In the last two weeks of the month, the Court will hear arguments regarding union agency or “fair share” fees, political t-shirts worn to the voting booth, subpoenas to US companies for information stored on foreign servers, and other important issues.
Tuesday, February 20
(the Court observes Presidents Day on Monday)
Currier v. Virginia is a fairly technical issue regarding double jeopardy. The doctrine of “issue preclusion” aka “collateral estoppel” prevents re-trial of a fact that was necessarily determined by a jury in a prior case. So even if the defendant is not charged with the same crime, it might still constitute double jeopardy if the second criminal offense relies on a factual question that a jury resolved in favor of the defendant in an earlier trial. In this case, the defendant was accused of stealing guns. He had a prior felony conviction, so it would have been illegal for him to even possess the guns. With his agreement, the state first tired him for larceny and breaking and entering, and severed the charge of “felon in possession of a firearm.” The jury found in favor of the defendant in the first trial, but the state proceeded to try him for possession anyway, and this time convinced the jury. The issue is whether issue preclusion, and thus the double jeopardy clause, applies even where the defendant agreed to sever the charges. The arguments on both sides are described in scotusblog’s preview.
The second case today, City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt, involves the right against self-incrimination, interestingly in the context of alleged police misconduct. Under threat of being fired, a police officer told his supervisors how he came into possession of a knife while on duty. He was then charged with a range of crimes, and although the charges were dropped before trial, the officer’s statements regarding the knife were used against him during a probable cause hearing. When he had trouble finding another job, he sued the City for violating his constitutional rights. The Fifth Amendment prohibits being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against [oneself].” It’s fairly settled that threat of termination is compelled, but is use during a preliminary proceeding covered by the amendment? The City is being represented by the UVA Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, which has an useful story about the case. The Court accepted cert. on the question “Whether the Fifth Amendment is violated when statements are used at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial.” A collection of government employers filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hold that the city cannot be held liable for the decision of the prosecutors; it will be interesting the see if the Court views this as within the scope of the question they agreed to review.
Wednesday, February 21
Both cases today will be a bit technical for the casual observer, but nevertheless should be interesting.
First, Rosales-Mireles v. U.S. involves waiver and plain error, in the context of illegal immigration. The defendant pleaded guilty to “illegal reentry” (returning to the US after being deported). He had a prior criminal history, which increases the sentence. However, the trial court counted a prior conviction for misdemeanor assault twice. The government concedes that this was in error and placed him in the wrong sentencing guidelines category (77-96 months instead of the correct 70-87 months; he got 78 months). However, there was no objection at the time of sentencing, which means that an appellate court may only correct it if it constitutes “plain error.” In the Fifth Circuit, this means not only obviously wrong but is the kind of error “that would shock the conscience of the common man, serve as a powerful indictment against our system of justice, or seriously call into question the competence or integrity of the district judge.” The Circuit held that this error was not of that nature, and declined or order re-sentencing. The Supreme Court has accepted cert. to resolve whether that final condition for plain error review is appropriate.
For the second case, Dahda v. U.S., the official question presented is probably sufficient: “Whether Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2520, requires suppression of evidence obtained pursuant to a wiretap order that is facially insufficient because the order exceeds the judge’s territorial jurisdiction.”
Monday, February 26
An extremely important case involving union “agency fees” or “fair share fees” is up first today, Janus v. AFSCME. In order to prevent discrimination based on union membership, the National Labor Relations Act requires that all employees be covered by a union contract — so workers are not getting different wages or working conditions depending solely on whether or not they joined the union. But negotiating, administering, and enforcing a contract costs money. Therefore, the Supreme Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that even employees who decline to join the union can be required to pay the union for these expenses. Unions are required to calculate their spending precisely, and bill non-members an appropriate fraction of the membership fee; only money collected from voluntary members may be spent on non-workplace activities (like electoral campaigns). This principle has been under attack in recent years, and many people predicted that Justice Scalia would have been the fifth vote to reverse these precedents if he hadn’t died after cert. was granted in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass’n but before a decision was issued. The resulting 4-4 split left in place the Circuit court’s decision, which had ruled for the union based on those longstanding precedents. This case brings the issue back to the Court. Scotusblog has a useful overview as well as an online symposium with a range of views. This is a very important case and will draw a lot of attention — and early and long lines to get inside, but also press conferences and protests out front.
Ohio v. American Express is an antitrust case, arising out of differences in how AmEx, compared with Visa and MasterCard, set prices and work with merchants. The Second Circuit sided with AmEx, but an unusually wide range of organizations are lining up on the other side.
Tuesday, February 27
The clash of new technology and old legal presumptions is on display in US v. Microsoft. The federal government served a subpoena on Microsoft at their Washington state headquarters for emails of a suspected drug dealer. It agreed to turn over records stored in the US, but not the content of the emails, which were stored in servers in Ireland. There is a general presumption that US laws do not apply outside the US (extraterritorial application), and the Court has never resolved how this relates to the Stored Communications Act or technology of this nature in general. There are lots of interesting and nuanced concerns about effectiveness of our laws but the need to avoid putting international actors in a conflict with other countries’ laws. Scotusblog has an overview and an online symposium with some really compelling insights.
An absurd example of First Amendment retaliation hits an 11th Circuit doctrine in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida. During the public comment portion of a City Council meeting, Mr. Lozman was instructed by a council member not to discuss his opposition to an eminent domain plan, and he was arrested when he persisted. The transcript of an earlier meeting revealed a plan by council members to “intimidate” him. He sued, but lost the trial and sought a new trial on various grounds. The 11th Circuit held that the police officer had probable cause to arrest him for disrupting a public meeting, and therefore there could be no lawsuit for unconstitutional retaliation or any other grounds, because of the Circuit’s rule that a finding of probable cause bars any other such claims. See this overview and the ACLU position.
Wednesday, February 28
First Amendment protection for political expression at the voting booth is the issue in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky: “Whether Minnesota statute Section 211B.11, which broadly bans all political apparel at the polling place, is facially overbroad under the First Amendment.” Again, Scotusblog has a useful overview and interesting symposium.