SCOTUS News, Week of January 8th, 2017

Only a few more argument days before the short inauguration break. Lots to do, and lots to talk about.

Opinion Released

White v. Pauly was decided with a per curiam decision. This case was about excessive force during police actions. The petitioner, Officer White, arrived late to an escalated scene between his partners and two armed men. He began firing his weapon, but had no knowledge that the other officers had not yet properly identified themselves to the shooters. This ruling was narrow, given the highly unique circumstances. The Supreme Court ruled that White acted within the realm of qualified immunity. The case was remanded back to the lower courts.

Argued This Week

Nelson v. Colorado seemed like it would favor the petitioners when we previewed it last week. The momentum is now more evident after oral argument. Several Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, spoke about the difference between “compensation” and “restitution”. Under Colorado law, penalties repaid after a vacatur of criminal conviction are labeled “compensation”. The petitioners argued that the monies clearly qualify as restitution, not compensation. From the Justices’ line of questioning, it seems they favor the restitution argument.

Lewis v. Clarke involves the tangled web of jurisdiction created between states and sovereign tribes. Does the respondent, Clarke, owe remuneration to the petitioners, the Lewises? Should the tribe be held responsible? Does this case belong in Connecticut court, or tribal court? What measure of sovereignty belongs to Clarke, and to the Mohegan tribe? There are a lot of moving parts to this case. Delving into all the minutiae and grey areas is beyond the scope of this humble blog.

Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman did not appear to go well for the group of merchants led by Expressions. The merchants argued for the right to use surcharges despite a New York state statute proscribing them. Much of their argument was based on a First Amendment right to use the term “surcharge” itself. What the Justices pointed out, however, is that the First Amendment has nothing to do with price regulation. Justice Breyer was rather blunt with this observation: the statute in question simply forbids surcharges. Period. This cold hard logic suggests a steep climb for Expressions et al.

– In argument during Goodyear Tire v. Haeger, counsel for Goodyear had some difficulty. Goodyear attempted to argue that the original $2.7 million settlement awarded to the Haegers was too high. They admitted that Goodyear’s original legal team acted in bad faith. They then argued that the lower court would not have handed down such a stiff penalty in the absence of bad faith. The Justices seemed not to buy this speculation on what might have been. The Court seemed to favor the idea that the lower court had acted properly enough that a reversal of the settlement is not warranted.

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District seeks to established more concrete educational standards for public school children with disabilities. The Justices asked many questions about the inherent difficulty of establishing guidelines. Guidelines must be easily interpreted for many different kinds of disabilities, and in many different jurisdictions with many different kinds of legal systems and professionals. Both sides of the case offered their ideas on how to establish an educational standard. All parties, and the Justices, appear to only agree on one thing: de minimis, the bare minimum education, is too low of a standard.

Arguments Next Week

Lynch v. Dimaya will seek to clarify whether deportation is permissible for immigrants who commit certain crimes. Dimaya argues that the “residual” clause in 18 U.S.C. §16(b), and cited in the Immigration and Nationality Act, should be void due to vagueness. The Supreme Court has already taken a look at similar cases this term, Jennings v. Rodriguez and Lynch v. Morales-Santana.

Midland Funding v. Johnson deals with the massive consumer debt-collection industry. Many debt collection companies gather claims for which the statute of limitations has already run out. They ask debtors for payments anyway. Midland Funding argued it does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act when it approaches debtors for collection. Counsel for Johnson countered that companies like Midland file for collection on debts that have been absolved via bankruptcy precisely because of the likelihood that underrepresented and uninitiated debtors will pay the debt collectors because they are unaware of, or unable to secure, available legal recourse.

Lee v. Tam is a First Amendment case concerning specific language in Federal law that prohibits trademark protection for disparaging language. In this case, a music group of Asian heritage used a racial slur in their group name. This case will attempt to reconcile two clauses in Federal law. The Lanham Act prohibits racial disparagement, but in this case we have a direct clash with the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

Ziglar v. Abbasi, Ashcroft v. Abbasi, and Hasty v. Abbasi deal with residual effects of the 9/11 prosecutions. These cases rely on prior precedent established in such high-profile cases as Ashcroft v. Iqbal et al. One of the major issues here is whether a private citizen should be allowed to bring a case against an individual federal official. This conflict dates back to the 1971 case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents. Muddying the waters here is that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have both recused themselves due to their previous occupations with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and the USSG office, respectively.


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