SCOTUS Update, End of March Arguments

SCOTUS hears arguments in five sessions starting today. Here is a quick summary of each.

Arguments Monday

– The first hour of argument consolidates three similar cases. Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton will determine the status of church-affiliated pension plans. The specific issue in this case involves church exemptions in the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). This case is relatively cut and dry, at least as far as SCOTUS cases go. The ERISA extends an exemption to its pension rules for employees that work for a church. The Supreme Court will look at whether this exemption also applies to employees of church-affiliated organizations.

The Justices’ decision will have far-reaching consequences, considering the participants in these three related cases. They are all hospitals affiliated with churches, and as such have many employees who accrue benefits throughout their careers. Many of these employees claim that these hospitals are not exempt from ERISA’s rules. The hospitals hold the opposite view: they are exempt, and the text of ERISA makes their exemption clear. The Supreme Court has the final word on whether the exemption fully applies to church-affiliated organizations.

– The second case today is TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods. A business can only incorporate in one place. Businesses, however, can (and often do) have multiple locations in multiple states and jurisdictions. There are two statutes in the US Code that govern venues for patent litigation. In both statutes, it is clear that a patent infringement case can be brought in the district in which a defendant resides. Where the two statutes differ, is in defining whether a corporation can “reside” in more than one jurisdiction. The Supreme Court will decide which statute controls in patent litigation.

Arguments Tuesday

– The Justices will hear arguments in Lee v. US on Tuesday. Lee was convicted for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. He struck a plea deal after he was charged. However, Lee made this decision on the advice of his lawyer, who had informed Lee that he would not be deported if convicted. That turned out not to be the case.

Lee claims he received bad advice from his lawyer. In Strickland v. Washington, the Supreme Court created a two-prong test to determine whether a criminal defendant received ineffective counsel. The first prong is satisfied in Lee’s case: His lawyer was inadequate and did not advise him correctly. The second prong is the more difficult issue: Under Strickland, Lee must also show that he was prejudiced by his lawyer’s advice. The U.S. government argues that Lee was not prejudiced. Lee argues that his status as an immigrant creates a different burden. The desire to remain in the United States would, he argues, create different priorities concerning whether or not a defendant would take their chances at trial. SCOTUS will weigh in, and provide greater clarity on the Strickland test as it applies to immigrants.

Arguments Wednesday

– Consolidated argument for Overton v. US and Turner v. US concerns the suppression of evidence at a murder trial. Under previous precedent set in Brady v. Maryland, the government is required to turn over evidence that could exonerate a defendant. This did not happen. The petitioners in these joint cases argue that the previously suppressed evidence implicates others in the murder for which they were convicted. This evidence, they argue, could reasonably cause a jury to doubt their guilt. If that is true, then the prosecution violated the Due Process rights of the defendants.

Honeycutt v. US concerns liability in a criminal conspiracy. Tony Honeycutt owned a store that his brother Terry worked at. Terry did not have an ownership stake. The brothers were tried for distributing methamphetamine precursors through their store. Tony, the owner, was forced to pay a forfeiture. The courts also tried to have Terry pay part of the forfeiture money, even though Terry was not an owner of the store, only an employee. Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest Terry benefited directly from the conspiracy’s illegal gains.