a qui tam action in place of the US; the relator gets a portion of the funds recovered if they prove the government was defrauded under the FCA) the issue is whether “SuperValu knowingly filed false reports of its pharmacies’ ‘usual and customary’ (‘U&C’) drug prices when it sought reimbursements under Medicare and Medicaid.” The Seventh Circuit found that the filings were false, but also that they were based on an “objectively reasonable understanding of the regulatory definition of U&C price.”

It also held that the FCA requires a level of intent to defraud. The dissent characterized the issue as “whether the Act can reach businesses that submit false claims for government payment but claim there is some legal ambiguity that kept them from ‘knowing’ for certain that their claims were false.” Sen. Chuck Grassley has an interesting amicus brief arguing that the Seventh Circuit’s test “puts on the government a nearly impossible burden to anticipate and warn off future fraudsters from every colorable misinterpretation of the law” and that “[i]f it is not set right, it will not be long before the centerpiece of the government’s anti-fraud arsenal becomes unusable.” The Court has accepted cert. on “[w]hether and when a defendant’s contemporaneous subjective understanding or beliefs about the lawfulness of its conduct are relevant to whether it ‘knowingly’ violated the False Claims Act.”

Wednesday, April 19

The only argument today concerns what constitutes a “true threat” (rather than speech protected by the First Amendment) in the context of social media. In Counterman v. Colorado, Counterman began following musician C.W. on Facebook, was blocked when she found his posts “creepy” but kept following under new accounts, and ultimately sent her “messages [that] alluded to making ‘physical sightings’ of C.W. in public” (as found by the Colorado Supreme Court). He was prosecuted under a Colorado stalking statute that criminalizes repeatedly sending messages “that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress.” Colo. R.S. 18-3-602. The messages presumably are “speech” within the meaning of the First Amendment, so the question is whether it falls into a category of speech that may be criminalized consistent with those free speech protections; the Colorado Supreme Court held that this was a “true threat” and upheld the conviction. Courts are split on how to determine if something is a true threat. Some require a subjective intent to threaten, while others apply an “objective test” and ask only if a reasonable person would feel threatened in the “totality of the circumstances.” Some advocates suggest that an objective test is unworkable in the online context because those communications so frequently lack context to be able to objectively assess the totality of the circumstances.

The University of Miami Law Review has a useful backgrounder on all these legal issues. Notably, the ACLU argues that “a subjective intent requirement is critical to ensure breathing room for robust public debate,” while the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argues that “[r]equiring subjective intent to establish a true threat would vitiate anti-intimidation laws, especially voter intimidation laws.” Meanwhile, one group of “First Amendment Scholars” emphasizes that “Mr. Counterman was convicted for the crime of stalking, not threats” and therefore urges the Court to “affirm [the conviction] rather than announcing a rule that would require all communication-based stalking prosecutions to prove a ‘true threat, ‘” while another group of “First Amendment Scholars” including Erwin Chemerinsky argues that a “specific-intent requirement for stalking and other threats undermines, rather than protects, First Amendment values, including by depleting the marketplace of ideas, inhibiting counter-speech, and interfering with individual autonomy and association.” Those are just some of the 22 amici briefs filed in this case — it should be a really interesting argument (but expect it to run long!).

