Supreme Court

  • February 11, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Justin Pidot, Associate Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

    The U.S. Supreme Court this week issued an order staying implementation of the Clean Power Plan (“CPP”) -- the Obama administration’s signature action to address climate change -- until the courts decide the merits of challenges to the plan brought by industry groups and states.  It’s quite a surprise. The Supreme Court very rarely stays a regulation while it remains before a court of appeals. 

    Granting a stay is not the same as deciding the case, but the order suggests that five justices have serious concerns about the CPP.  I suspect those concerns may boil down to this: The coal industry, likely the primary target of state implementation of the CPP, is too big for EPA to regulate absent an express congressional directive.

    Where would this notion of too big to regulate come from?  The Court has signaled increasing skepticism of agency interpretations of statutes that the justices believe construe agency authority too expansively or in a way that may be of economic significance.  The Court has invoked this mood—even if I can’t quite call it a principle—in at least three recent decisions.

    In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, the Court held that EPA lacked authority to regulate certain sources of greenhouse gases under a Clean Air Act program because it would involve a “transformative expansion” in the agency’s authority.  In Michigan v. EPA, the Court invalidated another Clean Air Act rule at least in part out of concern for the costs the rule would impose.  And in King v. Burwell, the Court declined to defer to an agency’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act because the issue was one of “economic and political significance.”  (I have previously discussed this trend here and here.)

    These cases suggest a new rule of administrative law that inhibits big agency actions that tackle big problems. Under such a rule, the CPP may fall because climate change is a global problem with many contributors and EPA is attempting to engage in relatively significant action in response.  In other words, the Court could hold that EPA can only tinker around the edges of climate change unless Congress clearly says otherwise, a holding that would be particularly ironic since the Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA forced the agency to get into the climate change business in the first place. 

  • February 10, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Patrick Parenteau, professor of law, Vermont Law School  

    In a move that stunned even the most seasoned court watchers, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The unsigned order, without any explanation, puts a hold on the rule pending the outcome of proceedings currently underway in the D.C. Circuit, which had earlier denied a stay. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted against the stay.

    This action is unprecedented in a number of ways. The majority made none of the findings typically required to obtain a stay. There is no analysis of the merits of any of petitioners’ claims. There is no showing that the rule threatens any immediate harm to petitioners, especially given the long lead times EPA has built into the process. There is no showing that the balance of hardships tips decidedly in favor of the petitioners, especially given the fact that most states are well into the process of developing implementation plans and those that do not want to submit a plan don’t have to. There is no showing that the stay is in the public interest, especially given the warnings from the scientific community that time is fast running out to avoid catastrophic consequences of climate disruption. Never before has the Court interjected itself in a case with such high stakes that hasn’t even been fully briefed and argued before the lower court.

    Some have speculated that the majority may be reacting to what happened last term in Michigan v. EPA (the mercury rule case). By the time the case got to the Court, over two years had passed and 80 percent of the industry had already complied with it. Thus, when the Court found a flaw in EPA’s cost analysis, it was faced with a fait accompli which no doubt irked the conservatives. But it would be a sad comment on the Court’s integrity if the decision to issue a stay was motivated by pique or distrust of the agency.

  • February 9, 2016
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    Last June in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling granting marriage equality to LGBT couples nationwide. Last week, the named plaintiff in the case, Jim Obergefell, spoke to the Indiana University Maurer School of Law Student Chapter about his status as a civil rights icon and how he unwittingly became the modern face of the fight for LGBT rights.

    Obergefell, before a packed auditorium, recounted the events that spurred him to file a federal lawsuit to force the state of Ohio to recognize his marriage to his ailing longtime partner John Arthur. The couple had decided to marry after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where such unions were legal. Obergefell told the audience he proposed to Arthur because “that was the first time in our almost 21 years together that suddenly at least one level of our government would say, ‘You exist. We acknowledge you. Your relationship matters.’” The couple famously flew to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was already legal, and tied the knot on the tarmac in a brief ceremony before immediately flying back to Ohio.

    When asked by moderator Steve Sanders, co-counsel on a brief in favor of the Obergefell plaintiffs, whether he foresaw a legal battle for recognition of the marriage in his home state, Obergefell replied, “When we decided to marry, we made that decision solely to get married. We had no plans to do anything else. We simply wanted to live out John’s remaining days as husband and husband.” As the case gained national attention, however, Obergefell realized the case was “a lot bigger than just us.” Nevertheless, following Arthur’s death mere months after their marriage, Obergefell quit his job and spent a year traveling and “running away from life” before reengaging in the movement for LGBT equality.

    Consistently humble, Obergefell expressed some guilt about his designation as the lead plaintiff, which was due to the low number of his federal case, and his resulting celebrity. “I felt guilty. I really did, because it isn’t just me. It’s my name and my face that’s out there so much, but I’m not the only one. . . . There are thirty-some plaintiffs in our case,” he said. After the blockbuster decision, though, his attention was refocused on the gravity of the plaintiffs’ achievement. “Wow. We really do matter,” he remembered thinking. He added, “I have the utmost respect for [the legal] profession and the court system.”

