U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

November 2016 Archives

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the case of Moore v. Texas, a challenge to the standards Texas uses to determine whether inmates are too mentally disabled to be executed. In this case, Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder of a grocery store clerk. A court later ruled that Moore was too mentally disabled to be executed, based on modern medical standards. Texas's highest criminal court, however, reversed that determination.

Questions of intellectual disability and eligibility for capital punishment, Texas ruled, must be determined on the state's judicial precedent, which references an outdated medical definition of disability from 1992 and Lennie Small. Yes, that Lennie, the kindhearted but dim-witted character from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

Here's something a bit unprecedented: 12 distinguished appellate judges have come together with Bryan Garner to release a "hornbook-style" treatise on the doctrine of judicial precedent. And it's the first such publication in over a century.

Published by Thomson Reuters, the new book covers nine major topics, over 93 sections, surveying how prior judicial decisions influence later ones. (Disclosure: Thomson Reuters is FindLaw's parent company.) It is, as the publisher describes it, an attempt to be "theoretically sound, historically illuminating, and relentlessly practical."

About a year and a half ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. United States that the so-called residual clause in the Armed Career Criminals Act was unconstitutionally vague. That clause, which covered any crime involving "a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," was too vague to put the public on notice of what conduct was prohibited, the Court found. And that ruling has had legs, upending many sentences under the federal three strikes law.

Now, the Supreme Court is considering whether an identical phrase in the federal sentencing guidelines is similarly invalid.

A year ago on Sunday, while campaigning in Iowa, Donald Trump said that as president he would "absolutely" implement a registry for Muslims in the United States. He has since denied ever supporting a registry, though his Chief of Staff-in-waiting, Reince Priebus, has refused to rule the possibility out. And just the other day, a Trump surrogate went on TV to argue that such a registry would be perfectly constitutional. His evidence? Japanese internment and the Supreme Court's approval of it in Korematsu.

But Korematsu may not be good law any longer, despite having never been explicitly overturned, according to one Harvard law professor.

The Supreme Court tossed out two class action challenges brought by Visa yesterday, less than a month before the financial services company was scheduled to make oral arguments.

The reason? Visa had asked the Court to address one question in their petition for cert, but pursued a different argument in their merits briefing. The Supreme Court, unamused by Visa's shifting legal strategy, decided that Visa won't have a chance to make any of its legal arguments, dismissing the case as improvidently granted.

As chaos reigns in Washington, the Supreme Court is experiencing a bit of a lull. There are no arguments this week, no relists, and no interesting orders.

But that relative quiet seems to have given the justices time to reflect on the changes ahead. For some of the justices, that includes a recognition that the Court's vacant seat might soon be filled.

Gerrymandering in America is almost as old as U.S. democracy itself. In 1788, Patrick Henry drew congressional boundaries in Virginia in order to keep James Madison out of the first U.S. congress. (It didn't work.) But despite gerrymandering's long history, it's widely acknowledged as a threat to democracy, as a way to manipulate America's political processes for unearned advantage.

Now, the issue of gerrymandering will be back before the Supreme Court this December, as the Court hears oral arguments in two gerrymandering cases, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections and McCrory v. Harris. The results could be significant.

Well, that was surprising, right? If you were like most of us -- those of us who spent the last few days obsessively checking presidential polls, that is -- a Trump victory on Tuesday wasn't what you were expecting. But it happened, leaving Donald Trump in charge of the White House and primed to make his impact felt on the Supreme Court.

What a Trump administration looks like remains somewhat of a mystery. (Will he really force Apple to make all its iPhones in America? What "terrific" thing will he try to replace Obamacare with? What will America's nuclear policy actually look like?) But when it comes to the Supreme Court, we can make a few basic predictions, even in the face of a largely uncertain future.

Richard Posner, the Seventh Circuit judge and relative legal celebrity, has been on a bit of rampage lately. This summer, he decried law professors as "refugees from other disciplines," said the posthumous tributes to the Justice Scalia were "absurd," and topped off his rant by declaring that there was no "value to a judge of spending decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, or seconds studying the Constitution".

Now he's back at it, just a few months later. At a recent event, Judge Posner said that the Supreme Court is "awful" and has "reached a real nadir," with "only a couple of the justices" being "qualified." Next thing you know, he'll say the Cubs are worthless, too.

The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers, or 'relators,' to sue contractors who are suspected of fraud in federal contracts. The government can then pick up the suit, or the relator can pursue it herself. In either case, she gets a sizable chunk of any award. But there is a catch. The False Claims Act requires that complaints are filed in camera and kept under seal, with no notice to the allegedly offending contractor. But the act doesn't say what should be done when that seal requirement is broken.

During yesterday's oral arguments, the justices struggled to establish the proper rule. The arguments stem from allegations that State Farm Insurance defrauded the government by misclassifying damage from Hurricane Katrina, forcing the government to cover costs the insurance company should have borne. The company was eventually found liable, but while the suit was still under seal, the whistleblowers' lawyer leaked information about the fraud to the media. That, State Farm argues, should have led to an immediate dismissal of all False Claim Act complaints.

If you want to look thinner, try stripes, Court watchers learned yesterday. For extra slimming, look for clothes with "waist-narrowing V's."

No, the justices weren't advising Alito on the best way to wear a black robe. They were hearing oral arguments in a dispute over copyright protection for cheerleader uniform designs, arguments which quickly turned to how Kate Winslet chooses clothing to flatter her figure.