Wednesday, April 26

My final recommendation for a case to take in this term is the only one scheduled for the last day of the regular calendar this term, involving the takings clause in the context of foreclosures where the government keeps the surplus value beyond the back taxes that were owed. Tyler v. Hennepin County has so much interest that it already has its own Wikipedia page and has generated some 46 amici briefs! Briefly, as the 8th Circuit explained, “Tyler accumulated a tax debt of $15,000. To satisfy the debt, Hennepin County foreclosed on Tyler’s property and sold it for $40,000. The county retained the net proceeds from the sale.” The courts below all held that this was not an unconstitutional taking because the property was lawfully seized after reasonable notice and opportunities for Tyler to avoid that consequence; at that point, the entirety of the property was the government’s, and it was free to sell it for full value. At the point of sale, as the 8th Circuit held, “[w]here state law recognizes no property interest in surplus proceeds from a tax-foreclosure sale conducted after adequate notice to the owner, there is no unconstitutional taking.” Specifically in this case, Tyler “could have recovered the surplus by redeeming the property [paying back taxes prior to foreclosure] and selling the condominium, or by confessing judgment, arranging a payment plan for the taxes due, and then selling the property. Only after she declined to avail herself of these opportunities did ‘absolute title’ pass to the State.” Public Citizen has a useful amicus brief that walks through the taking clause analysis it believes should apply and argues that “[p]ermitting the government to take property to collect a tax debt without compensating the owner for the value exceeding the debt creates skewed incentives that disproportionately harm vulnerable people.”

Decision Days in May and June

The Court used to sit for decision days (mostly on Mondays) between the end of arguments and the end of June. The Court would take the bench and the author of the majority opinion would announce it (briefly summarize the holding), and sometimes a dissenter would also announce their dissenting opinion. All that was suspended during the pandemic, with the opinions simply posted to the website. But in January, they restarted the practice of announcing opinions from the bench. So hopefully there will be opportunities to be in the courtroom and hear decisions announced in May and June this year. We never know which opinions will be issued until it happens (except when we know it’s the last decision day on the calendar and there are just a few cases left!) but it can feel quite meaningful to be there for the announcement in a big case. You also typically don’t have to get in line nearly as early as for arguments. So something to consider if you’re in town in May and June (especially June, since there’s a trend of the most high-profile cases being decided last).

January 2022 Cases

A very unusual Friday oral argument has been scheduled for January 7, in cases concerning the federal vaccine mandate. Plus cases concerning Medicaid, immigration law, a religious flag on a City Hall flagpole, FEC v. Ted Cruz for Senate, and the Court’s first consideration of the First Step Act.

The Court will continue with last fall’s practice of in-person arguments with Justices, arguing counsel, and reporters only (at least through February cases). The rest of us can listen in live online. Arguments start quite promptly at 10:00 and the easiest way to listen is to go to https://www.supremecourt.gov and click the “live audio” icon. I’ve noticed that if you try to launch the audio early, you’ll get an error right about 9:59; just refresh the page then. See this page for non-live options.

Friday, Jan 7 – Vaccine Mandate

A group of states and a group of employers have challenged the federal OSHA’s COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard. In essence, employers of 100 or more employees are to require proof of Covid-19 vaccination by January 10 and are to begin requiring weekly testing by February 9 for any employee who elects that option in lieu of vaccination. There have been a series of decisions that have blocked implementation in about half of the states, and the Court will decide whether the rule can be enforced pending resolution of those challenges. There’s a good summary here. Since then, the states and the employer groups have asked for divided argument, so each will get 15 minutes (with the federal government allotted 30). But, of course, expect this day to run very long. Filings for both National Federation of Independent Business v. Dept of Labor and Ohio v. Dept of Labor are here.

Monday, Jan 10

Just one case today, an unusual case involving Medicaid and private lawsuits. A 13-year old girl suffered severe injuries, the medical expenses of which were mostly paid for by Florida’s Medicaid program, after she was hit by a truck after exiting a school bus. Eventually, the family obtained a settlement for $800,000 against the truck driver, in part to cover both future and past medical expenses. Florida then filed a lien, seeking reimbursement of expenses it had covered. The family sued to block enforcement of that lien, won in the trial court (which found that the federal Medicaid Act preempted such state actions), but lost at the 11th Circuit. More details about Gallardo v. Marstiller here.

