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).

About that one Gorsuch opinion….

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits firing an employee simply because of sexual orientation or gender identity is truly momentous and will mean improved employment security for countless people throughout the country, notably those who live in the majority of jurisdictions with no state- or local-level prohibition on such discrimination. Beyond that wonderful take-away, there is a lot to digest. Much of the mainstream coverage matches my thoughts when I was reading the opinion, but I have a few additional thoughts I’d like to set out regarding Justice Gorsuch’s role and the similarities and differences between this decision and the sexual orientation cases of recent years.

That an opinion prohibiting LGBT discrimination would come from Justice Gorsuch is certainly a major surprise, but Reagan-appointee Justice Kennedy was no obvious ally when he wrote Lawrence v. Texas (striking down sodomy laws) in 2003 or US v. Windsor (striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act) ten years later, and we were still on the edge of our seats in 2015 before he released the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (holding that the 14th Amendment requires the state to recognize same-sex marriage). (As an aside, all those decisions were issued on June 26. Yesterday was a break from what some people thought was a tradition, even if based on a very small sample size.)

Still, there is a notable difference in style and tone. The opening paragraph in Lawrence declares that “[t]he instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.” Obergefell begins “[t]he Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” and Kennedy gets more poetic and philosophical from there.

In contrast, Bostock begins “[s]ometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them.” It then adds that “[i]n our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” but that’s as close as we get to recognition of the importance of the rights at issue in these cases. The emphasis — the chosen framework — is on the meaning of the words in the statute; an academic exercise rather than an examination of the principles of rights.

That difference is legally appropriate and, to some extent, required because Kennedy was interpreting constitutional provisions that required him to expound the meaning of “liberty” while Gorsuch was charged with interpreting the meaning of the word “sex” in a Congressional statute. Moreover, other cases had already made clear that “sex” includes sex stereotyping and sexual harassment, and that the statute prohibits other kinds of discrimination that might be given a label that is not one that actually appears in the text of the statue. It is very hard to see an intellectually satisfying way to say LGBT discrimination is not sex discrimination if we’ve already accepted that it is unlawful to discriminate against a woman for being a “tomboy” (to say nothing of the fact that we also (almost) universally accept that it is discrimination on the basis of race even if the person has no bias against any individual’s race but only interracial marriage).

So the Gorsuch opinion is rather bland as judged by its analysis and certainly by its rhetoric. His approach is methodical: there’s a statute that uses specific words, we have established analytical frameworks for how we decide what those words mean as well as significant relevant precedent, and so Gorsuch went through a routine analytical process and came to a logical conclusion.

What is remarkable is that he did not shy away from his own conclusion. It is reassuring that he would rule in a way that almost certainly is against his personal political views and it is deeply troubling that it’s remarkable to us that a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Trump actually cares about analytical consistency and intellectual honesty.

This most certainly does not mean that he is likely to side with what remains of the liberal wing of the Court as a general matter. It doesn’t even mean that he has moderated his views or shifted to an understanding of the law that is closer to those who believe in a “living constitution” or employ other analytical frameworks that more often lead to progressive conclusions. It only means that he might not engage in the kind of tortured logic on display in the dissenting opinions in order to avoid a particular outcome when his own legal analysis happens to bring him to a conclusion that is also one a progressive (or even someone like Posner) might arrive at through different means.  (My initial reaction to Obergefell five years ago also noted that Kennedy got there through a narrow framework that was less valuable for other LGBT rights issues.)

We’ll have to see if this lasts, and it will only be relevant in rare instances. The way Gorsuch approaches other legal issues (such as the free exercise clause and how it applies the the ministerial exception, to mention just one case that should be decided later this month) almost certainly won’t wind up pulling him to conclusions that conflict with his ideology. Regardless, it’s nice to be surprised in this way. Scalia used to occasionally rule in ways that contrasted with how people thought of him, Roberts has repeatedly done so now, and it looks like there’s another Justice who just might surprise us from time to time.

October 2019

“First Monday” this year is October 7, when the Court returns from summer recess to hear the first set of arguments this term.  The Court typically hears arguments on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays for two weeks in a row each calendar month.  Further information amount attending arguments are on this page.  This term, the Court will quickly take on some high-profile cases, involving Title VII coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, a defendant’s right to a unanimous verdict, life without parole for one of the DC-area snipers, and other issues.  Those cases are discussed below.

Looking ahead, I will offer a post before the November arguments, which will include cases involving DACA and other immigration issues, the Clean Water Act, and police accountability.  Looking even further ahead, the Court has agreed to hear, but has not yet scheduled arguments in, cases involving environmental law, the Second Amendment, the death penalty, religious establishment, mismanagement of employee retirement funds, and other issues.  I will offer recommendations regarding those cases in the weeks before they are argued. This term is going to include a lot of cases that will generate great public interest.

