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SCOTUS Oral Argument Preview: Week of April 20, 2015

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 20, 2015 12:56 PM

Next week is the calm before the storm. April 28 is the day that Court watchers are waiting for -- the day when the Court hears oral two hours of oral arguments in the four consolidated same-sex marriage cases from the Sixth Circuit.

In the meantime, you'll have to content yourself with some criminal statutes and ... California raisins?

Johnson v. United States (Monday, April 20)

"Wait a minute," you might say, "Didn't the Court already hear this case?" Indeed it did. In November, the Court heard oral arguments in this case, which presents the question of whether simply possessing a sawed-off shotgun qualifies as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

This time around, the justices added their own question: Whether the residual clause in the ACCA's definition of "violent felony" is unconstitutionally vague. The statute defines a "violent felony" as, among other things, "burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

It's this "otherwise involves conduct" part that some justices have long itched to declare unconstitutional, says Rory Little in SCOTUSblog, and they might finally have the votes for it. This case is especially egregious because Samuel Johnson's prior crimes were simple robbery and attempted simple robbery, and in the instant crime, he just possessed the shotgun but didn't actually use it to commit any crime.

McFadden v. United States (Tuesday, April 21)

Stephen McFadden was convicted of manufacturing a "controlled substance analogue," known more popularly as a "designer drug," a synthetic version of a naturally occurring controlled substance. In this case, it was bath salts, which were famously misconstrued as causing people who took them to go crazy back in 2012.

Bath salts have effects similar to those of cocaine and methamphetamine and contain compounds similar in chemical structure to methcathinone, a controlled substance. McFadden claimed that the Controlled Substances Act doesn't provide adequate notice of what constitutes a "controlled substance analogue," meaning the prosecution has to prove that a defendant knew the substance was a controlled substance analogue. The Court took this case to resolve a split of authority among the federal circuit courts.

Horne v. Dept. of Agriculture (Wednesday, April 22)

How could raisins cause so much controversy? Last year, the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit had jurisdiction to hear a claim brought by petitioners, California raisin companies, that a Great Depression-era law designed to stabilize prices is unconstitutional.

This year, the Court is getting to the merits of the case. The USDA can order raisin "handlers" to reserve a certain percentage of their raisin crop, meaning they can't sell it on the open market and can be required to give the reserve to the USDA. Raisin growers may or may not get paid for any of the raisins the USDA orders them to keep in reserve. They also have to pay for some of the administrative costs of the program. All of this, the handlers say, is a "taking" in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

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