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SCOTUS takes up case concerning Federal Tort Claims Act

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear a case in its October 2020-2021 term concerning the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The case, Brownback v. King, came on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

In 2014, James King violently resisted arrest after being stopped by FBI Special Agent Douglas Brownback and Grand Rapids Police Department Detective Todd Allen. King was tried and acquitted of charges of assault with intent to do great bodily harm, aggravated assault of a police officer, and resisting arrest. He then sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1971). The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan held Brownback and Allen had not violated King’s constitutional rights under Bivens. The district court also decided against King’s FTCA claims. On appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling.

SCOTUS will consider the following issue:
  • Whether a final judgment in favor of the United States in an action brought under Section 1346(b)(1), on the ground that a private person would not be liable to the claimant under state tort law for the injuries alleged, bars a claim under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), that is brought by the same claimant, based on the same injuries, and against the same governmental employees whose acts gave rise to the claimant’s FTCA claim.
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SCOTUS issues opinion in case concerning federal maritime law

On March 30, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in the case CITGO Asphalt Refining Co. v. Frescati Shipping Co., Ltd. The case came on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

The case: An abandoned anchor in the Delaware River pierced the hull of the Athos I, an oil tanker, causing an estimated 264,000 gallons of crude oil to spill into the river. The cost of cleanup was $143 million. Frescati, the shipowner, paid for the cleanup effort and was later reimbursed for $88 million by the U.S. federal government. Frescati and the U.S. sued CITGO, the intended oil recipient, for a portion of the costs.

The issue: Whether under federal maritime law a safe berth clause in a voyage charter contract is a guarantee of a ship’s safety, as the 3rd Circuit below and the 2nd Circuit have held, or a duty of due diligence, as the Fifth Circuit has held.

The outcome: In a 7-2 decision, SCOTUS affirmed the 3rd Circuit’s decision, holding that a safe berth clause in a voyage charter contract is a guarantee of a ship’s safety. Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the majority opinion of the court. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

In the opinion, Sotomayor wrote, “The charterer’s assurance of a safe berth is the entire root of the safe-berth clause, and crucially, it is not subject to qualifications or conditions.”

Additional reading:
Supreme Court cases, October term 2019-2020
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit



SCOTUS issues decision regarding insanity defense in criminal cases

On March 23, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its opinion in the case Kahler v. Kansas.

The case: James Kahler was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, Kahler argued the prosecution violated his right to a fair trial. The Kansas Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s argument, affirming his conviction and sentence. Kahler appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Kansas law violates his constitutional rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments.

The issue: Do the Eighth and 14th Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense?

The outcome: In a 6-3 ruling, the court affirmed the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court, holding that due process does not require Kansas to adopt an insanity test that turns on a defendant’s ability to recognize that their crime was morally wrong. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

As of March 23, 2020, the court had issued decisions in 16 cases this term. Between 2007 and 2018, SCOTUS released opinions in 924 cases, averaging between 70 and 90 cases per year.



U.S. Supreme Court postpones March sitting, closes indefinitely

The U.S. Supreme Court announced it was postponing the 11 hours of oral arguments originally scheduled during its March sitting. In a press release, the court said the delay was “in keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19.”

The court has heard arguments in 59 of the 73 cases it accepted to hear this term. As of February 26, the court had issued decisions in 12 cases and dismissed one case without a decision this term.

The court had previously announced on March 12 that it was closing to the public indefinitely, beginning at 4:30 p.m. that day. The court posted on its website, “Out of concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees, the Supreme Court Building will be closed to the public from 4:30 p.m. on March 12, 2020, until further notice.”

The court noted it planned to hold a private conference of the justices on March 20 and release orders from the conference on March 23.

The court last postponed arguments in October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic. In August 1793 and 1798, argument calendars were shortened in response to yellow fever outbreaks.

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SCOTUS accepting new cases for 2020-2021 term

The Supreme Court of the United States has begun accepting cases for its 2020-2021 October term. As of March 12, 2020, the court had agreed to hear six cases during the term. The following list of the cases is sorted by the cases’ court of origination:

3rd Circuit
• Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

5th Circuit
• Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board
• California v. Texas (Consolidated with Texas v. California)

6th Circuit
• Borden v. United States

9th Circuit
• U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club

State and district courts
• Jones v. Mississippi

Parties petition SCOTUS to hear a case if they are not satisfied with a lower court’s decision. The parties petition the court to grant a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is an “order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case it will hear on appeal.”

As of March 12, 2020, the court has not yet scheduled cases for argument.

Additional reading:
Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board
California v. Texas
Borden v. United States
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club
Jones v. Mississippi



Justice Gorsuch argues against deference in criminal cases

Justice Gorsuch released a statement critical of applying Chevron deference to laws involving criminal penalties following the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 2 decision not to hear Guedes v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The case challenged the Trump administration’s decision to outlaw bump stocks through regulation.

Under Chevron deference, federal courts must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous or unclear statute. Gorsuch argued that Chevron “has nothing to say about the proper interpretation of the law” at issue in the bump stock case because “whatever else one thinks about Chevron, it has no role to play when liberty is at stake.”

