The January Supreme Court Docket

supreme courtIn January, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in ten cases involving a variety of issues.  Those cases and a brief synopsis are:

Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, AZ– This case involves signage for a small, local church placed weekly on a street corner to direct potential parishioners. Unfortunately, placement of the sign and its size apparently violates the city’s ordinance regarding signs.  The city asserts that because the ordinance lacks a discriminatory motive it is therefore automatically content-neutral on its face.  Therefore, the alleged differential treatment is justified since the law is neutral.  This obviously has First Amendment implications as concerns the Free Speech Clause.  The fact this is a church is inconsequential to the discussion.  Prediction: If there is differential enforcement or exceptions, which the lower court order seems to indicate, the law may be in trouble.

Oneok vs. LearJet, Inc-  This case asks whether the National Gas Act preempts state law claims which challenge industry practices involving the wholesale natural gas market.  The purpose of the National Gas Act is to provide uniformity in the natural gas market.  This case arises out of allegations that the petitioners here- a natural gas distribution company- illegally conspired to rig natural gas prices in California- in violation of state antitrust laws.  Although Lear Jet won at the lower levels, it is hard to see how they can prevail here given the supremacy of federal law over state law in this area.  Prediction: The Supremacy Clause prevails here plus this comes from the Ninth Circuit- a Supreme Court whipping boy.

Mach Mining vs. EEOC-  The EEOC has a rule that disagreements or claims by employees against employers should first be handled through a conciliatory process before resorting to the courts.  Instead of contesting the rule itself, the petitioners here are asking whether such conciliatory agreement can be enforced by the courts.  Prediction: Given the deference to arbitration over the courts, the EEOC rule will likely be upheld.

KelloggBrownRoot vs. United States-  This is a somewhat complicated case and involves lawsuits the government brings against contractors.  Generally, the government is under a 3-year statute of limitations for suing contractors for fraud.  There is a major exception- the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act.  This World War I era law suspends that statute of limitations under the assumption that law enforcement efforts are directed elsewhere, namely the war effort.  Many times the fraud was not discovered until well after the cessation of hostilities.  It is then that the clock on the statute of limitations begins to run.  But what if there is no declaration of war as in the case of private contractors who defrauded the government in Iraq, for example?  The petitioners here claim that this fact creates an open-ended statute of limitations and violates the Act.  Prediction:  A tough one in these days of undeclared wars.  Congress can fix this loophole which is likely what the decision will come down to.

Mellouli vs. Holder-  This case asks whether for purposes of deportation, which can be instituted for violation of certain state or federal laws, or drug enforcement laws, whether the government must draw a connection between the possession of drug paraphernalia and a substance listed in the Controlled Substances Act.  The government moved to deport the petitioner based on a guilty plea to possessing drug paraphernalia, but not the actual drugs.  Prediction: Again, the Court grants certain deference to the Justice Department and the government will likely prevail.

Wellness International vs. Sharif-  A complicated bankruptcy case that will create all the buzz of a slug walking across your yard.  Prediction: Who cares?

Armstrong vs. Exceptional Child Center- In a nutshell, this case asks the Court to consider the relationship between the Federal and state governments as concerns Medicaid reimbursement rates and whether private actors have a right to sue states to force payments when the state policies dictate otherwise.  This could have some major ramifications for Medicaid reimbursement rates and civil suits in the future.  Prediction: The Court will likely side with the states here and block private actor suits.  The Left will cry about a conservative Court blocking access to the courts.

Williams-Yelee vs. The Florida Bar-  An interesting case which challenges a judicial code of conduct that prohibits candidates for judge from soliciting campaign contributions.  In effect, this is a backdoor campaign finance regulation.  It is not state law that is allegedly being violated here, but a judicial code of conduct.  The Florida courts determined that the narrowly tailored interest of preserving an impartial judiciary justifies the judicial code and is not a First Amendment violation.  This is a gray area in campaign finance law jurisprudence and whether it will survive scrutiny remains to be seen.  Prediction: This Court is not a great fan of campaign finance legislation that restricts free speech/association.  The rule will likely be struck down.

Texas Dept. of Housing vs. Inclusive Communities Project-  Are disparate impact complaints to be considered under the Fair Housing Act?  The Act proscribes discrimination in housing and was passed to thwart the practice.  Ironically, the Act also led to something called “red lining” in zoning laws that needed to be further addressed.  This case comes to the Court after a very similar case in New Jersey was dismissed as moot after the parties came to an agreement.

Disparate impact is distinct from actual discrimination in housing which is expressly prohibited by federal law.  Disparate impact may be an indicator of possible discrimination on a broad basis.  Here is an example from my former home town.  A certain area was designated as “blighted” and a redevelopment plan which included eminent domain was formulated.  The reason for the redevelopment was to decrease population density in this area.  Because the area was heavily populated by Hispanics and Asians (mainly Bengali), there was an obvious disparate impact on those minority populations.  The Court must decide whether disparate impact in and of itself is a cause for action under the Fair Housing Act.  Prediction:  Disparate impact in this regards is like housing affirmative action.  Although somewhat hostile to affirmative action, they have not outright condemned it.  This will be a hair-splitting decision which will likely allow disparate impact evidence to some degree.

Rodriguez vs. United States-  This is an interesting case, especially in light of recent police actions that gain national notoriety.  Can a police officer extend an already completed traffic stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification?

The petitioner was stopped after observed driving briefly on the shoulder of the road.  They had proper documentation and there were no outstanding warrants.  They stated they were headed home late at night after looking at a car 50 miles away.  To the officer, this story seemed suspicious given the lateness of the hour.  After a warrant check, the driver was issued a warning summons for driving on the shoulder.  In effect, the reason for the traffic stop was completed and resulted in a warning.  But the officer then asked if his canine could sniff the car, which the driver refused.  The main reason for this request was the strong, but pleasant smell of car air freshener in the vehicle and the fact the passenger pulled his cap down over his eyes.  When the request was refused and while waiting for a second officer to arrive, he directed Rodriguez to get out of the car and stand near his cruiser after he turned off the ignition.

My guess is that the Court must determine whether reasonable suspicion existed here regardless of the fact that some methamphetamine was actually discovered.  In effect, can anything be used as a pretext for reasonable suspicion?  If so, then every traffic stop can result in a search or a canine sniff.  In short, are we then that far from a police state?  Prediction:  Personally, I believe they should rule against the police here, but I doubt it given the deference they afford law enforcement in this area.