Tuesday, Jan 11

Two related (but not consolidated; separate 1-hour arguments) immigration law cases today, Johnson v. Arteaga-Martinez and Garland v. Gonzalez. As Scotusblog explains, “Both cases involve noncitizens who have been ordered deported but claim they are entitled to ‘withholding’ protection – a form of humanitarian relief in which noncitizens cannot be deported to their home country because they may be tortured or persecuted there. The noncitizens argue that, after spending more than six months in immigration detention awaiting the resolution of their withholding claims, they are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge to determine whether they can be released on bond.” The Court has accepted cert. in both cases on the question “[w]hether an alien who is detained under 8 U.S.C. § 1231 is entitled by statute, after six months of detention, to a bond hearing at which the government must prove to an immigration judge that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community,” but the second argument, Garland v. Gonzalez, adds “whether, under 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(1), the courts below had jurisdiction to grant classwide injunctive relief.”

[The Court is closed on Monday, Jan 17, in observance of MLK Day]

Tuesday, Jan 18

First up is an interesting case combining government speech and religion issues, Shurtleff v. Boston. The three flag poles in front of Boston City Hall fly the US flag, the Massachusetts flag, and typically the Boston City flag — but at a rate of about twice a month, that third pole instead flies a flag requested by a private organization. A regligious organization sought to fly a flag with a Latin cross, but was denied because the City said that would constitute endorsement of religion. The First Circuit held that the display of flags on the City’s flagpole constituted government speech, which is not constrained by the First Amendment in the way that private speech is: “Because the City engages in government speech when it raises a third-party flag on the third flagpole at City Hall, that speech is not circumscribed by the Free Speech Clause. . . . The City is therefore ‘entitled’ to ‘select the views that it wants to express.'” In this instance, the court explained, “the City exercised those rights by choosing not to fly the plaintiffs’ third-party flag. . . . Should the citizenry object to the City’s secular-flag policy or to its ideas about diversity, the voters may elect new officials who share their concerns. . . . After all, it is the electorate and the political process that constrains the City’s speech, not the Free Speech Clause.” That decision is quite accessible, but there is also NY Times coverage for more plain-language discussion. The array of amici briefs filed in this case is also worth a look, if only to note the strange bedfellows — the ACLU is arguing for the religious group petitioner, while the National Council of the Churches of Christ, representing “more than 100,000 local congregations and 40 million adherents,” has joined with other religious and civil rights organizations to argue that “that an official governmental display of the Christian Flag in front of a city hall is exclusionary to the countless Americans not represented by that religious symbol. . . . And it elevates the sacred symbol of one faith in ways that many denominations and individuals who adhere to the favored religion also find intrusive on and corrosive of their beliefs and fundamental religious freedom.”

Today’s second argument, in Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, is a technical procedural issue arising out of an incredibly loaded context. The official question presented is “Whether a federal court hearing state law claims brought under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act must apply the forum state’s choice-of-law rules to determine what substantive law governs the claims at issue, or whether it may apply federal common law.” But the case concerns attempts to recover a painting that “was stolen from the family of Holocaust survivor Lilly Cassirer by the Nazi regime in 1939. The painting was illegally transferred from Germany into California after World War II and traded privately in the United States between 1951 and 1976. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, a subsidiary of the Kingdom of Spain, purchased the painting from Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1993.” Take a glance at some of the filings; the US has filed a brief in support of the family, sticking to the technical FSIA issue, while B’Nai B’rith has highlighted the context.

Wednesday, Jan 19

FEC v. Ted Cruz for Senate is the first case today. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), in an attempt to limit corruption and appearances of corruption, requires campaigns to repay personal loans from candidates with pre-election funds and within 20 days of the election. In an apparent attempt to challenge that law, Ted Cruz loaned his campaign $260,000 on the day before the election, with $5,000 in personal funds and a $255,000 loan secured by his personal assets, and then the campaign failed to repay Cruz as required by BCRA. A three-judge panel in DC held “that the loan-repayment limit burdens political speech and thus implicates the protection of the First Amendment. Because the government has failed to demonstrate that the loan-repayment limit serves an interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption, or that the limit is sufficiently tailored to serve this purpose, the loan-repayment limit runs afoul of the First Amendment.” Take a look at that ruling and the amicus brief from the Brennan Center arguing that the panel got it wrong.

