Category: Supreme Court

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Who Wrote Synar? A Judge Who Types and Why It’s Important

In Synar v. United States, a per curiam three-judge district court held that the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act violated the separation of powers because the statute had given the Comptroller General executive powers and Congress previously held the qualified power to remove the Comptroller for cause. Chief Justice Burger’s majority opinion in the direct appeal, styled as Bowsher v. Synar, very substantially relied on the district court’s formal analysis — citing and quoting from it several times — that the congressional removal power made the Comptroller General “here-and-now subservient” to Congress.

Academics and commentators (including Anthony Lewis) either speculated or assumed that of the three judges on the panel — Oliver Gasch, Norma Holloway Johnson, and then-D.C. Circuit Judge Antonin Scalia — Scalia most likely penned the per curiam opinion. Amy Spare, Villanova Faculty Services Librarian, recently unearthed for me an unappreciated oral history of the late honorable Oliver Gasch that ends the speculation.

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The Newest Scottsboro Boy

Hear the words “Scottsboro Boys” and what comes to mind is the picture of southern injustice.   Nearly a dozen black teenagers taken off a train in Alabama in 1931 and accused of raping two white girls.  The sheriff calling out the militia to protect the boys from a mob lynching.  The defendants, illiterate young men whose families resided in other states, held under military guard.   A summary trial held six days after arraignment.  The boys tried without counsel.  Each convicted and sentenced to death.  The case successfully challenging their conviction, Powell v. Alabama, is central to our modern conception of the requirements of due process for criminal defendants.

Fast forward 80 years and Jeffrey Skilling, former president and chief operating officer ofcollapsed energy giant Enron, is the newest Scottsboro boy.  Skilling’s attorney argued on Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court that his client was tried and convicted in Houston in what amounted to a mob atmosphere.  Skilling, was convicted of securities fraud, conspiracy and insider trader for actions he took to cover up the financial collapse of Enron, which resulted in losses estimated at tens of billions of dollars for Enron shareholders.  Thousands of Enron employees lost their retirement funds.  Skilling was sentenced to 24 years, which he is serving in a minimum security prison.  He challenges his conviction on the grounds that the crime of “honest services fraud” is unconstitutionally vague, and on the grounds that he was tried and convicted amidst an atmosphere of “pervasive community bias.”

It’s true that feelings about Skilling and Enron CEO Ken Lay ran high during those days – especially in Houston.  It’s also true that government surveys indicated that potential jurors in Houston were more likely than those residing outside Houston, to believe that Skilling and Lay were innocent.  Skilling argued, nevertheless, that “overwhelming passions” gripped the pool of Texans from which the jury was selected, stoked by a “media frenzy.”  His prosecution was, according to Skilling, “as dramatic as any in U.S. criminal trial history.” (I’m not sure that the Scottsboro boys, Sacco and Vanzetti, Richard Hauptmann (kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby),the police officers who beat Rodney King, or O.J. Simpson, would agree with that assessment, but history will have to sort it out).  At oral argument, several members of the Court – Justices Sotomayor and Breyer among them – reportedly expressed serious concerns about the trial court’s voir dire of the jury.  The Court may yet find that Skilling – who was represented by some of the finest attorneys in the country, and who reportedly spent more than $30 million dollars on his defense —   is entitled to a new trial in a different venue. Read More

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Supreme Court Fever

Yesterday, Tom Goldstein kicked off this year’s speculation about who the next Justice will be (assuming that Justice Stevens retires, which seems highly likely).  His view is that Solicitor General Elena Kagan will get the nod.  I think this is probably wrong.

With respect to this pick (as with every Court nomination), the President will need to make a political calculation.  In this case, part of the choice comes down to “Does he want a smooth confirmation?” or “Does he want to pick a fight with Republicans and excite his base?”  The selection of Kagan would not fulfill the latter goal, as far as I can see, thus her selection makes sense only if the President wants to calm the waters.  And that depends to a large extent on what happens with health care, which is too close to call.  If the health care bill fails, then the President will need something for his base and Kagan would probably be out of luck.  If health care passes, though, then her chances go up.