    Watch the full conversation below.

  • January 29, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Jessica Pezley, Judicial Clerk, Oregon Circuit Courts

    The debate over the constitutionality of the death penalty took on a renewed vigor last term in Oklahoma’s lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, in which Justice Breyer in dissent suggested it “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” While the Court decided 5-4 that Oklahoma’s use of the lethal injection drug midazolam—part one of a three-part drug cocktail meant to numb an individual from the pain caused by the other drugs working to stop the heart—was constitutional, the close vote and impassioned dissent highlighted a growing skepticism of capital punishment in the Court. Flash-forward to this term and the issue was high on the docket with four cases raising procedural questions about the death penalty. Two have since been decided.

    First, in Hurst v. Florida the Court deemed unconstitutional a sentencing scheme that charged the judge, and not a jury, with making the ultimate sentencing decision in capital cases. Decided 8-1, Hurst seemed to indicate the direction the Court would take in its three remaining death penalty cases. Then, just over a week later in Kansas v. Carr/Kansas v. Gleason, the Court voted 8-1 against recognizing additional Eighth Amendment procedural protections. What accounts for this difference? And what do these inconsistent results spell out for the remaining two death penalty cases, Foster v. Chatman and Williams v. Pennsylvania?

    In Carr, the Kansas Supreme Court vacated three death sentences—those of the Carr brothers and of Gleason, a defendant in an unrelated case—because of the lower court’s failure to affirmatively instruct the jury that mitigating factors need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and in the case of the Carr brothers, not allowing severance at the sentencing phase of trial. Kansas’s attorney general challenged this decision, and the Court granted certiorari on the question of whether the Eighth Amendment demands the procedural protections recognized by the Kansas Supreme Court.

    It became readily apparent that the respondents in Carr were in trouble. Justice Scalia halted oral argument to recount, at length, the grisly details of the Carr brothers’ crime spree, known as the Wichita Massacre. It came as no surprise then, when the opinion for the case was handed down, that Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, used over two pages of his 18-page opinion to again hash out the horrendous facts. In the remaining pages, the Court found little trouble in dispensing with the respondents’ arguments.

  • January 20, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Clinical Professor of Law, Penn State Law; author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press 2015)

    Early Tuesday, January 19, 2016 the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of United States v. Texas, a largely political lawsuit brought by a faction of 26 states challenging the legality of two programs announced by President Obama on November 20, 2014. Specifically, the high court agreed to hear arguments on the following issues: “(1) Whether a state that voluntarily provides a subsidy to all aliens with deferred action has Article III standing and a justiciable cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to challenge the Secretary of Homeland Security’s guidance seeking to establish a process for considering deferred action for certain aliens because it will lead to more aliens having deferred action; (2) whether the guidance is arbitrary and capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law; (3) whether the guidance was subject to the APA’s notice-and-comment procedures; and (4) whether the guidance violates the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, Article II, section 3.” Rulings on the first three of those issues were requested by the government; the fourth issue was raised on the Court's own initiative.  On November 9, 2015, by a 2-1 majority, a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Administration.

    The executive actions being challenged by states are coined as an expansion of “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) and the creation of "Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Residents” (DAPA). These actions would expand a pre-existing deferred action program for young people and create a new program for qualifying parents who have resided in the United States for at least five years. Deferred action is a form (among more than a dozen forms) of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law. When prosecutorial discretion is exercised favorably towards a person, the government (in this case Department of Homeland Security or DHS, the agency whom Congress has specifically delegated to administer and enforce the immigration laws) abstains from bringing a legally valid immigration charge against a person or group of persons. Prosecutorial discretion exists for humanitarian reasons to the extent the individual bear positive equities like intellectual promise or the position as a primary caregiver to a family; and for economic reasons as DHS has limited resources and the responsibility to target its enforcement against true priorities. This dual activity of enforcing the immigration laws against high priorities and exercising prosecutorial discretion favorably towards others lies at the core of the Take Care Clause which I have described in earlier work in the following way:

    Importantly, the President’s faithful execution of the immigration laws is not just limited to bringing enforcement actions against individuals and ultimately deporting them, but also to prioritizing the deportable population in a cost-effective and conscientious manner, and providing benefits to deportable noncitizens when they qualify for them. The President must “walk and chew gum” at the same time to carry out an effective immigration policy. 

    Apart from the deferred action programs is another memo announced on November 20, 2014 entitled “Policies for Apprehen­sion, Detention, and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants.”  These policies identify priorities for removal which include but are not limited to those with criminal histories, recent entrants, and those with removal orders issued on or after January 1, 2014. This memo is operational today and has sparked great debate and controversy since the Administration’s announcement to conduct raids against Central American families and unaccompanied children who seemingly fall within these priorities. This same memo contains a primer on the use of prosecutorial discretion, but immigration attorneys and advocates have criticized its actual implementation since its inception.