The last case this month is the Court’s first consideration of the First Step Act. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act addressed disparities in sentences for crack versus powder cocaine, but those changes were not retroactive. Then the 2018 First Step Act provided that a court “may … impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act … were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” This particular case has a number of complications, but it appears the Court wants to address a “Circuit split,” in which the Circuit courts have disagreed as to the level of resentencing consideration that is required (versus discretionary) under the First Step Act. It accepted cert. on “Whether, when deciding if it should ‘impose a reduced sentence’ on an individual under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments.” I recommend reading the First Circuit decision and this interesting amicus brief from DC and 16 other states and territories arguing for an expansive reading of the First Step Act.

November 8-10 arguments

More interesting cases in the second week of November, involving state secrets, Puerto Rico residents’ entitlement to SSI, religious freedom claims in the context of the death penalty, and commercial advertising and the First Amendment.

Monday, Nov 8

First up is a “state secrets” case, FBI v. Fazaga. The case concerns “Operation Flex,” which recruited a fitness instructor to infiltrate a mosque. Several Muslims who were targeted filed various discrimination claims against the FBI. The FBI declined to disclose some information in the course of the litigation, asserting that doing so would harm national security (the “state secrets privilege”). In an interesting ruling, the 9th Circuit held that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provisions allowing for in camera (judge-only) review meant that Congress had effected a limited waiver of this privilege and the judge could consider the evidence. Harvard Law Review has a very useful and accessible review of the law and details of this case.

[Today’s second case, Unicolors, Inc v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, LP, involves Copyright Office procedures and isn’t recommended for the casual observer.]

Tuesday, Nov 9

A really interesting case involving Puerto Rico and equal protection claims, US v. Vaello-Madero. SSI disability payments are available to residents of the 50 states, DC, the Northern Mariana Islands — but not Puerto Rico (or Guam, American Samoa, or the USVI). After receiving benefits then getting cut off and sued by Social Security, the lower courts held that this exclusion from the Supplemental Security Income program violated the equal protection principle embedded in the due process clause of the 5th Amendment. Novel but fairly straightforward legal issues here. See this interesting amicus brief from 18 territories and states. arguing that the “Court should treat Congress’s discrimination against any state or territory in the context of nationwide aid programs with suspicion.”

Another interesting and important case is next, involving religious freedom in the context of pastor’s prohibited behavior during an execution. The pastor was allowed in the execution chamber, but could not touch the condemned person or pray out loud. Claims under the Constitution’s free exercise clause as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Again, important but fairly straightforward legal issues, but for an unexpected perspective, see this amicus brief from the Freedom From Religion Foundation arguing that “the Court’s recent, unprecedented expansion of the religious liberty protections under the Free Exercise Clause necessitates the conclusion that a state-sponsored execution substantially bur- dens the decedent’s religious liberty rights. . . . [T]he the Court must conclude that the execution itself is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. It would be absurd to continue reviewing increasingly granulated end-of-life details for any hint of an encroachment on religious liberty, knowing that a far greater burden, without any rational justification, will immediately follow.” (And many other briefs in Ramirez v. Collier.)

Wednesday, Nov 10

Just one case today, Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Texas Inc. involving a First Amendment claim about signs and billboards. The City of Austin allows digital signs for “on-premises advertising” (at the location where the business is located) but not elsewhere. A sign company is calling this unconstitutional discrimination. The legal resolution will likely turn on whether the regulation is “content-neutral” or “content-based.” Content-neutral restrictions on speech need only satisfy “intermediate scrutiny,” meaning it advances an important government interest through means that are substantially related to that interest. The Fifth Circuit held that “Because an off-premises sign is determined by its communicative content, we hold that the Sign Code’s distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs is content based” and therefore was subjected to strict scrutiny (a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored) and failed that test.