Even assuming that Kagan’s nomination makes political sense, I think there is a valid case to make against her on the merits.  First, a sitting SG that reaches the Court must recuse herself in many cases during the first year or two of her tenure because of her involvement in the certiorari petitions.  Thus, there may be a significant short-term cost to picking her that would not be true for a sitting judge or an elected official.

Second, I’m not clear that Kagan has been a good Solicitor General.  You could make a decent case that her handling of Citizens United, from the point of  view of those who don’t like the decision, was slapdash both in the initial argument and in the way the issues were framed on reargument.  As the outcome of that case is dear to progressives, I wonder how they will view her lawyering skills upon closer scrutiny.  (To be fair, you could say that no matter what she did the outcome would have been the same, but I’m not sure about that.)

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Summary Reversals by the Supreme Court

Other than Citizens United, the most interesting trend of the Supreme Court’s term thus far is the increasing use of summary reversals (in other words, a decision on the merits without full briefing or argument). These are not cases where the Court is just doing a GVR (“Grant, Vacate, and Remand”) in light of a recent decision. Instead, they must be situations where the Justices think that the lower court was so wrong that only a brief per curiam opinion is necessary for reversal and that adding the case to its docket would be a waste of time.

My sense is that this is not a positive development.  Since the grant of certiorari discretion in 1925, it has become axiomatic that the Supreme Court is not in the error correction business.  But that’s what summary reversals are.  If the legal issues involved are sufficiently important to merit the Court’s attention, then they should also be significant enough to deserve full briefing and argument.  Many lawyers criticize the Court for not taking enough cases, but I don’t think the summary reversal procedure is what they had in mind.

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The Yale Law Journal Online: Richard Lazarus and Sanford Levinson on the Supreme Court’s Certiorari Process

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Concluding its series on proposed reforms to the certiorari process, The Yale Law Journal Online is pleased to present pieces by Richard Lazarus of the Georgetown Law Center and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas Law School.  Lazarus and Levinson approach the issue of the Supreme Court’s docket composition through a variety of perspectives, and shed light on the ongoing debate over whether the declining number of cases before the Court presents a problem for the American judicial system.

The Yale Law Journal Online and the Yale Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic will be a hosting a second conference on the subject on March 23, 2010 at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut.  Further details will be provided shortly.

Preferred Citations:

Richard J. Lazarus, Docket Capture at the High Court, 119 Yale L.J. Online 89 (2009), available at http://yalelawjournal.org/2010/01/24/lazarus.html.

Sanford Levinson, Assessing the Supreme Court’s Current Caseload: A Question of Law or Politics?, 119 Yale L.J. Online 99 (2010), available at http://yalelawjournal.org/2010/02/01/levinson.html.

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Eight Months of Iqbal: Part 3

In this last of three posts on Twombly and Iqbal, I want to talk about the bills now pending in Congress (one in the House and one in the Senate) to overturn these two decisions. 

The Notice Pleading Restoration Act (S. 1504) would provide:

Except as otherwise expressly provided by an Act of Congress or by an amendment to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which takes effect after the date of enactment of this Act, a Federal court shall not dismiss a complaint under rule 12(b)(6) or (e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, except under the standards set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957).

The Open Access to Courts Act (H.R. 4115) would provide:

A court shall not dismiss a complaint under subdivision (b)(6), (c) or (e) of Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief. A court shall not dismiss a complaint under one of those subdivisions on the basis of a determination by the judge that the factual contents of the complaint do not show the plaintiff’s claim to be plausible or are insufficient to warrant a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.

