SCOTUS News, Week of February 20th, 2017

The Supreme Court released three opinions this past Wednesday. Due to the release of these opinions, our usual SCOTUS News will be published in two parts. Today, we cover the highlights from the new decisions. Early next Monday, we will publish some updates on the Court’s docket for next week.

Opinions Released

Buck v. Davis is perhaps one of the more high-profile cases in the Court’s term. It is certainly incendiary in its subject matter. Buck was convicted of capital murder many years ago in Texas. His jury handed him a death sentence. During his trial, Buck’s defense counsel called an expert witness to the stand. This witness gave testimony tantamount to the suggestion that Buck’s race (black) was a factor in how dangerous he could be in the future. Notwithstanding the odious claim that one’s race affects one’s propensity for violence, this action by Buck’s defense led to Buck eventually reaching the Supreme Court with an appeal based on the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority. The Court cites similar cases that were overturned after the very same expert witness gave similar testimony. The Justices also discussed the Sixth Amendment issue, in regard to Buck’s own defense asserting the racial claim. The case was reversed and remanded on these grounds, and other procedural and statutory grounds.

In his dissent, joined by Justice Alito, Justice Thomas takes issue with a procedural concern regarding a certificate of appealability. In addition, he relays a compelling recount of the brutal crimes for which Buck was convicted. He did so in order to demonstrate Buck’s obvious dangerousness and lack of remorse. Thomas argues against the majority, who rendered the subject moot by calling it a “crime of passion” and focusing instead on the race-based statements from the expert witness. Thomas also includes the fact that Buck’s defense used that testimony, in order to highlight this case’s substantive difference from others overturned due to similar statements by that same expert.

Buck v. Davis

Buck v. Davis

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools concerns an alleged violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The case hinged on whether a student, E. F., had been denied a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE). The denial of a FAPE is covered by the protections of IDEA. However, this is not the exact issue the Court decided. Instead, the Court had to determine whether petitioners had triggered an exhaustion clause in the IDEA. The IDEA takes precedence over other federal statutes unless and until all of its FAPE remedies are exhausted. Two other federal statutes bar discrimination of individuals who require the use of service animals. The Justices mention these statutes – Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and a section of the Rehabilitative Act.

The petitioners’s claim was denied by the Court of Appeals because they failed to establish a FAPE under the IDEA. The Court cited ambiguity in what statute the petitioners tried to trigger. It was unclear that the petitioners attempted to make a FAPE claim in the first place. Because of this, the Court vacated and remanded the case back to the lower court. The petitioners’ claim – that the school prohibited E. F.’s service animal – could be litigated under other federal discrimination statutes, the Court argues. The lower court did not consider this properly, wrote the Justices. In the opinion, Justice Kagan describes how lower courts can test which federal statute governs this case and others like it. With this new rule in place, they leave the matter to the lower courts.

The Justices were unanimous in their decision. Justice Kagan was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Chief Justice Roberts. Justices Alito and Thomas concurred in part, and concurred with the judgment.

Justice Kagan also wryly apologized for all the acronym use. We do so as well. Thanks for reading.

– Lastly, in the decision for Life Technologies v. Promega, the Court made a determination on the exact meaning of a clause in the Patent Act. The case concerned usage of a patented enzyme in a product manufactured abroad. In the opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court enshrined a quantitative reading of the relevant Patent Act clause. The Court held that a single component of a multi-component invention does not constitute “all or a substantial portion” of that invention. The Court explained that a close reading of the Patent Act relies on a quantitative definition of “substantial”, as opposed to a qualitative definition. The case was reversed and remanded, and re-established the primacy of the original District Court ruling favoring Life Technologies. The decision was unanimous, with two caveats: a brief concurring opinion from Justices Thomas and Alito, and the recusal of Chief Justice Roberts.

The Crowd v. The Algorithm

The FantasySCOTUS Crowd and the {Marshall}+ Algorithm both batted a thousand on these cases. The biggest difference in the Buck decision turned on Chief Justice Roberts. The Crowd correctly predicted that he would stick with the majority, while {Marshall}+ shakily added him to the Alito-Thomas dissent. This might be best explained by Roberts’ overall strategy as Chief Justice, which is hard to quantify for an algorithm. It is a telling indication of his style, though, that Roberts fulfilled the writing duties himself. Roberts often seeks consensus on rulings, and it is evident from the length of the opinion, and the nuance and details of Thomas and Alito’s dissent, that the Justices gave this case especially careful consideration on all fronts.

Swing Justice Strikes Again?

{Marshall}+, like a lot of Americans, occasionally misreads the leanings of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The Algorithm predicted that Thomas and Kennedy would dissent on the Fry case. Thomas did write a brief caveat to his concurrence on the case, but it was Alito who joined him, not Justice Kennedy.

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

Similarly, the Algorithm predicted Thomas and Kennedy would dissent on the Life Technologies case.

Life Technologies v. Promega Corp.

Life Technologies v. Promega Corp.

But this shouldn’t dishearten any believers in the power of {Marshall}+. The Algorithm’s prediction for Kennedy on both cases was razor-thin: 51 on the Life case, and a perfect swingin’ 50 on Fry.