The Court will then be in recess until the next set of arguments starting Nov 29.

April cases

Several important SCOTUS cases in the next block — beginning Monday with a case about Native Alaskan Corporations and the CARES Act and closing the following week with big questions about student free speech.

Monday, April 19

First up are cases questioning whether Alaskan Native Corporations are “tribal governments” eligible for CARES Act funding. There’s a complicated history concerning Alaskan Native Americans. Briefly, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act extinguished all land claims, eliminated all but one reservation, and established “corporations” that were eligible to receive federal and state funds and land. The DC Circuit observed that this was “an experimental model initially calculated to speed assimilation of Alaska Natives into corporate America.” Jumping ahead, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) set aside $8 billion “for making payments to Tribal governments.” 42 U.S.C. § 801(a)(2)(B). When Treasury began a process that would allow Alaskan Native Corporations to receive those funds, tribes in Alaska and the lower 48 sued to block disbursements. The DC Circuit agreed with the tribes, and that opinion is a good starting point to understand the details. Also see the various amici briefs from the Corporations, various tribes and tribal associations, Alaska, Sen. Murkowski, and a group of historians – all collected here. There are two cases, Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and Alaska Native Village Corporation Association v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, consolidated for one hour of argument total.

Next up is Sanchez v. Mayorkas, an immigration case involving the relationship between Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and Lawful Permanent Residency (LPR) (sometimes called a “green card”). A prerequisite to LPR status is that the applicant was “inspected and admitted” into the U.S. 8 U.S.C. § 1255(a). The applicants here entered undocumented but a few years later obtained TPS after a series of earthquakes in El Salvador, and now argue that being granted TPS constitutes being “inspected and admitted.” The Third Circuit disagreed, which created a split with other circuits that had considered this question.

Tuesday, April 20

Two criminal procedure cases today, both involving the federal “felon in possession of a firearm” law (but not consolidated; separate arguments). In both U.S. v. Gary and Greer v. U.S., the plaintiffs pled guilty. When accepting a plea, the judge is required to explain what the prosecution would have to prove (the “elements” of the crime). The judge listed knowing possession of the firearm and previous conviction for a felony. But two years later, the Supreme Court in Rehaif v. United States clarified that conviction under this law requires knowledge that they were a felon. The cases raise issues concerning whether Rehaif announced a rule that is so fundamental as to require reversal of prior convictions as “plain error” and whether the court can look to evidence beyond the trial record in making those determinations.

[Wednesday’s cases involve technical patent law and appellate costs and are not recommended for the casual observer]

Monday, April 26

Important cases today bringing First Amendment challenges to laws that require charities to disclose their major donors on tax filings: Thomas More Law Center v. Rodriquez and Americans for Prosperity v. Rodriquez. See the Public Citizen summary and then the 9th Circuit decision.

Guam v. U.S. involves a fascinating factual context but will largely revolve around technical legal issues. In the 1940s, the U.S. Navy operated the Ordot Dump in Guam, and allegedly disposed of Agent Orange, DDT, and munitions there. In 1950, the Guam Organic Act formally transferred power from the United States to Guam’s newly formed civilian government. In the 1980s, the EPA focused on the Ordot Dump, initially involving the Navy but ultimately ordering Guam to clean it up. There was eventually a court settlement and, several years later, a lawsuit by Guam against the Navy under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which creates the ability to sue for “cost-recovery” and “contribution.” The statute of limitations for “cost-recovery” and “contribution” are different, and which one Guam must rely on determines whether its case can proceed or is time-barred. The DC Circuit decision is probably the best place to start.

