October 2021 Arguments

The Court has not yet said how arguments will be conducted when it returns from summer recess on “First Monday,” October 4, for its 2021 term. There had been considerable speculation that it would return to in-person arguments, but that was before we saw the full impact of the Delta variant. I’ll update this page when I can, or check the Court’s page on covid announcements. edit: has now announced that although the public will not be allowed in the courtroom this calendar year, the arguments will be in-person with counsel and Justices in the courtroom, so presumably following the old style of questioning.

On the substance of argument options, Scotusblog has an interesting symposium; I fully agree with Lyle Dennison’s critique of the way arguments had been conducted by phone, although others at that symposium feel differently. See the link at the top of this page for “online access.”

Regardless of how the arguments will be conducted, there are some interesting and important cases in the first block of arguments. Highlights include the CIA state secrets privilege, an abortion case (although a preliminary procedural issue this month), and the Boston Marathon bomber’s death penalty appeal.

First Monday, October 4

The first case this term is the unusual case in which the Court has original jurisdiction — a dispute between states. That gives it a certain interest, but I’m afraid that anyone not invested in the dispute (or hydrogeology in general) might find it a bit less compelling than the typical Supreme Court argument. Mississippi v. Tennessee involves groundwater contained in the Middle Claiborne Aquifer; “Mississippi believes the City of Memphis is stealing its groundwater.” That’s the opening line from the Special Master’s report, which is a good place to start if you want to understand the dispute.

Next up is a criminal law case, Wooden v. U.S. The Armed Career Criminal Act provides for enhanced penalties for someone in illegal possession of a gun if they had “three previous convictions . . . committed on occasions different from one another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). In this case, the defendant committed theft from 10 different units in a mini-storage facility. The Court has accepted cert. on “Whether offenses that were committed as part of a single criminal spree, but sequentially in time, were ‘committed on occasions different from one another’ for purposes of a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act.” NACDL has an interesting amicus brief arguing that whether individual criminal acts are committed on the same “occasion” or not is a factual question that should be resolved by a jury rather than the judge.

Tuesday, October 5

Today’s first case involves federal habeas review of criminal convictions. Two important concepts for this case: “harmless error” and AEDPA’s “clearly established Federal law” standard. Harmless error means the trial court allowed something legally wrong to occur but the outcome would have been the same regardless. In this case, the defendant was shackled during trial, which the Michigan state courts agree was unconstitutional but found to be “harmless error.” The federal courts disagreed, noting that the defendant was claiming self-defense and being shackled might have made a juror less likely to believe that claim (so it was not harmless but rather may have prejudiced the jury). Michigan now says, even if the state court was wrong about harmless error, there needs to be a separate finding that the reasoning was contrary to clearly established Federal law. The Sixth Circuit says that question was “subsumed” in the harmless error analysis (failing to recognize prejudice to the defendant is, necessarily, contrary to clearly established law). There is a “circuit split” on this — several other federal courts of appeal have held that there needs to be a further finding beyond what the 6th Circuit said was sufficient to require a new trial. I’d suggest reading the 6th Circuit’s opinion.

Today’s second case, Servotronics, Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, is an interesting factual context: “Servotronics, which manufactured a valve used in a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 jet engine installed on a Boeing 787 aircraft, was a defendant in an arbitration proceeding that Rolls-Royce brought in London, England, seeking damages for an engine fire that occurred during a test flight of a Boeing 787 in the United States.” (That’s from the helpful scotusblog preview, which is a good place to start.) However, the legal question is one of technical civil procedure. There’s a federal statute that empowers federal courts to authorize subpoenas to support discovery in foreign “tribunal” proceedings; the question is whether that extends to foreign arbitration.

Wednesday, October 6

Just one case today, but it’s a big one — the CIA state-secrets privilege case, United States v. Zubaydah. Zubaydah currently is being held in Guantanamo, as an alleged former associate of bin Laden. Previously, he says he was tortured at a CIA dark site in Poland, and he “intervened” (became a party to) a criminal investigation by Polish authorities into the CIA operations there. Zubaydah wants to subpoena two CIA contractors. The CIA claimed “state secrets” as to all information he was seeking. The 9th Circuit held that some information was properly classified a state secret, but that certain information was subject to disclosure. This is definitely the shorthand version of all this — see this useful article for the full story, as well as the 9th Cir decision.