Monday, October 7

The term opens with a case involving legal insanity and the death penalty, Kahler v. Kansas. Legal insanity means different things in different states.  Some states instruct the jury to consider whether the defendant was capable of understanding right from wrong and was morally responsible.  But in Kansas, a jury can consider mental capacity only as indication that the defendant did not have the mens rea (essentially, the intent required under the law) — in the case of murder, an intent to kill.  So in a classic example that the ABA notes in its brief, a father “who knowingly and intentionally killed his son under the psychotic delusion that he was the biblical Abraham, and his son the biblical Isaac” would not be legally insane under the Kansas standard. Predictably, this case has generated a large number of amicus briefs, and I strongly recommend reviewing at least one or two before the arguments to get a sense of some of the legal tests and positions that will be argued.  I also recommend arriving very early — these sorts of cases always draw a large crowd, as does First Monday even without a case that’s so contentious.

The second case this morning will not generate nearly as much public interest. Peter v. NantKwest Inc. involves the fees that someone has to pay to appeal the denial of a patent.  If you plan to stay for this argument (there will be a short break and many people will leave the courtroom after Kahler), read the overview here.

The Court will also hear an afternoon argument — an important one involving the right to a unanimous jury verdict.  Ten jurors found Ramos guilty of second degree murder, but two jurors voted to acquit. At the time, that was good enough to convict him under Louisiana law (although that changed with a state constitutional amendment in 2018, requiring unanimous verdicts going forward; only Oregon still allows split juries). The current state of the law is confused, at least according to Ramos’s attorneys.  The last time the Supreme Court directly decided this issue was in 1972, when it ruled that states could authorize convictions with less-than-unanimous juries.  However, it was a plurality opinion — no single view of the constitutional issues commanded a majority of the justices. Moreover, since then, the Court has been more emphatic that there should be “no daylight” between state and federal standards when Bill of Rights principles are “incorporated” by the 14th Amendment as applying to the states; and the Court has held that the 6th Amendment requires unanimous verdicts in federal criminal trials. This “incorporation doctrine” will be important in the arguments.  Also note the racism that underlies these provisions: at the founding, all states and the federal system required unanimous verdicts, but Louisiana changed that after Reconstruction allowed for black jurors and Oregon did so in 1934 amid public outrage over immigration. The primary brief covers these and the legal issues quite well, and there are a large number of briefs from advocacy organizations on his side; Louisiana is alone, but you can see all the briefs here.

Lines for afternoon arguments are hard to predict because they are relatively rare (although there’s another one next week). Many members of the public don’t know about afternoon arguments, although this one is significant enough that it could draw a crowd of interested lawyers and law students. Some people who arrive for the 10am arguments but don’t get in may also decide to be first in line for this 1pm argument.

Tuesday, October 8

The cases today involve employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — some of the most high-profile cases of the term. Although many states and cities have non-discrimination laws that specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many others do not and federal law does not include such phrases.  However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts prohibits discrimination “because of . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. Courts and others have disagreed about whether this language includes sexual orientation and gender discrimination. It’s unlikely Congress had this type of discrimination in mind when it wrote the law, and for some, that is enough to defeat such claims.  For an example of the opposite conclusion, there’s a remarkable 7th Circuit case, Hively v. Ivy Tech., in which the majority found for a lesbian based on a logical analysis that her sex was the reason for the discrimination:  a) the employer discriminated against her because she was in a relationship with a woman; b) if an otherwise identical employee were male and in a relationship with a woman, the employer would not have treated her this way; c) therefore, sex is the definitive variable and the discrimination was because of the employee’s sex. The majority reasoned that this analysis comports more with the judge’s role to apply the plain language of the law, not guess at what Congress had in mind when it chose that language.  In a concurring opinion, Judge Posner (a much-celebrated jurist who has since retired) was more bold, declaring a refusal to be an “obedient servant[] of the 88th Congress” and instead saying he was engaged in “judicial interpretive updating” of the law.

But that’s not the case being heard today….  I just find the two opinions to represent fascinating reasoning and exchange, and a good starting point for understanding why this is an issue.  For the cases today, listen to this ScotusTalk podcast and review the scotusblog overview, and see the many filings in the cases at the following links.  Briefly, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County both involve sexual orientation discrimination.  They will be argued together in the first hour.  In the second hour, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC will take on transgender discrimination.