Tuesday, April 27

The second case today involves immigration law and procedural issues, which are nicely summed up by the opening of the 9th Circuit decision:

Refugio Palomar-Santiago is a Mexican national who was granted permanent resident status in the United States in 1990. In 1991, he was convicted of a felony DUI in California. In 1998, he received an Notice to Appear from the Immigration and Naturalization Service informing him that he was subject to removal because the DUI offense was classified as a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 16 and thus considered an aggravated felony for purposes of 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43). After a hearing before an IJ, Palomar-Santiago was deported on that basis. Three years later, the Ninth Circuit determined that the crime Palomar-Santiago was convicted of was not a crime of violence. United States v. Trinidad-Aquino, 259 F.3d 1140, 1146-47 (9th Cir. 2001). This determination applied retroactively. United States v. Aguilera-Rios, 769 F.3d 626, 633 (9th Cir. 2013).

By 2017, Palomar-Santiago was again living in the United States, this time without authorization. That year, a grand jury indicted him for illegal reentry after deportation under 8 U.S.C. § 1326. Palomar-Santiago moved to dismiss the indictment under 8 U.S.C. § 1326(d). Under § 1326(d), a district court must dismiss a § 1326 indictment if the defendant proves (1) he exhausted any administrative remedies that may have been available to seek relief against the order; (2) he was deprived of the opportunity for judicial review at the deportation hearing; and (3) that the deportation order was fundamentally unfair. 8 U.S.C. § 1326(d). However, a defendant need not prove the first two elements if he can show the crime underlying the original removal was improperly characterized as an aggravated felony and need not show the third element if he can show the removal should not have occurred.

Wednesday, April 28

An interesting and critically important case about student First Amendment rights is first, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. After making the JV instead of the varsity cheerleading team, a student posted a snapchat picture of herself captioned “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” She was suspended from the team, and sued. The Third Circuit noted that schools traditionally have had significant disciplinary discretion for on-campus activities only, with greater constitutional limits on control over off-campus activity; “[t]he digital revolution, however, has complicated that distinction.” That decision offers a useful survey of student speech cases, from Tinker through Morse (the “bong hits for Jesus” case). I’d also recommend the Student Press Law Center’s amicus brief. Really important questions about just what, if anything, is beyond the reach of school disciplinary policies.

[The last case this month is about FERC’s authority and not recommended to the casual observer.]

October 2020 arguments

The Supreme Court term traditionally begins on the “First Monday” of October, and the Court has announced (earlier than usual) a full schedule for that month. (“Full schedule” means Monday through Wednesday for two weeks out of the month.) Exactly what that will look like, of course, is still unknown.  The Court held unprecedented telephone arguments last May, but the virus will decide if we can return to in-person arguments and the Court will decide what adjustments to make if not.

I will make a post about how to watch or listen when we know how the arguments will be conducted.  Meanwhile, some highlights of cases below, including a First Amendment case involving political affiliations of judges, a RFRA challenge to the no-fly list, intellectual property, rape under the UCMJ, and other issues.  Each of these cases had been scheduled for argument last year but were held over when arguments were canceled due to the pandemic.

First Monday, October 5

The session opens with an unusual First Amendment case, 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 and has an amicus brief that should provide a good foundation for understanding the facts and legal issues in this case.

The second argument today, in Texas v. New Mexico, involves a highly technical water issue: “Whether the River Master correctly allocated evaporation losses under the Pecos River Compact.”  This will be hard to follow and not have much public interest.  However, it does have the allure of being the extremely rare case that begins in the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction — and this case has been on the Court’s docket, with various disputes, since 1960.  If that’s enough to grab your attention, take a look at this article to get a sense of the current issues and then peruse the extensive docket just to see how actively this dispute has been litigated over the years.

Tuesday, October 6

The first case today is not one I would recommend for a casual observer.  Although the context is important (pharmaceutical drug reimbursement rates), the Court will consider quite technical issues of federal preemption under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.

The second case, however, is a politically important and legally interesting case:  a challenge to the “no fly list” brought in part under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Tanzin v. Tanvir. RFRA has been embraced by conservative advocates and jurists in “culture wars” contexts, so its invocation by Muslims in a national security context should, at the very least, make for interesting arguments. 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, October 7

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.

