This Week’s Brief: March 16

Editor’s Note: In light of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Supreme Court is closed to the public. The building will remain open for official business only. March oral arguments are postponed indefinitely, and filing deadlines for petitions are extended. The Justices are conducting their private conferences remotely. Orders and Opinions are still being issued as scheduled, but the Justices will not take the bench.

Regrettably, the headlines from the Supreme Court this week did not come from opinions or cert grants; they came from the Court’s adjustments in response to the spread of COVID-19. The Justices announced that oral arguments scheduled for the next two weeks are postponed indefinitely. Some of the cases affected include the two over President Trump’s tax records, a blockbuster copyright dispute, and a First Amendment and a Fourth Amendment case. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court building has been closed to the public; the Justices are holding their conferences over the phone; and filing deadlines for attorneys have been extended sizably. In these unprecedented circumstances, here is a recap of the Court’s response this week to the worsening public health crisis.


Statistics

This Week:
Decisions: 0
Oral Arguments: 0
Cert. Grants: 0

O.T. 2019:
Cases Decided: 14
Cases Remaining: 56
Weeks Left in Term: 14

Monday

Unfortunate news came from the Court on Monday. In light of the worsening outbreak of COVID-19, the Court announced it is postponing the March oral argument session. This means all cases that were scheduled for argument between March 23–25 and March 30–April 1 are now in limbo. The Justices said they “will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances.” The cases affected—11 in total—include Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP and Trump v. Vance, the fights over President Trump’s personal and corporate tax records; Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey-Berru, an Establishment Clause case; Google LLC v. Oracle U.S.A, Inc., a landmark copyright law case; and Torres v. Madrid, a Fourth Amendment search and seizure case.

Last week, as the novel coronavirus began sweeping the nation, the Court announced it will close the Supreme Court building to the public until further notice. The building remains open only for official business. Monday’s press release suggested that, while oral arguments have been affected, other Court business will proceed as normal. This indicates the Justices plan to continue releasing orders and, perhaps, even opinions as scheduled—albeit not doing so in front of a public audience. As for routine, day-to-day operations, the Court is “expanding remote working capabilities to reduce the number of employees in the Building.”

This is not the first time the Court has postponed oral arguments due to a public health concern. In 1918, the Court postponed its October oral argument session because of the Spanish Flu pandemic. And in August 1793 and August 1798, the Court shortened its oral argument calendars due to outbreaks of yellow fever.

More speculation about what this means for the March oral arguments comes from Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSBlog.

Tuesday–Wednesday

The Court held no proceedings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursday

The Court made another announcement in response to COVID-19. In a miscellaneous order, the Court relaxed filing deadlines for counsel who are filing—or responding to the filing of—a petition for a writ of certiorari. This is mostly esoteric, but the deadline for filing a petition after the lower court’s judgment has been extended to 150 days from the normal 90 days. As courts across the country adjust to the outbreak of coronavirus, many are shifting arguments and filings online in an attempt to minimize face-to-face interaction. This presents challenges to a field that relies heavily on person-to-person interaction, especially when it comes to appealing rulings and moving between different courts. The Supreme Court’s move today, while not headline-grabbing, is both empathetic and proactive.

Friday

On Friday the Court met for its weekly private conference, at which it reviews the petitions on its docket and debates whether to grant review for any of them. Out of an abundance of caution regarding COVID-19, only Chief Justice Roberts was actually present in the Supreme Court building; the other eight Justices took part in the conference over the phone. We can expect news from this conference in the Court’s next orders list on Monday. Some high profile cases the Justices are considering include:

  • Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana & Kentucky, Inc. This case challenges an Indiana state abortion law that requires women who seek an abortion to, among other things, undergo a fetal ultrasound eighteen hours before the abortion is performed. The question presented is whether such an ultrasound requirement violates a woman’s Fourteenth Amendment rights.
  • Arlene’s FlowersInc. v. Washington. This case is a mirror-image to that of Masterpiece CakeshopLtd. v. Colorado, on whose merits the Court punted in 2018. The questions before the Court are (1) whether a state violates a floral designer’s Free Exercise and Free Speech rights by forcing her to create custom floral arrangements celebrating same-sex weddings or by acting based on hostility toward her religious beliefs; and (2) whether the Free Exercise Clause’s prohibition on religious hostility applies to the executive branch.
  • United States v. California. This case involves the Trump administration’s challenge to California’s statewide “sanctuary” law. The law prohibits state law-enforcement officers from providing information about immigrants (both legal and illegal) to federal immigration officials. The question before the Court is whether federal immigration law preempts California’s sanctuary law—and others like it in cities and states around the country—under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
  • Worman v. Healey. This case concerns a Massachusetts state law that bans, inter alia, semiautomatic “assault weapon[s]” and magazines capable of accepting 10+ rounds of ammunition. The question presented is whether that law violates the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
  • Malpasso v. Pallozzi. This is a constitutional law case asking whether a state law that categorically prohibits residents from carrying handguns outside the home for self-defense violates the Second Amendment.
  • Reisman v. Associated Faculties of the University of Maine. This case mixes labor unions with the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The question presented is whether it violates the First Amendment to designate a labor union to represent and speak on behalf of public-sector employees who object to its advocacy.
  • Territory of Guam v. Davis. This case concerns a unique Fifteenth Amendment challenge to a political referendum Guam undertook under the 2000 Plebiscite Law. The federal territory allowed only “native inhabitants of Guam” to vote on the island’s future political status with the United States. The question presented is whether the Fifteenth Amendment permits Guam to invite only “native inhabitants of Guam” to participate in a potential political-status plebiscite that would yield only a nonbinding, symbolic expression of self-determination preferences.
  • Collins v. Mnuchin. This case concerns a constitutional challenge to the structure of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), a mirror-image case to that of Seila Law v. CFPB, the challenge to the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The questions presented in Collins are (1) whether the structure of the FHFA violates the separation of powers, and if so (2) whether the actions of the FHFA must be annulled and the statute creating its structure struck down.
The Week Ahead

The Court has postponed the oral arguments that were scheduled for next week. On Monday the Justices will release orders from Friday’s conference, and there is a possibility of opinions. On Friday, the Justices will hold their weekly, private conference (likely over the phone).

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