The March Supreme Court Docket

There are several high profile cases on the Court’s oral argument calendar in March.  So, in order of argument:

Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Redistricting Commission– This has the potential to be a huge case.  At issue is who should be responsible for redistricting federal congressional districts.  Under Article I of the Constitution, redistricting is left to the states and for the vast bulk of American history it was (and still is) done by state legislatures.  Whichever party controls the legislature controls the process to their advantage.  Some blame this for the increased alleged polarization in politics.

As a result, some states have moved to using commissions to do the redistricting.  Others have commissions who are advisory in nature with the state legislature having final say subject to gubernatorial veto.  Arizona passed Proposition 106 in 2000 and in 2010 a commission redistricted the state’s federal legislative districts.  The state legislature sued charging that this violated their rightful role delegated to them in Article I.  There is also a federal law making the redistricting process “pursuant to state law.”

At stake is the redistricting commission format in six other states besides Arizona.  Should they side with the petitioners, then these commissions could be unconstitutional.  However, they left themselves an “out” since also at issue is whether the Arizona legislature even has standing to sue in federal court. One could surmise that stripping a legislature of their constitutional powers is a “harm,” but the fact they brought this question up gives me pause for making a prediction here.

Ohio vs. Clark– This is another important case that is under the radar.  At issue is whether third parties who are obligated to report suspected instances of child abuse to the proper authorities are, in effect, agents of law enforcement.  If so, then the question becomes whether they fall under the Confrontation Clause.  There is a further question here: whether out-of-court comments by students to a teacher about possible child abuse that is then reported is testimonial in nature.  If so, then the Confrontation Clause comes into play again.

On the one hand, we would certainly like to see cases of child abuse discovered and reported.  On the other hand, we do not want to see potentially innocent people prosecuted based on what amounts to hearsay.  Many states shield original reporters of suspected child abuse from the legal process, yet the Constitution demands that the accused be afforded the opportunity to confront their accusers.  Prediction: The Court will side with the Respondent here and rule that the Ohio law and reporting regimen violates the Confrontation Clause.

Los Angeles vs. Patel-  Another Bill of Rights case, this one involving the Fourth Amendment.  A Los Angeles city ordinance requires that certain information be maintained on hotel registrations of guests.  Further, the ordinance demands that hotels make those registries open to law enforcement upon request.  The respondent here maintains that this is an unwarranted search of their records.  Prediction: The law may have good intentions, but one believes that the ordinance may be too draconian and grant the police too much power.  However, given this Court’s tendency to side with law enforcement on Fourth Amendment matters, my guess is they will side with the Petitioner here.

Chappel vs. Ayala:  This is a habeas case which asks whether when a petition is dismissed based on a harmless error and the fact that the error is harmless is not in dispute, does this necessarily adjudicate the habeas appeal petition on its merits?  Prediction:  An interesting case involving Due Process, but not likely to turn too many heads.  My guess is the Court will side with the state here.

King vs. Burwell:  The Obamacare subsidy case which I will cover starting on Sunday.

Walker vs. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans:  A very interesting Free Speech case.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans desires personalized license plates which depict a confederate flag.  The state of Texas refuses to allow this stating that the flag is offensive and they have a policy (correctly) against issuing vanity plates with offensive messages.  I will explain this case in more detail as oral argument nears at the end of March.  This is a most intriguing case.

San Francisco vs. Sheahan:  The Fourth Amendment meets the American with Disabilities Act.  This case involves a person who was mentally ill and the police entered their apartment whereupon they were attacked.  The case actually involves two questions.  The first is whether the police should provide accommodations to an armed, violent, mentally ill person.  The second is realizing there was a high potential for armed resistance and even though there was a legitimate exception to obtaining a warrant, does it constitute an unreasonable search?  The second question answers itself (sort of) under the exigent circumstance exception to obtaining a warrant.  Prediction: Again, given the circumstances of this case and the Court’s tendency to grant greater deference to the police, they will likely rule that as long as they are performing a job duty, the ADA does not apply.

Bank of America vs. Caulkett:  A bankruptcy case that will interest no one other than the fact that it one of many arising out of the housing mortgage crisis of 2008.

Michigan vs. EPA:  A case with important ramifications regarding the EPA powers to regulate emissions from electricity generating plants.  This is not about greenhouse gases, but rather mercury emissions.  The issue is whether the EPA unreasonably refused to consider costs when formulating and implementing their regulations.  Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is not obligated to do a cost/benefit analysis with respect to any regulation under the theory that public health considerations are immune to such analyses.  As the case nears oral argument, a more detailed entry will be done because the powers of the EPA are being challenged here and any decision could have serious implications down the road.

Brumfield vs. Cain:  This case involves sentencing of an allegedly mentally retarded (I use the phrase because it remains a legal term) and whether they were denied Due Process during that phase of the trial.  The petitioner is also allegedly indigent and the state refused to provide them with their own expert witness (and associated costs to the state) to provide proof of that retardation.  Prediction:  The Court has been fairly protective of the rights of mentally incompetent defendants and minors.  My guess is that they will rule in the favor of the Petitioner here and remand the case.

Kimble vs. Marvel Enterprises:  This is a patent case that should interest no one beyond the starkness of the question suggested.  That question is whether they should over-rule a previous decision.  That previous decision ruled that it was unlawful for a patent holder to use a royalty agreement beyond the life of the patent.  Prediction: They do not like to overrule previous decisions, so they will likely weaken the precedent to reflect more modern concerns.

Finally, there is Commil USA vs. Cisco Systems:  This case presents the Court two opportunities.  The first is to yet again admonish the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals which hears patent and trademark cases and where that court does not have a particularly good winning record before the Supreme Court.  The second is the fact the Court will again wade into an area where they are increasingly seeing cases- technology and intellectual property.  As we further enter the digital age, expect more of these cases to be heard.  If the Justices appear “stupid” during oral argument, it is because they are hearing cases involving issues our Founders could never envision.

That is it for the March docket.  There is potential for several blockbuster rulings from these cases, most likely in June.