Next up is a pair of cases, Ford Motor Company v. Bandemer and Ford v. Montana Eighth Judicial Court, that involve technical civil procedure issues but are extremely important for product liability litigation.  When people allege they were harmed by products that are marketed and sold nationwide, plaintiffs’ lawyers have to decide where to file the lawsuit, and where a violation occurred is not always the jurisdiction with courts that are most friendly to such plaintiffs.  Last year, the Supreme Court in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of San Francisco County put severe limits on “forum shopping” by clarifying the standards of “personal jurisdiction” (the requirement that there be significant connection between the defendant and the jurisdiction of the court where the lawsuit is filed), but some courts have continued to find personal jurisdiction in product liability cases even where the alleged injuries or misconduct did not occur in that state. There’s a useful overview of the legal issues here.

[The Court observes Columbus Day on Monday, October 12]

Tuesday, October 13

First up is argument in two consolidated cases (US v. Briggs and US v. Collins) involving 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.

The second case today is not one I would recommend to the casual observer.  Chicago v. Fulton involves a technical bankruptcy issue.

Wednesday, October 14

Torres v. Madrid, addresses an important and unresolved legal issue related to what constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  It is unresolved in that lower courts have come to different conclusions where an officer used force to detain a suspect but was unsuccessful; this is known as a “circuit split” and is one thing that makes it very likely the Court will agree to hear a case.  The official “question presented” makes this clear:  “Whether an unsuccessful attempt to detain a suspect by use of physical force is a ‘seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits and the New Mexico Supreme Court hold, or whether physical force must be successful in detaining a suspect to constitute a ‘seizure,’ as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals hold.” See the brief from the NAACP LDEF.

The last October argument is in Pereida v. Barr, an immigration law case.  Federal immigration law permits non-citizens to challenge their deportation on certain bases, but not if the individual has been convicted of a “crime involving moral turpitude” (CIMT) under state or federal law.  But state statutes are often complex and plea agreements are not always clear, so it is not always obvious whether a CIMT is involved.  In this case, Pereida was charged with attempting to use a false Social Security Number and pled no-contest to violating a statute, some but not all subsections of which could be read to constitute a CIMT. The issue is “Whether a criminal conviction bars a noncitizen from applying for relief from removal when the record of conviction is merely ambiguous as to whether it corresponds to an offense listed in the Immigration and Nationality Act.” See this interesting brief from a group of former immigration judges.

Week of March 23

[EDIT: The March arguments are postponed.]

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.

February & Early March Cases

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.  

April cases – final arguments of the year

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.

The case has generated an extraordinary number of amicus briefs.  Scotusblog offers a useful symposium with a range of views.

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.


February cases

Tuesday, February 19

The only case scheduled for argument today is relatively technical but may be of interest to students of statutory construction or those interested in the patent law or the status of the Post Office.  The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) created a Patent Trial and Appeal Board with authority to review patents that were awarded by the Patent and Trademark Office if a “person” challenges the validity of the patent. Return Mail v. USPS asks whether the Postal Service is a “person” in this context.  Royal Mail had its patent invalidated by a post-grant review initiated by the Post Office, and now asserts that the Board should never have conducted the review because the AIA did not define “person” to include government agencies and because the Dictionary Act, which provides definitions for laws that lack specific definitions, defines “person” to not include government agencies.  However, the AIA also uses “person” in other contexts in which Congress clearly meant to include government agencies.  So the case will offer an academically interesting battle of cannons of statutory construction, and will have implications for who can serve as a watchdog for invalid patents.  (On the later point, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has an interesting amicus brief in support of the Post Office.)

(Since this is the only case today, it’s possible the argument will run a little longer than an hour, but I wouldn’t expect it to go more than a few minutes over.  The Court had been scheduled to hear the dispute regarding discovery to uncover the true motive for adding a citizenship question to the next Census, but that was put on hold and may well be removed from the docket.)

