Once, twice, three times unanimous. In a highly uncontroversial lot of opinions, the Supreme Court tackled a long list of tasks: limiting abstract software patents, clarifying that a public employee can't be fired over compelled testimony, and providing a reasonable means to challenge the motive behind the tax man's subpoenas.
We know -- it's not exactly the big, bad cases you were hoping for, but like all special snowflakes, these opinions will have an impact in the real world.
United States v. Clarke: Grilling the Tax Man
As we've seen in recent times, not every act by the Internal Revenue Service is based on clean, calculated, and lawful motives. As such, a party summoned by the IRS may wish to challenge that subpoena.
The Supreme Court has previously recognized that such a right, to challenge a subpoena in an adversarial setting, exists, though the inquiry should be "summary in nature."
The question is: what is required to examine the IRS agents behind the subpoena? The Eleventh Circuit took the allegations at face value, but the Supreme Court, in light of that "summary" qualifier, held that some credible evidence must support the claims, rather than bare allegations.
It's a compromise that allows parties to challenge subpoenas "without turning every summons dispute into a fishing expedition for official wrongdoing."
Lane v. Franks: First Amendment Protects Compelled Testimony
Our SCOTUS sleeper pick is in!
Edward Lane, the director of a state program for at-risk youth, did his job and audited the budget. He found a politician being paid for a "no show" gig and fired her. He was then subpoenad to testify for her grand jury proceedings and criminal trials.
And, as you might expect, he was fired due to "budget cuts."
This case is the long-awaited clarification of Garcetti v. Ceballos: an initially narrow decision that held that speech made pursuant to one's official duties was not protected by the First Amendment. Circuit courts stretched that to speech relating to anything that one learns about on the job, including the Eleventh Circuit.
The Court's holding here was clear, yet limited: "[T]he First Amendment protects a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities." A short concurrence by Justice Scalia noted that the opinion does not address compelled testimony that is part of one's job duties, such as that of a police officer.
Alas, it wasn't all good news for Lane: because of the muddled state of circuit law, and the Supreme Court's imprecise prior holdings, qualified immunity applied to his individual claims against his former boss, Steve Franks. His claims against the college, which the district court tossed under the Eleventh Amendment, will now be reconsidered by the Eleventh Circuit.
Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank: Software Patents Limited
Software patents aren't extinct, but after yesterday, they are a bit more limited.
Alice Corp.'s patents seemed destined to fail, but the question was on what grounds, and how far the Court would go.
The Federal Circuit imploded in a series of concurrences, per curiams, and ramblings, but agreed that somehow, the patent on a computer program that carried out "intermediated settlement" (an apparently long-standing and prevalent abstract economic concept) was simply the transfer of an abstract idea to code, and therefore not patentable.
The Supreme Court agreed with that point, but limited its holding to leave software patents, generally, intact, noting that "[t]here is no dispute ... that many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter."
But here, the addition of a computer was not sufficiently transformative to turn an abstract economic concept into a patentable form.
"Viewed as a whole, petitioner's method claims simply recite the concept of intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous Court. "The method claims do not, for example, purport to improve the functioning of the computer itself."