People will begin lining up to hear these arguments some time on Monday, if not before.  If you are not willing to spend the night on the sidewalk, consider going to the Court to hear and/or take part in the demonstrations.  I would expect protests starting around 8am and they certainly will continue until after noon, when the arguments will end and arguing counsel will make their way to the sidewalk in front of the court to give speeches and interviews.

[No arguments are scheduled for Wednesday the 9th, and the Court is closed on Monday the 14th for Columbus Day.]

Tuesday, October 15

There are 5 cases today, all consolidated to be argued together.  The cases involve the authority of members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board created by the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. Congress gave the Board broad powers, in response to a “fiscal crisis” — and it also authorized the President to appoint Board members without them being confirmed by the Senate. That’s a problem because the “appointments clause” says all Officers of the United States shall be appointed “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate” and Congress only has the authority to authorize the President alone to appoint “inferior Officers.” U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2. The line can be a little murky–the Supreme Court has said Officers are those who exercise “significant authority”–but these Board members had authority to rescind or revise laws and exercise other powers that almost certainly are inconsistent with their being mere “inferior Officers.” So a hedge fund and a union representing government workers sued to reverse Board actions on the basis that the Board Members did not have any authority because they were not confirmed as required by the Constitution.  The First Circuit agreed that their appointments were unconstitutional but declined to reverse their actions, on the basis of the “de facto officer doctrine” and a finding that there would be “negative consequences for the many, if not thousands, of innocent third parties who have relied on the Board’s actions until now.” The Supreme Court has granted cert. on the question “Whether the de facto officer doctrine allows for unconstitutionally appointed principal Officers of the United States to continue acting, leaving the party that challenges their appointment with an ongoing injury and without an appropriate relief.”

Wednesday, October 16

The first case today raises complex issues relating to preemption doctrine — but it does so in the context of undocumented immigration.  Garcia was already under investigation by a financial crimes detective when he was pulled over for speeding and told the traffic officer he was rushing to his job.  The routine check revealed the ongoing financial investigation, the officer and detective talked, and the next day the detective obtained Garcia’s I-9 form from the employer.  That form used a Social Security Number issued to another person.  Garcia was then charged under state laws against identity theft.  This has obvious political implications. The legal issue is that the I-9 form is part of a federal system, and the federal law specifies that the form and information on it “may not be used for purposes other than for enforcement of this chapter and [certain specified federal laws].” 8 U.S.C. § 1324a(b)(5). The Kansas Supreme Court held that “Garcia’s conviction must be reversed because the State’s prosecution based on the Social Security number was expressly preempted.”  The US Supreme Court has accepted cert. on “(1) Whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act expressly pre-empts the states from using any information entered on or appended to a federal Form I-9, including common information such as name, date of birth, and social security number, in a prosecution of any person (citizen or alien) when that same, commonly used information also appears in non-IRCA documents, such as state tax forms, leases, and credit applications; and (2) whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act impliedly preempts Kansas’ prosecution of respondents.”

The second case today, Rotkiske v. Klemm, asks when the statute of limitations begins to run under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. A debt collector filed suit against Rotkiske but could not serve him because he no longer lived at the address and so withdrew the suit, but then refiled and served someone at the same old address, which the collector should have known was outdated.  Rotkiske had no idea, and had a default judgment entered against him. He did not learn of this until years later, when he tried to obtain a mortgage.  The issue for the Court is whether the statute of limitations begins to run when the misconduct occurs or when the plaintiff discovers the misconduct. The Fourth and Ninth Circuits have found a “discovery rule” but the Third Circuit in this case disagreed, holding that “the Act says what it means and means what it says: the statute of limitations runs from “the date on which the violation occurs.”

There is also an afternoon (1pm) argument today, challenging the life without parole sentence for one of the “DC area snipers” who was 17 at the time of the murders. This is another case with a lot of publicity. Malvo was sentenced in Virginia in 2004 to a term of two life sentences without the possibility of parole. The sentences were pursuant to pleas, under pressure of being charged with capital offenses.  A year later, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional when the offense was committed by a minor.  In 2010, Miller v. Alabama held that mandatory life without parole was unconstitutional when the offense was committed by a minor. And in 2016, the Court clarified, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that these rulings were to be applied retroactively. Therefore in this case, the 4th Circuit held that Marvo had to be re-sentenced.  He might still face life imprisonment, but the trial court was instructed “to determine (1) whether Malvo qualifies as one of the rare juvenile offenders who may, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole because his ‘crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility’ or (2) whether those crimes instead ‘reflect the transient immaturity of youth,’ in which case he must receive a sentence short of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” The state, on the other hand, urges that these cases apply only to sentencing schemes that require life without parole, while Virginia’s law provided for judicial discretion. Take a look at the briefs in this case and be prepared for a large and emotional crowd.