SCOTUS News, Feb. 23, 2018: Murphy’s Law

Not too many surprises from the Supreme Court this week. The Crowd racked up its first loss, but even with a loss, the Crowd has an 87.5% case accuracy rate!

Digital Realty Trust v. Somers

This case concerns the definition of a ‘whistleblower’ under the Dodd-Frank act. Digital Realty Trust fired Somers after he reported potential securities law violations to upper management. Somers sought relief from his termination via the whistleblower protections of Dodd-Frank. The dispute in this case arose because Somers and Digital Realty disagreed about whether Somers actually qualified as a whistleblower.

Justice Ginsburg writes for a unanimous court that Somers did not qualify as a whistleblower at the time of his termination. The reason is because he had not yet reported securities law violations.

Dodd-Frank’s intent, the Court writes, is for whistleblowers to tell the SEC about violations. The retaliation protections were designed in such a way to encourage this kind of reporting. For this reason, the protections for a whistleblower (and using the word itself to define the individual) only trigger after that individual reports to the SEC. In short, you must “tell the SEC” to be given whistleblower status.

This case clears up a few Circuit splits on this matter. Additionally, this case puts another notch in the FantasySCOTUS Crowd’s belt.

Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) grants immunity from suit to foreign states and their property, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions are central to SCOTUS’ decision in this case. Petitioners were injured, or had close relatives who were injured, by a Hamas attack carried out in Jerusalem in 1997. Iran is allegedly responsible for funding Hamas and its attack. The FSIA contains exemptions to sovereign immunity for incidents of state-sponsored terrorism like this. Petitioners sought damages for the attack. They attempted to show that a set of antiquities owned by Iran – but loaned to the University of Chicago for study many decades ago – were subject to forfeiture under the FSIA’s exemptions.

The majority declares that the antiquities are not subject to forfeiture. In their own words, “agencies and instrumentalities of a foreign state [a]re to be considered separate legal entities that cannot be held liable for acts of the foreign state.” The FSIA’s language does not indicate a Congressional intent to divest such property from a foreign state. In addition, determining the amount of governmental control over assets uses a five-pronged test, codified into the FSIA ten years ago. Based on that test, it is not evident that Iran exercises such a level of control over the antiques.

This opinion was a unanimous 8-0 (Justice Kagan recused herself). Another easy win for the Crowd.

Class v. United States

Rodney Class had firearms in his truck on the grounds of the Capitol in D.C. This was illegal. As part of his eventual guilty plea, Class agreed to waive some of his rights. A right he did not waive, however, was the right to appeal his conviction due to an unconstitutional statute.

In his signed plea, Class did not explicitly waive his right to claim that the controlling statute was unconstitutional. Only later did he try to dispute the constitutionality of that statute. When Class raised this issue, the Court of Appeals said he had waived this right, too, because of his plea deal.

The majority disagrees. Justice Breyer writes for a six-member majority here. In the opinion, he points out that Class never waived “the privileges which exist beyond the confines of the trial.” His right to dispute the constitutionality of the statute that convicted him was not waived as part of his guilty plea, or as part of the trial. Thus, Class is still entitled to bring the claim that led to this case’s dispute.

The majority relies in part on the Menna-Blackledge doctrine. Named for two prior cases establishing the precedent, this doctrine states that a guilty plea does not waive a claim, if that claim is based on the idea that the State could not constitutionally prosecute the case in the first place.

Justice Alito dissents, joined by Thomas and Kennedy. They point to other precedents that indicate a guilty plea can in fact preclude later claims of unconstitutionality of the relevant statutes. He further disagrees with the departures made by the Menna-Blackledge doctrine.

Class v. US was not too tricky for the FantasySCOTUS Crowd. Which is to say, it represents only the second case this term where the Crowd was incorrect about the spread.

class us

Class v. United States

Again, the Crowd’s inaccuracy is a matter of degrees. They were less certain on Alito and Thomas – as one might expect for a case like this – while Kennedy remained, as always, unpredictable.

Murphy v. Smith

The Justices provide a detailed grammar lesson in their split 5-4 decision in Murphy v. Smith. Murphy won a damage award in a civil rights case that arose from mistreatment while in prison. What happened after this victory, is why this case came before the Supreme Court. In assessing how much of Murphy’s damage award to use to pay down his attorney’s fees, the district court judge referred to the relevant section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

The judge in the original case ordered Murphy to use 10% of his monetary award toward paying his attorney fees. The judge ordered the co-defendants to pay the remainder of the attorney fees.

On appeal, Murphy and the defendants clashed over two alternate readings of the statute. Defendants argued that the relevant statute establishes that “up to 25%” of an award must go toward attorney fees, before the remainder devolves to the defendants. In other words, the defendants said the original judge should have ordered Murphy to pay 25% of his award toward the fees.

The majority sides with those defendants. Justice Gorsuch – though veering occasionally into his trademark anecdotes – lays out a rather simple explanation for the decision. The statute that grants the kind of fee award that Murphy received is an updated version of an older statute. The older statute used discretionary language to define how a judge should proceed. The updated statute, however, clearly replaced the more ambiguous, discretionary language with more concrete, mandatory words. In one notable example, the word “shall” replaced the word “may”.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor lays out an argument based more heavily on precedent than plain text. But even on the plain text the dissent argues for a judge to continue to have discretion. Interestingly, the majority and the dissent both come to their competing conclusions on discretion in part because of a small bit of text that was ultimately excised from an earlier version of the PLRA before it became law.

This is the second major split in the Supreme Court this term. This case is also the third time the FantasySCOTUS crowd missed the spread, but only the first loss for the Crowd this term. The silver lining is that the Crowd was on the right track:

murphy smith

Murphy v. Smith

Speaking of silver linings, the SCOTUS term is officially in full swing. That means that now is a great time to join the FantasySCOTUS Crowd! SCOTUS has only decided a small handful of cases so far. Many cases granted certiorari have not even been placed on the argument schedule yet. It’s a fun challenge for law students, law geeks, and anyone interested in the Supreme Court who also wants to support ongoing research on crowd-sourcing and data science. Head over to FantasySCOTUS and join up today!

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