Legislation along these lines would certainly be valuable to the extent that it would foreclose some common misreadings of Twombly and Iqbal that would indeed result in a much stricter pleading standard. As I explain in my earlier post, however, Twombly and Iqbal should not be read as allowing courts to disregard allegations for lack of “plausibility.” What was fatal in Twombly and Iqbal was the fact that allegations necessary to establish a claim for relief were, in the Court’s eyes, presented as “mere legal conclusions.” The plausibility inquiry (which, as H.R. 4115 suggests, assesses whether the nonconclusory allegations are sufficient to raise an inference of liability) is actually a method to save complaints that otherwise rest on mere conclusory allegations.

Nor should Twombly and Iqbal be read to overturn longstanding notice-pleading precedents like Conley. Read correctly, the framework established by Twombly and Iqbal is not inconsistent with (to quote S. 1504) “the standards set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States in Conley v. Gibson.” Admittedly, Twombly set aside Conley‘s “beyond doubt . . . no set of facts” language (which H.R. 4115 would explicitly reinstate). But what Twombly “retire[d]” was merely what it called a “focused and literal reading” of this phrase that would have precluded dismissal “whenever the pleadings left open the possibility that a plaintiff might later establish some set of undisclosed facts to support recovery.” The Supreme Court had never read Conley this way. If it had, a complaint that alleged nothing more than “The planet Earth is round” would survive, because any number of actionable facts might be consistent with the Earth being round.

Properly understood, Conley did not preclude dismissal as long as any set of facts would entitle the plaintiff to relief. It precluded dismissal unless “the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” This merely confirms that speculation about the provability of a claim is not a proper inquiry at the pleadings phase; provability is relevant only when it appears “beyond doubt” that the plaintiff cannot prove her claim. But the Twombly majority itself endorsed this idea; it wrote that “a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.” The dispositive question is — and always has been — what makes something a “well-pleaded complaint”? Conley and Twombly provide the same answer: “all the Rules require is ‘a short and plain statement of the claim’ that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.”

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Eight Months of Iqbal: Part 2

In my earlier post, I argued that the Supreme Court’s approach to pleading in Twombly and Iqbal is not necessarily inconsistent with the pre-Twombly notice-pleading framework. On a correct reading, the admittedly-problematic plausibility inquiry is not a basis for disregarding allegations in a complaint. When a complaint provides non-conclusory allegations for each element of a claim for relief, those allegations must be accepted as true, without regard to their “plausibility.”

There is no doubt, however, that the lower federal courts are paying a lot of attention to Twombly and Iqbal. My article The Pleading Problem ranks Supreme Court decisions in terms of the frequency with which they have been cited by federal courts. The figures in my current draft were as of June 30, 2009 (they will be updated in the final version). But even then, Twombly was #17 all-time with over 14,000 citations by federal courts. As of today, its count is nearly 22,000, which will place it very comfortably in the top-10. Iqbal is just getting started, but over the last eight months it has been cited at a remarkable rate of over 600 decisions per month.

That said, an opinion’s citation frequency alone doesn’t tell you what courts are actually doing with that opinion. That’s the far more interesting question. There are certainly federal courts whose approaches to pleading after Iqbal reflect a much stricter standard. Jon Siegel identified a slip-and-fall case in an earlier Concurring Opinions post, Alexi Lahav has noted some others on the Mass Tort Litigation Blog, and I mention a few in my forthcoming article. In this post, I want to flag some cases where the lower federal courts are at least on the right track.

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Eight Months of Iqbal

It’s hard to imagine a topic in civil procedure that has garnered more attention recently than pleading standards. The Supreme Court’s decision last Term in Ashcroft v. Iqbal (which embraced its controversial 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly) prompted an onslaught of commentary and critiques (including a couple of excellent Concurring Opinions posts by Jon Siegel here and here). Particularly troubling about these decisions is the idea that judges should subjectively determine — without hearing any evidence or testimony — whether the plaintiff’s claim is a “plausible” one. The Iqbal decision hit its 8-month anniversary this week, so I figured I’d take this opportunity to share a few thoughts on federal pleading standards in the post-Iqbal era. I’m hoping to follow up with posts about how the lower courts have been handling Twombly and Iqbal, and on the proposed legislation now pending in the House and Senate to overturn these decisions.

