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.

 

January Cases

This week, the Court considers a free speech challenge to credit card surcharges, litigation sanctions, and what standards for a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities.  Next week, the Court takes on both disparaging trademarks and the rights of detainees who claim they were held in severe conditions of confinement based only on racial profiling.

Tuesday, January 10

An interesting case this morning involves claims of free speech rights in an unusual context:  credit card fees.  Merchants pay a fee to credit card companies, but ten states prohibit them from passing on that fee as a “surcharge.”  The group of merchants in Expressions Hair Design v Schneiderman argue that this prohibition is an unconstitutional limitation on speech.  The Second Circuit rejected that, holding that it only regulates commercial practices (conduct, not speech), but the merchants note that the law allows them to offer a discount for paying with cash, so as a practical matter, it regulates what they call it rather than what they charge.

The second case, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, involves the scope of a court’s inherent power to award attorney fees and other sanctions where a party engages in some form of litigation misconduct.

Wednesday, January 11

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to provide children with disabilities with a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE), but that is not fully defined.  Some courts, including the lower courts in this case (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District), have held that it requires only that the state provide some sort of education that is of more than minimal value to the student.  Other courts, and the Obama Administration in this case, have argued that this is not enough, and the standard should involve a “meaningful” education.

[This is the only case being argued today, and is scheduled for one hour.  However, the Solicitor General is arguing along with the parties, so it may run a few minutes long.]

Wednesday, January 18

Two significant and contentious issues are before the Court today.

First, the Court considers the provision in the Trademark Act that allows for refusal to register the trademark if it would “disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a). The specific case (Lee v. Tam) involves Samuel Tam, who named his band The Slants in order to bring attention to discrimination against Asians, “following in the long tradition of reappropriation, in which members of minority groups have reclaimed terms that were once directed at them as insults and redirected the terms outward as badges of pride.”  This case will have implications for the current name of the Washington football team, among other contentious current issues.

Next, the court considers detainee rights in Ziglar v. Abbasi and Hasty v. Abbasi, which allege that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, individuals were arrested and detained in extreme conditions on the basis of no evidence other than race, religion, and national origin.  The Atlantic offers an overview and makes predictions of the sort of reception the cases are likely to receive.  The Center for Constitutional Rights has detailed information about their case.  [The parties had requested additional time for argument, but that was denied and the cases are considered with one hour total.  I would expect it to run a little long nonetheless.]