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

December 2013 Archives

Snippets: Sotomayor Honored, Utah's Appeal, and NSA Metadata

Happy Monday!

Because it's the eve of the eve of a holiday, and you're probably thinking ahead to where you'll be tomorrow night, we're not going to occupy your mind with an in-depth analysis of a SCOTUS case. (Besides, the Court is on holiday too -- there's nothing to analyze.)

So please, take some time from your busy holiday work schedule to enjoy this pre-holiday roundup, instead.

Half-Measures: How Long Before Marriage Returns to SCOTUS?

Judicial restraint. It's a concept that makes us all feel warm and fuzzy. Judges don't go too far, or reach unnecessary conclusions in a case, because that's the way it should be, right? Repeat after me: judicial activism is bad. Narrow holdings are good.

Except, imagine where marriage equality would be if the Court just said what it seemed to want to say. (The parties would certainly save on filing fees.)

When Lawrence v. Texas was decided, and laws criminalizing consensual sodomy were found to be unconstitutional, Justice Scalia famously warned that bigamy, incest, bestiality, and gay marriage would follow. In Windsor, he warned that the Court's opinion, striking down the definition of marriage found in the federal Defense of Marriage Act, would lead to the demise of state laws prohibiting gay marriage.

Snippets: Scalia and RBG Speeches, FilmOn Wants SCOTUS, and More

There's not a lot of major news on First Street today, but there are a handful of updates.

For one, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg still isn't retiring. No seriously, she's not. Glad she cleared that up (again). She also reflected on her experience as one of the first female justices. Meantime her BFF, Justice Antonin Scalia, made a pair of speeches in which he stressed the importance of oral arguments and of the Court as an institution.

And remember the Aereo case? The company's competitor, formerly known as AereoKiller and now known as FilmOn, didn't win its parallel case in a district court. Though the Ninth Circuit has yet to weigh in, FilmOn also wants the Supreme Court's attention.

Finally, last month, the Court denied to hear a case about parents who prayed, instead of seeking medical help, while their diabetic child died. Now they'll have to serve a truly unusual sentence, unless the lower court has a change of heart.

Ready for the roundup? Read on.

Contract Sets Timing in ERISA Claim; Clock Ticks Before Accrual

When does the timer begin to tick?

Julie Heimeshoff filed a claim for long-term disability benefits with Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co., the administrator of Walmart's Group Long Term Disability Plan, due to her diagnosis of lupus and fibromyalgia. Her claim was denied after multiple doctors, hired by Hartford, found that even with her condition, she could continue to work her largely sedentary position as a senior public relations manager. The decision took nearly two years, after both sides hired multiple doctors and ordered multiple tests.

The governing ERISA plan requires the claimant to initiate judicial action within three years after "proof of loss" is due, i.e. when she was required to submit the relevant medical evidence. She filed suit three years after her final administrative appeal was denied (or approximately five years after the "proof of loss" was due). Her argument? The clock should start when the judicial cause of action accrues -- not before. And at first blush, her argument makes sense. After all, what happens if the administrative process and appeals eats up the entire term limit?

Unfortunately for her, the Supreme Court sided with the insurer, but for good reason.

Snippets: Two Cases Granted, Aereo Doesn't Oppose Review

It's been an unusually busy day on First Street, with the court granting certiorari in two cases after yesterday's conference, and with a minor surprise in the ongoing nationwide litigation over Aereo, a service that streams local broadcast channels over the internet to subscribers.

The two new cases, Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoefer and Loughrin v. United States both involve banks, but that's where the similarities end. The former case asks whether a bank has a fiduciary duty to divest stock in itself from employees' stock plans when it knows or should know that it is engaging in risky (subprime lending) business practices. In the latter case, the Court will decide whether the government has to prove that a defendant who passed stolen checks at Target had the intent to defraud the bank or financial institution specifically.

Kansas v. Cheever: Compelled Mental Exams OK'd For Rebuttal

This was an intriguing case that received a surprisingly cursory and unanimous resolution.

Cheever was chronic methamphetamine user. One day, back in 2005, he cooked and smoked meth. Coincidentally, the police showed up to handle an unrelated warrant. He shot and killed the sheriff of Greenwood County, Kansas, then fired at other officers until he was eventually detained.

He was first charged with a capital offense in state court, but the charges were dropped when Kansas declared its death penalty to be unconstitutional. Federal charges were brought, but the trial was halted when defense counsel was unable to continue. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court reinstated Kansas's death penalty. State charges were brought once again.

Union Case Dropped; Younger Clarified; Congress Comes to Court

Ready for a three-peat of SCOTUS updates?

Remember that big union case out of Florida, the case that could have changed top-down unionization and greatly weakened organized labor's ability to unionize workplaces through deals with management? Never mind.

And in a less exciting case, the Court clarified Younger abstention, reinstating a lawsuit by Sprint against a local telephone provider.

Plus, Congress was just added to the oral arguments in Noel Canning, the National Labor Relations Board appointments dispute.

Software Patents Coming to the Supreme Court

You can patent a snow plow or a new combustion engine. You cannot, however, patent an abstract idea, such as using an intermediary for escrow purposes in a financial transaction.

But wait, what if you write a computer program that makes that abstract idea a reality? Does translating an idea into code turn it from an unpatentable abstraction to a patentable practical invention?

That's the issue in Alice Corporation v. CLS Bank. Alice's founder wrote a program that calculates the obligations of parties entering into a currency exchange transaction, which can take days to complete. The program basically acts as an escrow service.

Snippets: Online Sales Tax Cert. Denial, Frequent Flyer Arguments

It's been a busy early week on First Street, with the Court denying a case that affects anyone who purchases anything on the Internet, and with oral arguments in a frequent flyer dispute.

There were also a pair of decisions handed down by the Court in less exciting matters, namely taxation of partnerships and forum selection clauses in contract.

We're going to play a hunch here and guess that the vast majority of you are more interested in whether you'll pay tax on that online purchase, or whether you can get booted from a frequent flyer program without compensation (and with thousands of miles in your account) and we'll get back to the Court's less exciting opinions later this week.

Liberty U's Religious Objection to Employer Mandate Goes Unheard

This morning, the Supreme Court turned down a second appeal from Liberty University, a private religious college in Lynchburg, Virginia. And while the rejected case is notable because it deals directly with the employer mandate portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), it does beg the question of whether this rejection shines any light on last week's certiorari grants in the similar-yet-distinct contraception mandate cases.

Liberty sought to challenge the portion of the ACA that mandated that employers provide medical coverage, arguing that the law went beyond Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause and that it violated the university's religious tenets. The Fourth Circuit held that the law was simply an extension of Congress' long-standing power to regulate employee compensation (wage, hours, benefits), and that if there was any burden on the university's religious rights under the Free Exercise clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the burden was minimal and outweighed by the government's competing interests.