SCOTUS News, June 2nd, 2017: All Sales Final

The Supreme Court released four new opinions this week, including Gorsuch’s first case of the term. Let’s take a look.

Impression v. Lexmark

Lexmark has patents on the printer ink cartridges it produces and sells. Impression is one of many companies involved in the bustling business of finding, refilling, and reselling used ink cartridges. Impression operates both inside the U.S. and outside. Lexmark sued over patent rights, citing stipulations in their seller agreement, and relevant aspects of patent law.

SCOTUS unanimously rules against the validity of Lexmark’s patent claim. Under patent law, the sale of an item by a patentee amounts to a “first sale”, and exhaustion of the patent for litigation purposes. Under the “first sale” doctrine, a lawfully sold product exhausts the patents held on that product.

The Court points out that if Lexmark had wanted to prevail in this case, they should have relied on contract law. A foundation of Lexmark’s case was that Impression violated elements of a “Return Program” Lexmark participates in with its buyers. The “Return Program” may constitute a contract enforceable under contract law. But the “Return Program” does not allow circumvention of ordinary patent exhaustion doctrine. Because Lexmark did not assert contract rights, the Supreme Court thus does not consider contract law here.

Chief Justice Roberts writes for the Court, reversing and remanding back to the Federal Circuit.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions

(Formerly Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch). This case concerned deportation of a Mexican permanent resident convicted of statutory rape. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) permits deportation of aliens convicted of aggravated felony. One felony on this list is “sexual abuse of a minor” that is a “violation of State or Federal law”. The INA does not, however, further define “sexual abuse of a minor”. Which brings us to the decision.

Esquivel-Quintana was 21 years old when he had consensual sex with a 17-year-old. Under California law, this qualified as statutory rape, and Esquivel-Quintana was convicted for this crime. Because of the age difference of the two individuals, California defined the crime as “sexual abuse of a minor”. This qualified the offense as aggravated felony punishable by deportation. On review, the Supreme Court looked to whether the state statute defining the crime “fits within the ‘generic’ federal definition” of aggravated felony. California law defines statutory rape as sex with someone younger than 17; petitioner’s partner was 17 at the time of the offense. Because of this, Esquivel-Quintana argued that the offense could not be labeled “aggravated felony” under the federal definition.

Different dictionaries provide different definitions of the age of consent. Many have an agreed-upon standard of 16 years. The INA uses a different standard, resorting to the “age of legal competence” to determine age of consent. The age of legal competence is 18, pretty much across the board. This creates a discrepancy.

SCOTUS, in a unanimous reversal authored by Thomas, deals a blow to this discrepancy. Ultimately, the Justices rule that the federal age of consent remains 16, not 18. Thus, the INA should defer to this definition. Because Esquivel-Quintana’s consensual partner was above the age of 16, the crime could not be an aggravated felony. This means deportation is an incorrect punishment.

BNSF v. Tyrrell

Tyrrell was an employee of BNSF Railway Company. He allegedly developed cancer after exposure to chemicals during his time with BNSF. The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) makes companies liable for employee on-the-job injuries. This Act provides subject matter jurisdiction to both state and federal courts. This means that a case can be brought at the state or federal level. What FELA does not provide, however, is personal jurisdiction. Ginsburg points this out in extensive detail in the nearly unanimous decision.

Two important factors determine Montana’s lack of personal jurisdiction in this case. The first is that neither Tyrrell nor Robert Nelson – a co-plaintiff in the original case – sustained their injuries while working in Montana. In addition, they might never have worked at BNSF facilities in Montana at all. The second factor is that BNSF only bases a small fraction of its organization in Montana. This makes Montana a dubious venue for a case like this. Both of these factors make it unreasonable for the State to claim personal jurisdiction over the case as it did here.

To have personal jurisdiction, a State must have power over the parties involved in the suit. BNSF is not incorporated in Montana, though. Neither is it headquartered there. The company also does not conduct a substantial part of its business in Montana. For these reasons, Montana cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over this case.

Ginsburg writes for an 8-member majority. Sotomayor is the lone dissent, and only in part. Her main issue of contention is the standard by which the Court determines BNSF’s level of business in the State, and whether its ties to Montana do in fact make it liable for personal jurisdiction under current precedent.

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

We laid out the facts of this case in a previous post. The Supreme Court reverses and remands here. The unanimous SCOTUS mainly disagrees with the lower courts’ use of the “provocation rule” under California law.

Under the provocation rule, an action that may be reasonable at the time can be rendered unreasonable due to prior events. In this case, officers opened fire when they saw someone holding a weapon. That’s reasonable enough. However, the officers in this case failed to knock and announce when they entered Mendez’s shack. Because of this prior unreasonable act – failing to knock and announce – the later shooting was deemed unconstitutional by a district court, and the Ninth Circuit.

SCOTUS vacates the ruling. The provocation rule, in so many words, adds a kind of causality from one Fourth Amendment claim to the next. This is instead of the long-standing practice of treating each instance of unlawful search or seizure as separate. SCOTUS rules that the provocation rule reaches too far. In a relatively brief, unanimous decision, Alito writes about this problematic vagueness in the provocation rule. They vacate this ruling, and remand it back to the Ninth Circuit.

The Crowd and the Algorithm

Another rocky week for {Marshall}+. Its Justice spread was a little more off than the FantasySCOTUS Crowd. Many of the cases decided this week were argued far later in the Supreme Court’s term. These later cases began to turn away from the safer topics of the interregnum between Scalia and Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch was in fact present for oral argument in BNSF v. Tyrrell. The time of simpler predictions is thus coming to an end.

bnsf tyrrell

BNSF v. Tyrrell

Like many cases this term, BNSF covered an issue of jurisdiction and venue. {Marshall}+ has a tougher time with these sorts of cases, as they often turn on the subtleties of deep phrasings in the U.S. Code far more than they rely on Justices’ past voting habits.

Both the Crowd and the Algorithm were reasonably certain about the outcomes in Esquivel-Quintana and Lexmark. Both teams ultimately arrived at the right case prediction, even if individual Justice predictions weren’t perfect.

The biggest surprise came in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez.

LA v. Mendez

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez

Both the Crowd and the Algorithm predicted a split along the Court’s standard ideological lines, but this did not happen. In this case, regardless of ideology, the settled law was clear. In addition, even through the lens of Alito’s sometimes aggressive opposition to the Ninth, the provocation rule seemed a particularly egregious overreach of the Ninth’s judicial power.


So far, the FantasySCOTUS scoreboard favors the Crowd. It’s too soon yet to compare each group’s run with prior years, but so far both teams are on track to perform better in the 2016-17 term than in past terms covered by us over at FantasySCOTUS.

Crowd: 33/40
{Marshall}+: 26/40

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