WHAT THEY SAID
The stream of Supreme Court opinions gushed quickly in June as the Court prepared to recess by month end. Many opinions deal with matters that are neither very relevant to businesses nor very near the public consciousness. They merit mention nonetheless.
Puerto Rico – Sometimes a state, sometimes not:
A state may prosecute a person under state law even after that same person was tried for a federal crime arising out of the same incident. Double jeopardy does not attach because the federal and state governments are different sovereigns. But Puerto Rico traces its law to federal sources, so in this case, it is not different enough from the feds and double jeopardy attaches. It is not a state.
The federal bankruptcy code trumps state-debt relief laws. The Supremes held that it also preempts Puerto Rico’s Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act. So this time, the island is like a state.
The two decisions draw on difference principles and deal with different areas of law entirely – criminal prosecutions and debt relief. But the two decisions bring a smile and a head shake all the same. Maybe it just goes to show that Puerto Rico has a unique relationship with the United States.
Briefly, on the Mainland:
1. There is another jurisdiction with a unique relationship with the federal government: Indian Tribes. The Supreme Court ruled that tribal convictions could be taken into account at sentencing for purpose of a federal habitual-offender statute.
2. Former prosecutors may not sit on an Appellate or Supreme Court reviewing the conviction of a person tried under their watch, no matter how many years later or how collateral to the initial trial the issue being appealed may be.
3. Peat mining companies which the Corps of Engineers said were subject to its jurisdiction may sue in court to challenge that determination. This is the second time in recent years that environmental-protection agencies tried to prevent private parties from even going to court, and the second time the agencies were sternly rebuked by the Court
4. A court that discharged a jury may, when circumstances allow, recall that jury to deliberate anew and correct a mistake the judge and lawyers just realized had been made. This recalling of the jury does not violate the parties’ due process rights.
5. Inmates who complain about prison conditions or abuses must go through the prison complaint procedures first. Judges may not exempt them from doing so based on perceived “special conditions.”
6. The Department of Veterans Affairs must give preference to veteran-owned small business at all times when they qualify under relevant laws and regulations. It may not ignore this requirement once it has filled its quota of contracts with veteran-owned businesses.
7. Federal Law “imposes significant penalties on those who defraud the Government,” as the Supreme Court wrote. The Supremes also held that lies by omission could form the basis for such a fraud.
8. The Supreme Court waded into drunk-driving laws and found, in essence, that there are three kinds of implied-consent laws, only two of which are constitutional. Those that only impose civil penalties (including suspension of a driver’s license) for not consenting are fine. Those that impose criminal penalties against drivers who refuse a breathalyzer test are fine too. But laws that impose criminal penalties against drivers who refuse a blood test go one step too far.
9. Those who commit domestic violence may not own a gun. The Supreme Court held it did not matter whether they meant to injure their partner or they acted with utter disregard for the likelihood that their action would indeed cause injury.
Paying up for Intellectual Property
The Court loosened the test previously used to determine whether to impose triple damages on a patent infringer. The old standard was too rigid and restrictive. The Supreme Court ordered instead that trial courts should let their discretion be guided by general principles of law and impose enhanced damages in cases more egregious than run-of-the-mill infringements.
The Supremes took a similar approach to awards of attorneys’ fees in copyright litigation. Trial courts must give proper weight to the reasonableness of the losing party’s arguments, but also exercise their discretion in a more general way, gauging the totality of circumstances on a case by case basis.
The Non-Event “Big Cases”
None of the “big cases” sure to gather the attention of the press changed anything to the law.
In the immigration case, the court deadlocked, so by definition, no action was taken. The scope of permissible executive action in immigration will have to be decided another day.
In the abortion case, the rule remains the same as it was: a law may not place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion – it may not constitute an undue burden to abortion access – unless it offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens imposed. The Supreme Court held unconstitutional a Texas law that would have required every abortion clinic to qualify as a surgical center and every doctor to have admitting privilege at a nearby hospital because the burden on abortion rights (all clinics except a handful in big cities would have had to close) well exceeded any medical benefit.
And in the affirmative action case, the Court reiterated the same principled enunciated 13 years ago: the educational benefits of a diverse classroom justify limited, carefully crafted race-conscious provisions in the admission policies of colleges and universities. It found that the University of Texas carried that burden.