First off, I agree with many of Twombly‘s and Iqbal‘s critics. At best, these rulings appear to be result-oriented decisions designed to terminate at the earliest possible stage lawsuits that struck the majorities as undesirable. And inviting the “plausibility” concept into pleading doctrine was extremely problematic. It would be doubly unfortunate, however, if courts compound these troubling decisions by misreading them to drastically change federal pleading standards going forward. As I argue in my article The Pleading Problem, 62 Stanford L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming May 2010), a careful reading of these cases reveals an approach that is not necessarily inconsistent with the notice-pleading framework that most attorneys, judges, and professors alive today learned when they were in law school.

How is this possible? For starters, the majorities in Twombly and Iqbal left the core principles of the notice-pleading era in place. Twombly, in fact, explicitly endorsed Conley v. Gibson‘s command that the complaint must merely “give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Although Twombly abrogated one phrase from Conley (that “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief”) this phrase was never taken as literally as the straw man that Twombly struck down. The true meaning of this phrase was simply that speculation about the provability of a claim is not a proper inquiry at the pleadings phase; provability is relevant only when it appears “beyond doubt” that the plaintiff cannot prove her claim. As to this point, Twombly is completely on board; Justice Souter wrote that “a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.”

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The Yale Law Journal Online: Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson’s “If It Ain’t Broke . . .”

yljonline

The Yale Law Journal Online is pleased to present its last publication of 2009.  The Hon. J. Harvie Wilkinson III addresses the recent calls to reform the Supreme Court’s certiorari process in this Essay, which cautions against reforms that may cause significant collateral damage to the American judicial system.  Judge Wilkinson addresses the recent contraction of the Supreme Court’s docket, challenging the notion that a smaller docket is cause for alarm.  He also challenges a number of the proposals on the table, invoking a historical perspective to argue against tampering with the fundamental structure and role of the Court.  These arguments continue Judge Wilkinson’s previous remarks on the subject at the Yale Law School-sponsored conference, “Important Questions of Federal Law.”

Preferred Citation: J. Harvie Wilkinson III, If It Ain’t Broke . . ., 119 YALE L.J. ONLINE 67 (2009), available at http://yalelawjournal.org/2009/12/16/wilkinson.html.

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The Importance of Other Statutes in Statutory Interpretation

In one of the few decisions it has handed down thus far this term, Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Supreme Court relies heavily on a statutory interpretation technique that tends to confound students, but that forms a staple in its interpretive methodology:  References to/extrapolation from other statutes and prior Supreme Court cases interpreting them.  Union Pacific raises the question whether, under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a party’s alleged failure to exhaust certain grievance procedures before proceeding to arbitration in front of a panel of National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) members is a jurisdictional claim that may be raised sua sponte by the arbitration panel or an ordinary claim that must be raised by the parties in their papers.

The RLA requires employees and railroads to exhaust the grievance procedures specified in their collective bargaining agreement before resorting to arbitration. As the final pre-arbitration grievance procedure, the Act directs parties to attempt settlement “in conference” between designated representatives of the railroad and the employee. In Union Pacific, the parties engaged in at least two pre-arbitration conferences; however, the employees neglected to include proof that conferencing had taken place in the materials ultimately submitted to the arbitrators. The railroad did not raise this lack of record evidence, but one of the industry representatives on the panel did — and despite the employees’  after-the-fact submission of evidence that the conferences did occur, the arbitration panel dismissed the employees’ arbitration petitions, concluding that it lacked authority to assume jurisdiction over the employees’ claims given the employees’ failure to submit proof-of-conferencing prior to the closing of the record. Read More