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8-member SCOTUS eschews high-profile cases

Supreme Court Cases Focus on IP and Procedural Issues

None of the cases the Supreme Court will decide this fall have the usual flair we’re used to seeing. This should not be surprising. With Justice Scalia’s seat still unfilled, the Court has chosen cases that are more likely to be decided by unanimity or near-unanimity. The reason for this, of course, is that in the event of a split 4-4 decision, no precedent will be set at the Federal level. As our friends over at FantasySCOTUS are well aware, these split vote cases are a nightmare of frustration and opportunity cost.

The Supreme Court’s Cases

So what cases is the Supreme Court deciding? Many concern the minutiae of criminal and civil procedure, such as Shaw v. U.S., which is attempting to resolve an issue with defining bank fraud. Another case, Manrique v. U.S., concerns an issue of procedure whereby a defendant ordered to pay restitution appealed their case before the amount of restitution was set. In both examples, one of the reasons the Supreme Court has taken the case is due to divided opinions between the lower courts.

Here’s a short list of some of the more interesting cases the Supreme Court will decide in the coming months:

Ivy v. Morath seems at first glance to have potential as a hot-button issue. It concerns the rights of persons with hearing-related disabilities. Upon closer inspection, though, the specific issue of this case is whether a lower court erred in defining the relationship between a public entity that contracts to a private one.

Bank of America Corp. v. Miami (and its sister case, Wells Fargo v. Miami) is a nuanced cased concerning the Fair Housing Act. The issue here is whether and on what grounds a city can claim damages under the FHA. The city of Miami seeks damages from a chain reaction of poor financial management on the part of other actors. This mismanagement, they claim, led to deflated housing prices and blight. Here again is an exploration of the byzantine minutiae of a piece of legislation, rather than some potentially partisan conundrum.

Lynch v. Morales-Santana is perhaps the closest thing to a true civil rights issue being decided by the Court this fall. Even this case has a rather narrow scope, though. It concerns the circumstances of U.S. citizens abroad, and the conferral of citizenship on their children born abroad. The issue here is whether different rules apply for different circumstances (e.g. an unwed citizen mother abroad, as opposed to other citizen parents), and if these different rules violate the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.

– Perhaps the most famous case on the Supreme Court’s fall docket concerns IP law. Samsung Electronics v. Apple Inc. is nothing new, though. Apple and Samsung have been engaged in smartphone patent warfare since the beginning of this decade, and this is only the latest iteration.

Star Athletica LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. may be a much smoother ride than these others. At stake here is the precise metric by which a “useful article” (e.g. a chair, uniform, or dress) can be defined as unique enough to achieve copyright status without infringing on a useful article’s basic constituent parts. The platonic concept of what makes a chair a chair is not likely to inflame any partisan sentiment in the minds of the 8 Justices. It may, however, lead to some interesting rhetorical head nods to our Greek forebears.

The Supreme Court docket is, by definition, very important. While many in the media seem to be almost hurt by the lack of glamorous and enticing stories in this fall’s docket, there is perhaps no better way for the Supreme Court to proceed than with caution. Scalia’s death, and the gridlock on nominating his replacement, have accidentally created a kind of period of reflection, for the Court, and for us as a society. The US Code resembles an overgrown forest at times. In this hamstrung fall session, the Court has a chance to carefully and precisely cut down a few troublesome trees.