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SCOTUS Oral Argument Preview: Week of March 31, 2015

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 30, 2015 10:55 AM

The Supreme Court is taking it easy this week, eschewing First Amendment and regulatory cases (the latter being its new favorite thing) in favor of more prosaic patent and bankruptcy cases. The biggest case set for argument this week is probably one regarding executing a mentally retarded inmate, though even that focuses heavily on procedure.

Here's a roundup of the oral arguments the Supreme Court will hear during the week of March 30.

Brumfield v. Cain (Monday, March 30)

The Fifth Circuit reversed a district court's order not to execute prisoner Kevan Brumfield because he was mentally retarded. The Fifth Circuit said Brumfield wasn't entitled to habeas relief because the district court didn't grant sufficient deference to the trial court's determination at his original trial that he wasn't mentally retarded.

In addition to deciding what deference applies here, the Supreme Court will address the question of whether an indigent prisoner claiming mental retardation must be provided with funds to obtain evidence of retardation.

Commil USA v. Cisco Systems (Tuesday, March 31)

Cisco may have technically infringed on a patent, but it really, honestly believed that the patent was invalid, meaning it lacked the requisite intent to infringe. The Federal Circuit held that a good-faith belief in a patent's invalidity could be raised as a defense to infringement, but Commil disagrees.

Justice Breyer, who holds between $15,000 and $50,000 worth of stock in Cisco, won't be participating in the case.

Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises (Tuesday, March 31)

The case involves a Spider-Man toy that shoots "web" goo from a glove. The valve for the goo container, actuated through a button on the glove, was an invention Kimble claims Marvel stole from him.

Kimble's patent expired in 2010, even though a settlement agreement in a 2006 patent infringement suit granted him royalties beyond the expiration date of the patent. This "hybrid" agreement, said the Ninth Circuit, was unenforceable beyond 2010 thanks to the Supreme Court's "frequently criticized decision" in Brulotte v. Thys Co. A patent licensee can't make royalty payments beyond the patent's expiration date unless the licensor offers a discount on non-patent rights, but the Court is finally coming back to this case that everyone seems to hate.

Harris v. Viegelahn (Wednesday, April 1)

The Court took this case to resolve a circuit split over a bankruptcy law question that has existed for 30 years. A debtor can convert a Chapter 13 bankruptcy into a Chapter 7 one at any time. The new Chapter 7 estate is limited only to the property owned on the date of the original Chapter 13 petition, not any after-acquired property. The split is over whether undistributed funds held by the bankruptcy trustee at the time of conversion get returned to the debtor, or distributed to the creditors.

Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank (Wednesday, April 1)

The First Circuit dismissed an appeal over "an important and unsettled question of bankruptcy law" that the court decided it "lack[ed] jurisdiction to solve."

Louis Bullard planned to reorganize his bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court denied his proposal, and so did a bankruptcy appellate panel. The First Circuit decided that a denial of a bankruptcy reorganization plan wasn't an appealable final order -- though the Fourth, Third, and Fifth Circuits disagree.

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