The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) took action on a number of cases on February 3, issuing opinions in three cases, granting review in one case, and removing two cases from its February 2021 argument calendar.
SCOTUS issued opinions in Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board, Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp, and Republic of Hungary v. Simon.
• Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board involved the scope of judicial review of actions taken by administrative agencies. In a 5-4 opinion, the court ruled that a choice by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board not to reopen a decision to deny Manfredo Salinas benefits was a final agency action subject to judicial review. In the majority opinion, the court said that review of agency reopening decisions will be limited to weighing whether the agency decision was an abuse of discretion. SCOTUS’ ruling reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s decision and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett.
• Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp concerned the doctrine of international comity and the expropriation exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). In a unanimous ruling, SCOTUS vacated the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that FSIA’s expropriation exception includes the domestic takings rule, meaning that a foreign sovereign taking its own nationals’ property is not unlawful under the international law of expropriation. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court.
• Republic of Hungary v. Simon also involved the doctrine of international comity and the expropriation exception of FSIA. In a unanimous, unsigned opinion, SCOTUS vacated the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the court’s ruling in Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp.
SCOTUS granted review in the case of PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey. The case originated from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit and concerns jurisdictional requirements of eminent domain under the Natural Gas Act.
• The case: The Natural Gas Act (NGA) allows private gas companies to exercise the federal government’s power to take property by eminent domain if certain jurisdictional requirements are met. Natural gas company PennEast Pipeline Company (“PennEast”) was scheduled to build a natural gas pipeline through part of New Jersey. PennEast obtained federal approval and sued for access to the properties under the NGA in federal district court. The State of New Jersey (“New Jersey”) sought to dismiss PennEast’s suits, arguing that PennEast did not satisfy the NGA’s jurisdictional requirements and that the state held immunity from the suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey allowed PennEast immediate access to the properties at issue. New Jersey appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which held that New Jersey was immune and vacated the district court’s orders.
• The issue: “Whether the NGA delegates to FERC certificate holders [have] the authority to exercise the federal government’s eminent domain power to condemn land in which a state claims an interest.”
SCOTUS also announced it was removing two cases from its February argument calendar: Trump v. Sierra Club and Wolf v. Innovation Law Lab. In both cases, the U.S. government requested the court remove the cases from its argument calendar to allow the government to hold further briefings related to policy changes enacted by the Biden administration. SCOTUS granted the government’s motions. Trump v. Sierra Club had been scheduled for argument on February 22; Wolf v. Innovation Law Lab had been scheduled for March 1.
SCOTUS began hearing cases for its October 2020-2021 term on October 5, 2020. The court’s yearly term begins on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October the following year. The court generally releases the majority of its decisions in mid-June. As of February 3, 2021, the court had agreed to hear 63 cases during its 2020-2021 term. Of those, 12 were originally scheduled for the 2019-2020 term but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.