SCOTUS News, Week of March 20th, 2017 (Part 1)

Judge Gorsuch started to run the gauntlet this week. Meanwhile, his potential colleagues handed down six opinions. We’ll cover the first three today, and the second group of three over the weekend. Let’s get started.

NLRB v. SW General

NLRB v. SW General concerns language in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. The FVRA governs the protocol for filling vacant positions in the Executive. Many officers serve with “the advice and consent of the Senate”, a critical part of checks and balances. PAS officers – as they are called – are appointed by the President and confirmed or rejected by the Senate. The FVRA has several prohibitions on who can serve as a PAS officer in a temporary, acting capacity. One rule in the FVRA is that a President cannot nominate a person to fill a PAS post when they already serve in an acting capacity. Some ambiguous phrases in the FVRA led this case to the Supreme Court.

An NLRB official filed a complaint against SW General, under orders from Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel of the NLRB. Solomon served as acting general counsel while being considered for a permanent post. Because the FVRA prohibits this, SW General moved to dismiss the filing. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address which federal officers are affected by the FVRA. SCOTUS affirmed the ruling of the DC Circuit. Solomon did not have proper authority to serve as acting general counsel at the time SW General filed their claim.

SCA v. First Quality

SCA v. First Quality is another patent case. What matters more in this case, however, is the subject of laches. “Laches” refers to an unreasonable delay or lack of diligence affecting a legal claim. The case began when SCA asserted patent rights against First Quality. But a length of time passed before SCA sued First Quality for patent infringement. The District Court ruled in First Quality’s favor on the grounds of laches. SCA appealed, and while its appeal was pending, the Supreme Court ruled that laches does not prevent claims made within the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations (Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). The Federal Circuit, however, held that laches could prevent claims made within the Patent Act’s statute of limitations. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to rectify this discrepancy between the Copyright Act and the Patent Act. SCOTUS vacated the lower court’s holding, and remanded the case in light of the precedent they set in Petrella.

Justice Alito wrote for the majority, and explained the necessity of upholding congressional statutes of limitations. A statute of limitations set by Congress should supersede laches, because laches is a “gap-filling” doctrine used as a last resort by judges when they lack clear instruction from relevant laws. In this case, there was no legislative gap to fill. Thus, the majority reasons, laches is not a viable recourse.

Manuel v. Joliet

Manuel v. Joliet rounds out our first trio of cases this week. This Fourth Amendment case concerns pretrial detention, and probable cause to hold a suspect. Petitioner Manuel was arrested and held in detention for possession of allegedly illegal pills. Police lab technicians later discovered that the pills were not illicit. Despite this evidence, Manuel was kept in jail for a total of 48 days. Almost two years after his release, Manuel filed a lawsuit against the city of Joliet, alleging violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed his claim because the 2-year statute of limitations had run out. Manuel filed his lawsuit more than two years after his arrest, but less than two years after his release. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling. These rulings also noted that Manuel should have filed based on Due Process rights, not on Fourth Amendment rights.

SCOTUS reversed and remanded, however. The majority points out that detention pursuant to legal process is not exempted from the Fourth Amendment. Manuel was held for 48 days, despite committing no crime. This, the Court holds, is clearly prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. In addition, the Court offers further guidance on the statute of limitations on pretrial detention claims. They declare that the statute of limitations begins running when charges are dismissed, not when a defendant is first arrested.

The Crowd and the Algorithm

In our first bundle of three cases this week, the FantasySCOTUS Crowd and the {Marshall}+ Algorithm both got the job done fairly well. In Manuel, our robot overlords more accurately predicted each Justice’s individual decisions. In SCA, the FantasySCOTUS Crowd edged out {Marshall}+, very nearly coming close to predicting the 7-1 decision with only Breyer dissenting.

SCA v. First Quality

SCA Hygiene v. First Quality

Sadly, in the NLRB case, both groups struck out. This may be a situation where both the Crowd and the Algorithm relied too heavily on ideological affiliation. In NLRB, the Justices relied on an exact interpretation of the law available, ideology notwithstanding.

NLRB v. SW General

NLRB v. SW General

As has happened many other times this season, the Supreme Court declined to comment on legislative intent. Instead, they interpreted the law via its precise language. They also relied not as heavily on precedents easily vetted by both the Crowd’s researchers and the Algorithm’s metrics.