SCOTUS News, May 26th, 2017: Redistricting Revisited

SCOTUS released three opinions this week, including a decision in the closely-watched Cooper v. Harris redistricting case. We’ll take a look at that below. But first, the week’s other cases:

Water Splash v. Menon

This case concerned interpretation of the Hague Service Convention. As we discussed a couple months back, the major issue here is whether the Convention covers legal service by mail. SCOTUS granted certiorari to clear up lower court disagreement, including a Texas Supreme Court dissent in this case.

SCOTUS unanimously rules that international service by mail is allowed under the Convention. Justice Alito writes about two broad factors used for this determination. The first is the basic text of the law, and the second is the intent of the law. On the first point, debate centered around the Convention’s use of the word “send” when discussing how to serve legal documents. Menon argued that this wording was ambiguous, and that “send” did not mean the same as “serve legal process”. The Supreme Court rejects this line of argument. The use of the word send in a law expressly about service of process is clear enough to establish intent. The Convention is all about service of legal process. Any alternate interpretation, considering the law’s clear scope of responsibility, would be “quite strange”.

On the second point, the Court indicates precedent showing that treaty interpretation must take into account the context of the treaty. Written records and testimony show that drafters of the Convention intended the treaty to allow service via mail. Furthermore, the Court gives weight to other countries’ interpretations of the treaty. Many other Convention signatories have expressed that the language of the treaty allows service by mail.

SCOTUS vacates the sentence, and remands the case to decide the unresolved issues.

TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods

Kraft brought a patent infringement suit against TC Heartland in Delaware. TC Heartland originally argued that it could not be sued for patent infringement in Delaware because the company does not “reside” there. The District Court and Federal Circuit both rejected this argument. SCOTUS reverses and remands.

Here again, a case turns heavily on the meaning of just a handful of words. Where does a corporation “reside” in cases of patent litigation? A discrepancy occurs between two different clauses of the same patent statute.

Thomas writes for the unanimous Court, inviting us to embark on something of a history lesson. Since the turn of the 20th Century, Congress has gradually shifted patent law away from other areas of corporate civil law. These occasional revisions have occurred periodically, the latest revision as recently as 2011. These revisions have remained consistent with judicial precedent concerning the separate venue for patent litigation. Both the revisions to the law, and the precedents governing patent law’s finer points, establish a corporation’s “residence” as the district in which it is incorporated.

The Justices carefully enumerate the laws and precedents that establish patent venue as unique in civil procedure. A company can be sued, for example, for other tortious claims without the same restraints on venue. But when it comes to patent law, a corporation can only be sued in the state of its incorporation.

The Supreme Court remands after indicating the controlling clause, and the proper precedent for the lower courts to consider.

Cooper v. Harris

There has always been a fine line between redistricting and gerrymandering, and it always causes stark conflicts. A previous case this term, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, considered redistricting rules as well. Cooper v. Harris is the latest decision on the issue.

Originally started during Pat McCrory’s administration, Cooper v. Harris is particular to North Carolina, but the implications reach farther. This case and others like it all come down to interpretation of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). The nature of the case demanded a three-judge District Court panel rule on the legality of Districts 1 and 12 of North Carolina. The three-judge panel ruled that both districts were unconstitutional. SCOTUS granted certiorari to solidify whether the District Court panel made a “clear error” in their judgment. SCOTUS affirms, after considering several factors in the case:

1. How much weight testimony in the original trial should carry.

2. Whether the new districts satisfied the VRA’s rules concerning race-based redistricting.

3. Whether respondents in this case needed to produce an alternative district map as evidence of violation.

On the first point, the majority notes there were signs in witness testimony of race-based factors. On the second point, the majority writes in greater detail. Kagan, writing for the Court, points out that North Carolina redrew the districts ostensibly to comply with a three-pronged test of minority vote dilution in the VRA. However, SCOTUS points out that the districts did not meet all three criteria for VRA redistricting, meaning the districts were compliant with existing law before they were deemed in need of redraw. In other words, the VRA permits race-based redistricting in order for districts to comply with the law. But when they are already compliant, there is no need of further tinkering. Thus, North Carolina incorrectly concluded that when they can draw a majority-minority district, they are required to. They failed to rigorously use the three-pronged test.

On the third point, there is a sharp distinction between the five-Justice majority and the three-Justice partial dissent, written by Alito. The dissent claims that, under previous precedent, the plaintiffs (respondents here) should have produced an alternative map of District 12 in order to prevail at trial and before the District Court. The majority counters. An alternative map is unnecessary when a preponderance of other evidence validates claims of a race-based redraw, as there was here. The dissent repeatedly questions the evaluation of evidence at the original trial. The majority counters here as well. The job of SCOTUS in this case is to determine whether the three-judge District Court made a plausibly sound ruling. An independent re-examination of evidence by SCOTUS is not only not required, but should not occur at all. SCOTUS did not grant cert to re-try all the facts. They only granted cert to determine clear error in the District Court ruling. As far as the evidence points, SCOTUS affirms there was no clear error.

The Crowd and the Algorithm

A couple of wide misses from {Marshall}+ this week. In both the Water Splash and TC Heartland cases, the FantasySCOTUS Crowd nailed the prediction while the Algorithm faltered.

water splash menon

Water Splash v. Menon

tc heartland kraft foods

TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods

In Cooper v. Harris, meanwhile, both the Crowd and the Algorithm fared very well. The only significant discrepancy is where Thomas landed in the final decision. Thomas joined the majority here, and filed a short concurring opinion. But the Algorithm can hardly be blamed for predicting that Thomas might vote with the Court’s conservative wing.


This term is only half over! There’s still plenty of time to sign up and play FantasySCOTUS. Head over to FantasySCOTUS to sign up and make your predictions! And check out all our latest news on Twitter at @LexPredict and @MarshallPlus.