The Supreme Court's March Docket

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in eight cases in March 2014. First out of the gate is Hall vs. Florida which contests the criteria used in that state to declare a person mentally retarded and exempt from capital punishment. This case began in 1982 and has just now reached the Supreme Court. Based upon previous decisions in the Supreme Court and in state courts, when sentencing capital criminals who make a claim of retardation, the Court has warned against exclusive use of standardized intelligence tests. In this particular case, Hall’s registered IQ’s on these tests were a 73 and 68 on one test administered at different times, and a 75 on another IQ test. Florida law establishes an IQ of 70 for retardation in capital offense cases. He is arguing that the range of scores should be considered rather than some arbitrary cut-off point. Hall may have a point since IQ testing is not an exact science. Unlike the arguments against alleged bias in college admission tests, for example, here a human life is at stake. However, the trial record indicates that throughout the resentencing phases, additional information was presented so that the court considered the totality of the situation. They concluded that he may very well reach some definition of near-retardation, have a learning disability, and a speech impediment. But, since the totality of the situation- including the varying IQ test results- were considered, it is likely that Hall will not prevail here.

The next day,they will hear the case of Plumhoff vs. Rickard which questions whether the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals used the correct standard when determining police officer qualified immunity in an excessive use of force case. This stems from a police pursuit of a vehicle that fled a traffic stop. There are some conflicting renditions of what exactly happened, but the bottom line is that after eventually stopping and surrounding the vehicle, it still escaped and police fired fifteen shots at the car. It then crashed into a building and both occupants were killed. The lower court determined that the police officers did not have qualified immunity and that the civil lawsuit against the individual officers could proceed. The reason is that several shots were fired at close range and all but two hit the car’s occupants. In fact, twelve hit the driver. Obviously, given the facts, the police felt in fear not only for their lives but also innocent bystanders. One would suspect that at the very least, the Court may let this case go to trial by carving out some exception to the standards for qualified immunity.

The case of Haliburton vs. Erica P. John Fund is interesting only in that it involves the criteria for class action laws suits. This has been a recent area of discontent on the Court which has pitted liberals claiming conservatives are shutting the courthouse doors to people and conservatives claiming liberals are trying to go around clearly established rules of civil procedure. After a 2-week break, they will decide whether an inherited IRA that a debtor inherits is exempt from the debtor’s bankruptcy estate (Clark vs. Ramker),a case sure to induce a glaze over the eyes of most Court watchers.

However, fear not because the next day they will hear the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases which challenge the contraception mandate in health insurance required by Obamacare and whether these requirements run afoul of either the First Amendment’s Free Exercise of Religion Clause or the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. This writer will detail these cases as argument nears. As a caveat, if the Court should rule in favor of the petitioners here, it is not the death knell of Obamacare although it would shed yet another negative light on it. Any ruling will likely affect only a small fraction of employers in the United States that offer health care insurance. And just to clarify, in the Hobby Lobby case it is not even about contraceptives, but about abortificents and only a few at that. Again, I will detail these cases a little later in March.

The case of Woods vs. Moss is interesting because it involves demonstrations, protests, presidential security and the role/actions of the Secret Service. At a 2004 reelection trip to Oregon, President Bush stopped at a well-known cafe in Jacksonville to have lunch. Pro- and anti-Bush demonstrators had assembled along the motorcade route. The stop at the cafe was impromptu. Upon being seated on an outdoor patio, Secret Service agents requested that demonstrators on that side of the building be moved about two blocks away so that the President was not within gunshot or bomb range. Unfortunately, this order- because of how the groups had assembled- affected moving only the anti-Bush demonstrators since the pro-Bush demonstrators were already the required two block distance away from the President. Claiming that their First Amendment Free Speech rights were violated, the anti-Bush demonstrators- here represented by Woods- sued in federal court. A trial court determined that the Secret Service agents were fulfilling their duties to protect the President, that the movement of the demonstrators had no discriminatory intent, and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit reversed claiming that at least the discriminatory intent should be left to a trial court and that there not be the automatic assumption in favor of the agents which, if the trial court determined there was discriminatory intent, would result in a denial of that qualified immunity. Um… this seems like an open and shut case to me where the Secret Service were simply doing their job and being proactive. The fact is if the demonstrator’s locations were reversed, there would be no case. This is an example of protesters hiding behind the First Amendment and interfering with the Secret Service’s number one priority- protecting the President.

The final case in March is that of Alice Corporation Pty, Ltd. vs. CLS Bank International out of the Federal Circuit. There, that lower court reached a per curiam decision affirming a lower court’s determination that computer-implemented inventions are directed to patent eligible subject matter under US law. This case involves the Court’s recent fascination with rapidly changing technology. Under US law, abstract ideas are not patentable. In this case, an Australian company developed a computer-based program which automatically set up protocols and directions for finalizing complex financial transactions in a timely manner. CLS Bank sued arguing that such “programs” could not be patented and the lower court invalidated the patent. Alice Corporation then sued in the Federal Circuit to regain the patent, but they affirmed the lower court and then assigned themselves the task of developing some standards to determine future cases of “patentability.” Having failed to reach a consensus, they ruled per curiam in favor of CLS Bank and the patent remains invalid today.