At the outset, this week looked as if it’d be a quiet one; no opinions were expected, and oral arguments wrapped up a few weeks ago. Even this week’s orders list turned out as unremarkable as any. But a series of emergency, coronavirus-related petitions wound up in the Court’s hands. All told, the Court issued rulings on four such petitions, culminating in a 1:00am, Saturday morning decision to reject a California church’s assertion that the state’s stay-at-home orders discriminate against houses of worship (a decision made on a 5:4 vote). So while Court-watchers expected this to be the last “dead-week” before the Court’s term concludes in July, it turned out to be anything but.
Pop quiz: Can U.S. citizens sue other countries in U.S. courts? Answer: Yes. There are a few exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which otherwise shields foreign countries from suits in state or federal court. Next question: Which of these exceptions did Congress create in 1996? Answer: The terrorism exception. U.S. citizens who are victims of terrorist attacks can sue a foreign state that (1) participated in or assisted the perpetrators of the attack and (2) has been designated a state-sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. Third question: Can a plaintiff suing under the terrorism exception seek punitive damages against the foreign country? Answer: Yes. Congress in 2008 listed punitive damages as a possible award for such plaintiffs. Final question: Can plaintiffs who brought a terrorism suit before 2008 still seek punitive damages? In other words, did Congress intend the punitive-damages provision to apply retroactively? Well, this was the very question the Supreme Court answered this week in Opati v. Republic of Sudan. Read on to find out.
President Trump’s tax returns? Check. “Faithless” members of the Electoral College? Yep. Whether half of Oklahoma is actually Native American land? Check that one too. And the Establishment Clause’s “ministerial” exception? You got it. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week on all of these issues, rounding out what was perhaps the biggest argument week of the term (and also the Court’s last). Given the stature of these cases, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice the Court also released one decision this week (it was pretty innocuous). Here’s a recap of the action at our nation’s highest court this past week.
The Supreme Court generated a bevy of headlines this week, all for very different reasons. The Court issued two unanimous decisions: In Kelly v. United States, it vacated the fraud convictions of two state officials in the 2013 Bridgegate scandal who caused a traffic fubar by shutting down two lanes of the George Washington Bridge for a few days. And in United States v. Sineneng-Smith, the Court rebuked the Ninth Circuit for abusing its judicial discretion after it wrested control of a criminal case from the parties involved. Meanwhile, the Court heard its first-ever telephonic oral arguments this week. Surprisingly, the project went down quite swimmingly—save for a few mic snafus and the distinctive sound of a toilet flush. Here’s your brief for the week of May 4.
On April 27, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in its only Second Amendment case of the term. But what some thought would be a blockbuster decision instead landed with a dull thud; six Justices voted to dismiss the case as “moot” (i.e., no longer presenting a live controversy). Why? Well, after the Court agreed to decide the case, the gun law at issue was repealed. Since the Court cannot adjudge the constitutionality of a law that is no longer on the books, the case was dead. Justice Kavanaugh penned a short concurrence, and Justice Alito authored a long, curious, and (at times) odd dissent. Here’s an in-depth analysis of the Court’s decision and the doctrine of “mootness.”
The Supreme Court handed down three decisions this week, each one consequential in its own regard. In the only Second Amendment case of the term, six Justices found the case to be, well, no longer a case—in other words, they dismissed it as moot and didn’t opine on the Second Amendment implications (see my in-depth analysis of the decision here [forthcoming]). Next, the Court slapped Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services on the wrist—along with a $12 billion tab due private insurers. Finally, a 5:4 majority barred legislators from copyrighting annotations they write to state laws. Here’s your brief for the week of April 27.
In Ramos v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury that convicts a defendant to do so unanimously—and that this requirement applies to the states. In the process, the Court struck down non-unanimous jury statutes in Louisiana and Oregon, and overruled Apodaca v. Oregon (1972). But Ramos was not your typical incorporation-doctrine case. References to Jim Crow and racial segregation were sprinkled throughout the case’s opinions; Justice Clarence Thomas wrote extensively on his incorporation philosophy; and, most interestingly, Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned a long, solo concurrence in which he laid out his opinion on stare decisis and when to overrule precedent. Here’s my analysis of Ramos v. Louisiana.
Earth Day was Wednesday, April 22. So it was only fitting that the Supreme Court decided its first environmental law cases of the term—two of them, in fact. One dealt with the process for cleaning up “Superfund” sites, and the other with point source pollution permits under the Clean Water Act. But the Court didn’t stop there; four more decisions were handed down: a landmark Sixth Amendment case, for which I wrote an in-depth analysis here; a complex immigration law case, for which you might need multiple cups of coffee and an abacus; and two intellectual property law cases, which, with all due respect, might be best read if you’re trying to fall asleep. Here’s your recap for the week of April 20.
Editor’s Note: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court remains closed to the public. The building is open for official business only. Some March and April oral arguments have been rescheduled for teleconference in May, and filing deadlines for petitions have been extended. The Justices are conducting their private conferences remotely. Orders and opinions continue to be issued as scheduled, but the Justices will not take the bench.
The Supreme Court is entering a Brave New World (putting aside Aldous Huxley’s unnerving depictions of a utopian future). On Monday, the Court announced that it will hear oral arguments via teleconference in ten cases that had originally been postponed due to COVID-19. In the process, the Court will make the argument’s audio live to the entire American public for the first time in history. This week’s brief is short, but it details the Court’s symbolic gesture.
Editor’s Note: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court remains closed to the public. The building is open for official business only. March and April oral arguments have been postponed, and filing deadlines for petitions have been extended. The Justices are conducting their private conferences remotely. Orders and opinions continue to be issued as scheduled, but the Justices will not take the bench.
This week, the Justices released opinions in two argued cases. One was a win for older federal employees who allege age discrimination in the workplace. The other was a narrow win for police officers in a Fourth Amendment case. But what really made headlines this week was the Court’s wading into the furor surrounding the Wisconsin state primary election. The five conservative Justices voted to overturn a lower court judge’s order to extend the deadline for mailing absentee ballots. This decision may raise some eyebrows—or perhaps even the stomach contents—of some readers. But I would advise you to read before delivering judgment; don’t be so quick to blame the Court.