[The Court is closed on Monday, Oct. 11 for Columbus / Indigenous Peoples Day]

Tuesday, October 12

This is the first abortion case of the term, but on a preliminary procedural issue. Scotusblog has a succinct write-up:

The Kentucky dispute, Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center, began as a challenge to a law that generally bans the use of the “dilation and evacuation” method to perform abortions, a procedure commonly employed during the second trimester of pregnancy. Kentucky’s health secretary initially defended the law in court, but declined to continue to do so after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit struck down the ban.

Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general, then asked the 6th Circuit for permission to join the case to defend the law, but the 6th Circuit rejected that request. Cameron appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to weigh in on whether he should have been allowed to intervene. And if so, Cameron continued, the justices should also rule on whether the case should be sent back to the lower courts for another look after the Supreme Court’s decision last year in June Medical Services v. Russo, in which the justices struck down a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have the right to admit patients at a nearby hospital – but which, Cameron wrote, “undercuts” the 6th Circuit’s decision to invalidate the Kentucky law.

In a brief order on [March 29], the justices granted Cameron’s request to decide whether he should be allowed to join the case, but they turned down his request to weigh in on whether the case should go back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration in light of June Medical. 

  • Amy Howe, Justices to decide whether Kentucky attorney general can defend abortion lawSCOTUSblog (Mar. 29, 2021)

The second case today, Hemphill v. New York, is factually complex and involves exceptions to the confrontation clause in a trial that resulted in a murder conviction. In general, the US Constitution’s confrontation clause requires that evidence against a defendant be introduced by a person who can be subjected to cross-examination. In this case, however, the defense counsel mentioned a prior proceeding against another individual in an attempt to suggest that someone else was the shooter. The trial judge ruled that this “opened the door” for the prosecution to introduce details of those proceedings that would otherwise be inadmissible (except through testimony of someone subject to cross-examination). See the NY Court of Appeals decision – and be sure to read the dissent – as well as this summary.

Wednesday, October 13

A big one today — the Boston Marathon bomber death penalty appeal, U.S. v. Tsarnaev. The Court’s cert. questions are clear enough:

Issue(s): (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit erred in concluding that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capital sentences must be vacated on the ground that the district court, during its 21-day voir dire, did not ask each prospective juror for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage that he or she had read, heard or seen about Tsarnaev’s case; and (2) whether the district court committed reversible error at the penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s trial by excluding evidence that Tsarnaev’s older brother was allegedly involved in different crimes two years before the offenses for which Tsarnaev was convicted.

There will be a lot of attention on this case, and a lot of emotion. It’s worth reading the 1st Circuit opinion, which found that there were reversible errors in the death penalty proceedings and ordered a new trial on those counts only, noting “Because we are affirming the convictions (excluding the three § 924(c) convictions) and the many life sentences imposed on those remaining counts (which Dzhokhar has not challenged), Dzhokhar will remain confined to prison for the rest of his life, with the only question remaining being whether the government will end his life by executing him.”

The last October argument is a complex question about Social Security benefit calculations, with an administrative deference kicker. I.e., it won’t be an easy one to follow for the casual observer…. Briefly, it has to do with workers who have some earnings that are “covered” (taxed and calculated in determining retirement benefits) and “uncovered.” The formula is set up so lower-income workers get a higher “return” on their SSA taxes when benefits are calculated. So someone with uncovered earnings as well might be treated as a low-wage worker even if they are not. The response is the “windfall elimination provision,” which in turn has various exceptions and complications. And this case asks “whether a civil service pension received for federal civilian employment as a ‘military technician (dual status)’ is ‘a payment based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service’ for the purposes of the Social Security Act’s windfall elimination provision.” See the 6th Cir. opinion for details.

Feb 22 – March 3 Cases

With the Court removing from the calendar the “remain in Mexico” case (which had been scheduled for argument on March 1) in light of changed positions under the new Administration, the main focus of attention will be on the Voting Rights Act cases on March 2. But there are also cases involving immigration appeals, the “hot pursuit” doctrine, and the appointments clause. A quick reminder that C-SPAN seems to offer the most reliable stream to listen in live (at 10am; no second round of arguments on the days listed below), or see this page for ways to take in the arguments a bit later.

[Feb 22‘s sole case will have rather narrow appeal: Florida v. Georgia, “Whether Florida is entitled to equitable apportionment of the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and appropriate injunctive relief against Georgia to sustain an adequate flow of fresh water into the Apalachicola Region”]

Tuesday, February 23

The two cases today (consolidated for 1 hour of argument total) involve presumptions and procedures in immigration cases. In Rosen v. Dai, Dai sought asylum and testified that he would face torture if returned to China. The immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled against him, but never explicitly held that his testimony lacked credibility. On appeal, the 9th Circuit held that in the absence of such a finding, Dai was entitled to a presumption that his testimony was credible. Somewhat similarly, in Rosen v. Alcaraz-Enriquez the BIA relied on a probation report to find that Alcaraz-Enriquez was a danger to the community and therefore not entitled to withholding of removal, but did not explicitly find that his testimony (which contradicted the probation report) was not credible. In both cases, the Court has accepted cert. on “Whether a court of appeals can presume that an immigrant’s testimony is credible if an immigration judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals did not specifically find that he was not credible.”