Wednesday, February 20

The only case scheduled for today involves technology licenses that a debtor has rejected in a bankruptcy proceeding.  Debtors are permitted to “reject” contracts in bankruptcy proceedings, but this has very different implications if it is a simple sales contract (in which case the debtor is liable for contract damages, ie any added expense the other party incurs as a result of having to find a different partner) or something like a contract that gives rights to use, or even exclusive rights to use, a piece of technology or trademark.  It is a very technical area of the law and I would not recommend this case for a casual observer.  But if interested, there’s a useful article about it on Scotusblog.

Monday, February 25

A really interesting case about the “state actor” test in the context of First Amendment rights and (a bit more obscurely!) public access television.  The Constitution generally cannot be violated by private individuals or companies because it regulates only what the government may or may not do — but there are two significant qualifiers on that general rule.  First, if the government creates and retains control over a private company, then the constitution applies.  In Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, the City created a private company that controls access to the public access cable channels but appoints only two of the thirteen board members.  Second, the constitution might apply to private companies that perform a “traditional public function.”  But that is a rather fraught doctrine (it’s been declared “in retreat” since the 1970s; and consider private prisons, for example, as one amicus brief in this case touches upon).

I think this should be a really interesting case to attend, but read this overview and get a sense of the arguments by reading at least a few of the filings.  Notably, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of neither party, including a section “In Praise of Unmoderated Platforms” followed immediately by a section arguing that “Moderated Platforms Are Also Valuable.”

Tuesday, February 26

Both cases today involve interpretation of criminal law statutes.  The first, US v. Haymond, involves sentencing based on facts that were not found beyond a reasonable doubt or by a jury.  Haymond was convicted of possession of child pornography, served time, and then was released on probation subject to a requirement that he not commit another crime.  He was then found to have been in possession of child pornography again, but this was determined by the judge alone and based on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (more likely than not; not beyond a reasonable doubt).  The court not only revoked his parole but sentenced him to an additional term of imprisonment.  He argues this violates his rights to due process and trial by jury.  There’s a useful discussion of these issues here.

The second case, Mont v. US, is a bit more technical, but certainly important.  It involves how to count (or pause counting) the days that someone has to serve probation:  “Whether a period of supervised release for one offense is tolled under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(e) during a period of pretrial confinement that upon conviction is credited toward a defendant’s term of imprisonment for another offense.”

Wednesday, February 27

This is an important day for people interested in religious liberty questions, and particularly the establishment clause. American Legion v. American Humanist Association and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association involve cross-shaped memorials on public land.

Establishment clause doctrine has been criticized by all sides as unwieldy and unclear — we’re not even sure what the standards are, much less how to apply those standards in a given case.  Some precedent says the primary concern is to avoid “excessive entanglement” of church and state, but it’s not always clear what is or isn’t excessive, and anyway, there are other cases that suggest we should be focused on different concerns. Two of the “questions presented” for today highlight this pretty clearly:  “whether the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism should be assessed under the tests articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Van Orden v. Perry, Town of Greece v. Galloway or some other test; and whether, if the test from Lemon v. Kurtzman applies, the expenditure of funds for the routine upkeep and maintenance of a cross-shaped war memorial, without more, amounts to an excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.”

Scotusblog has a helpful “In Plain English” article as well as some great posts from a variety of perspectives in an online symposium.

I would get there very early for this argument.  Alternatively, forget about getting into the courtroom and just plan to take in the dueling demonstrations and press conferences that I’m sure will be taking place on the sidewalk in front of the Court.  These usually start around 8am for drive-time radio coverage and keep going until a while after the lawyers exit the courthouse, which wil be around 11:30.  The two cases are consolidated, with a total of 70 minutes scheduled for arguments (but they’re the only cases today so could run a few minutes over).

March cases

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.