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) issued a rule redefining “machine gun” to include bump stocks. The rule expanded the definition of “machine gun” in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act to include devices that allow semi-automatic firearms to shoot more than once with a single pull of the trigger using recoil energy to keep firing. Under the rule, owners of bump stock devices must destroy or surrender them or face federal prison time.

Gorsuch agreed with the court’s decision not to take the case, but said that “waiting should not be mistaken for lack of concern.”

To learn more about the bump stock rule change, click here.

To read Gorsuch’s statement, click here.

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Fifth Circuit upholds limits on presidential removal power over CFPB head

A panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided 2-1 to uphold the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The court’s March 3 opinion said that the legal restrictions on the president’s authority to remove the head of the agency were “valid and constitutional.”

Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee, delivered the opinion of the court, saying that “neither the text of the Constitution nor the Supreme Court’s previous decisions” support the argument that the CFPB has an unconstitutional structure.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Reagan appointee, wrote a concurring opinion joined by Higginson, arguing that the president may still exert authority over the CFPB through the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which can veto CFPB rules. He said that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved presidential removal power restrictions similar to those protecting the head of the CFPB.

Judge Jerry Edwin Smith, a Reagan appointee, filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that recent Fifth Circuit precedent suggested that the structure of the CFPB was unconstitutional.

The appointment and removal power refers to the authority of an executive to appoint and remove officials in the various branches. The Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution vests the president with the authority to appoint officers of the United States, including federal judges, ambassadors, and Cabinet-level department heads. The president has the authority to remove his appointees from office, but the heads of independent federal agencies can only be removed for cause.

The Fifth Circuit published its decision on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in another case challenging the structure of the CFPB,  Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A U.S. Supreme Court decision that the U.S. Constitution forbids protecting the director of the CFPB from presidential removal might give the president more control of other leaders of independent administrative agencies. Also, CFPB decisions made under a director with removal protections might become invalid following the ruling.

Click here to read the Fifth Circuit decision and here to learn more about Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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SCOTUS issues opinion in case concerning the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

On March 3, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Kansas v. Garcia, a case concerning the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

In the case, Ramiro Garcia, Donaldo Morales, and Guadalupe Ochoa-Lara were each convicted of identity theft in Johnson County, Kansas. They each appealed their convictions to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) preempted their prosecution. On appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the three convictions. The State of Kansas appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The questions presented before the Supreme Court of the United States were:
1. Whether IRCA expressly preempts the States from using any information entered on or appended to a federal Form I-9, including common information such as name, date of birth, and social security number, in a prosecution of any person (citizen or alien) when that same, commonly used information also appears in non-IRCA documents, such as state tax forms, leases, and credit applications.
2. Whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act impliedly preempts Kansas’ prosecution of respondents.

In a 5-4 opinion, the court reversed and remanded the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision, holding that the Kansas statutes under which Garcia, Morales, and Ochoa-Lara were convicted are not expressly preempted.

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined.

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SCOTUS takes up case questioning ACA’s individual mandate

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in its October 2020-2021 term concerning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The case, California v. Texas, is consolidated with Texas v. California, and came on a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

In 2010, President Barack Obama (D) signed the ACA into law. The ACA established requirements for individuals to have health coverage and instituted fines for those without coverage.

In 2018, 20 states filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas challenging § 5000A of the ACA and claiming the law was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the law was invalid.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled § 5000A was unconstitutional and remanded the case. A group of states petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, arguing (1) the respondents did not have the legal right to challenge the law and (2) the law was not unconstitutional.

SCOTUS will consider the following three issues:
(1) Whether the plaintiffs have established Article III standing to challenge the minimum coverage provision in § 5000A(a). The minimum coverage provision, also known as the individual mandate, requires individuals to have “minimum essential coverage.”

(2) Whether reducing the amount specified in § 5000A(c) to zero rendered the individual mandate unconstitutional.

(3) If so, whether the individual mandate is severable from the rest of the ACA.

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Justice Thomas signals reconsideration of judicial deference doctrine

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on February 24 that he would reconsider his 2005 Brand X opinion. He made his remarks while dissenting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Baldwin v. U.S., which challenged Brand X. Thomas argued that Brand X appears to be “inconsistent with the Constitution, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and traditional tools of statutory interpretation.”

Brand X involved an application of the Chevron deference doctrine. Under Chevron deference, federal courts must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous or unclear statute. Brand X built on Chevron’s foundation by requiring courts to defer to agency interpretations of statutes even when courts previously held contrary views.

Justice Thomas argued that both deference precedents undermined the requirements of the United States Constitution. He wrote, “Regrettably, Brand X has taken this Court to the precipice of administrative absolutism. Under its rule of deference, agencies are free to invent new (purported) interpretations of statutes and then require courts to reject their own prior interpretations. Brand X may well follow from Chevron, but in so doing, it poignantly lays bare the flaws of our entire executive-deference jurisprudence. Even if the Court is not willing to question Chevron itself, at the very least, we should consider taking a step away from the abyss by revisiting Brand X.”

Click here learn more about Chevron deference, or click here to learn more about the Administrative Procedure Act.

Additional reading:

Link to Justice Thomas’ dissent: https://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/022420zor_mjo1.pdf