Wednesday, February 24

Lange v. California is an interesting case about the limits of the “exigent circumstances” and “hot pursuit” exceptions to the warrant requirement. A California Highway Patrol officer stopped Lange’s garage door from closing and entered his garage without a warrant, which would ordinarily be required under the 4th Amendment. However, the officer had followed him there after Lange refused to stop after the officer turned on the patrol car lights. The prosecutor argued that Lange’s “failure to yield” constituted exigent circumstances. But this all began simply because Lange was playing his car stereo loudly and honked his horn a few times. The Court has accepted cert. on “Whether the pursuit of a person whom a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant.” In addition to the first link (a helpful overview of the case), see the decision below.

Monday, March 1

Three consolidated cases (one hour total) today involving the Patent Office and the “appointments clause.” The Constitution (Art. II § 2) requires that “Officers of the United States” be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The Court has interpreted this to mean “principal officers” who exercise considerable authority, not every federal employee. In late 2019, the Federal Circuit held that Administrative Patent Judges are principal officers and therefore the existing system of their being appointed by the Secretary of Commerce was unconstitutional — which raises all sorts of issues about the validity of prior rulings and how to proceed going forward, which the Federal Circuit has tried to narrow and navigate around. So now the Supreme Court is reviewing both whether the circuit was right about the problem (lack of proper appointment and confirmation of judges) and has identified appropriate responses to that problem. Specifically: “(1) Whether, for purposes of the Constitution’s appointments clause, administrative patent judges of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are principal officers who must be appointed by the president with the Senate’s advice and consent, or “inferior Officers” whose appointment Congress has permissibly vested in a department head; and (2) whether, if administrative patent judges are principal officers, the court of appeals properly cured any appointments clause defect in the current statutory scheme prospectively by severing the application of 5 U.S.C. § 7513(a) to those judges.”

Tuesday, March 2 — Voting Rights Act

A pair of cases (consolidated for 1 hour total, but expect it to run long) out of Arizona being argued today are among the most important of the term: Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee. The cases have received considerable public attention and SCOTUSBlog has a very useful overview as well as a symposium reflecting a range of perspectives. So I’ll add just a brief note to provide some context before following those links.

The Voting Rights Act, among other things, prohibits voting procedures that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color, or in contravention of the guarantees” of other VRA protections. 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a). And it further specifies this violation can be established if the “political processes” are not “equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens.” § 10301(b). These provisions are typically referred to as “Section 2.”

These cases involve Arizona’s “out of precinct” policy (if you show up to vote and aren’t on the list, you can cast a provisional ballot; but if it’s later found that you weren’t on the list because you went to the wrong precinct, then the whole ballot is thrown out) and anti-“ballot harvesting” policy (which prohibits collecting and returning someone else’s ballot unless you are the voter’s family member or caregiver, or a mail carrier or election official). The 9th Circuit found that both these policies violated the VRA because they had a disproportionate impact on minority voters and this effect was linked to social and historical conditions that created inequality of opportunity to participate in the election process.

Beyond the legality of these policies, advocates are hoping the Supreme Court will clarify the standards to be used in VRA § 2 cases. The ARP v. DNC case’s questions presented highlight this: “(1) Whether Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act compels states to authorize any voting practice that would be used disproportionately by racial minorities, even if existing voting procedures are race-neutral and offer all voters an equal opportunity to vote; and (2) whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit correctly held that Arizona’s ballot-harvesting prohibition was tainted by discriminatory intent even though the legislators were admittedly driven by partisan interests and by supposedly ‘unfounded’ concerns about voter fraud.”

Wednesday, March 3

The cases today (Carr v. Saul and Davis v. Saul, consolidated for 1 hour total) also involve the “appointments clause” that was at issue in the March 1 Patent Judges cases, but this time the argument is about a procedural issue that is preliminary to the constitutional question: “Whether a claimant seeking disability benefits under the Social Security Act forfeits an appointments-clause challenge to the appointment of an administrative law judge by failing to present that challenge during administrative proceedings.”