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SCOTUS News, March 2nd, 2018: No Avoidance Here

This week, the Supreme Court handed down three opinions, including Jennings v. Rodriguez, a high-profile immigrant detention case. We look at that case last.

Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting, Inc.

This case concerned some complicated provisions of the bankruptcy code centered on avoidance. FTI Consulting – trustee for a company that filed bankruptcy – attempted to avoid transferring funds owed to Merit Management. They made this avoidance claim based on safe harbor exemptions in the bankruptcy code. Merit Management contended that safe harbor prohibited FTI from avoiding that transfer.

One of the big questions in this case is whether transfers traveling through intermediaries are subject to avoidance. In this case, those avoidance exemptions apply to certain transactions to financial institutions. The two sides’ positions varied because each side construed the transaction differently. Merit wanted the courts to analyze each component part of the transaction because the intermediaries were financial institutions. FTI, meanwhile, stated that only the overarching transaction should count. FTI’s interpretation came from a Seventh Circuit precedent holding that the safe harbor provision does not protect transfers when financial institutions serve merely as conduits.

SCOTUS rules in favor of FTI, upholding the Seventh Circuit and remanding the case. Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous court. “Congress signaled that the exception applies to the overarching transfer that the trustee seeks to avoid, not any component part of that transfer.” The FantasySCOTUS Crowd nailed this one commandingly.

Patchak v. Zinke

The Department of the Interior gave a parcel of land to a band of Native Americans. Patchak, a landowner on this parcel, brought suit after the government exercised control over the property. While this case was in the lower courts, Congress passed the Gun Lake Act. This Act disallows suits in Federal courts relating to that land, and so Patchak’s suit had to be dismissed. Patchak alleged an Article III violation after the courts declined to exercise jurisdiction. In addition to jurisdictional issues, the government claimed sovereign immunity from Patchak’s suit.

The majority does not agree with Patchak’s Article III claim, and they thus affirm the lower courts’ ruling.

The Justices all had something to say in this ruling. In separate opinions comprising a majority of the Court, Justices Thomas, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor all reaffirmed either Congress’ right to strip jurisdiction from the federal courts as part of the Act, or affirmed sovereign immunity claims in favor of Zinke and the DOI. Thomas, joined by Alito, Breyer, and Kagan, wrote the plurality opinion stating that the Gun Lake Act does not violate Article III. Ginsburg writes the first concurrence, joined by Sotomayor, stating that the Department of the Interior has sovereign immunity from Patchak’s suit, anyway. Breyer, in a solo concurrence, writes to clarify and reaffirm some additional reasons for the jurisdiction-stripping of the Act. Sotomayor, in a solo concurrence, agrees with the dissent regarding jurisdiction-stripping, but remains with the majority due to the government’s sovereign immunity.

Meanwhile, the dissent of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch is against jurisdiction-stripping. They do not agree with the majority that the Act is sufficiently broad in scope to avoid legislation that decides the outcomes of single cases, which goes against Article III. Congress is not allowed to decide specific cases, and the circumstances surrounding this case are tantamount to such specificity. To allow Congress to legislate in an individual case goes against basic checks and balances.

This case had an unusual spread, but though the Crowd did not predict the dissenters, they suspected that Roberts and one or two conservatives might flip.

patchak zinke

Patchak v. Zinke

The Crowd can hardly be blamed for thinking this decision would be unanimous, instead of a 6-3 split. Deference to Congress is an issue on which both wings of SCOTUS usually agree. In the case of the Gun Lake Act, Congress’ intent was quite clear. Ultimately, the biggest schism among the Justices was the plausibility of other cases ever arising as a result of the Gun Lake Act. If more cases do arise, the majority will be vindicated from the dissents’ main reservation.

Jennings v. Rodriguez

The Justices split on a number of details pertaining to detained immigrants’ rights to bail hearings. The majority decision, authored in the main by Justice Alito, avers that the Attorney General is the final arbiter in immigration detention cases. This clear rule arises in the plain text of the statutes in question. Despite the arguments of the detained immigrants, and a long, spirited dissent led by Breyer, the Court holds that the statutory framework does not guarantee bail hearings for detained immigrants at any stage of their detention.

Every Justice seems to have a slightly different opinion, with several different combinations of agreement on various parts of Justice Alito’s majority opinion.

justice spread jennings rodriguez

Justice Spread in Jennings v. Rodriguez

Critical to this case is the doctrine of constitutional avoidance. This approach prioritizes resolving cases without recourse to the constitution, if another law is applicable. Constitutional avoidance only allows for “plausible” reading of texts. Whether the constitution itself would extend bail and parole rights to immigrant detainees is basically a moot point, the majority explains. In a concurrence, Thomas and Gorsuch explain why they don’t think SCOTUS should even have jurisdiction.

So far, so normal. In dissent, however, Breyer writes that there is a constitutional issue here, and so avoidance does not apply. Joined by Sotomayor and Ginsburg, Breyer explains how the historical record reveals a consistent thread of detained individuals enjoying the right to bail hearings.

The Crowd navigated the flurry of concurrences and caveats in this 5-3 decision with seeming ease. The {Marshall}+ Algorithm didn’t do so bad, either.

jennings rodriguez

Jennings v. Rodriguez

The Crowd and the Algorithm

The Crowd went 3-3 this week, and the Algorithm is batting a thousand out of the gate.

fantasyscotus stats through february 2018

FantasySCOTUS Stats through February 2018


SCOTUS has barely begun the 2017 term. Many cases are still on the docket, with well over fifty left to decide! Get in on the action at FantasySCOTUS today, and check back here and on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin for SCOTUS updates and more from LexPredict.

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