The United States Supreme Court, returning from its holiday break, will hear arguments in a number of cases next week. It will probably also start issuing opinions which, among other things, will give us our first look at the votes, and perhaps opinions, of Justice Sotomayor.
Because the law often seems arcane, and because the Court lacks the drama of the other governmental branches, we are often not aware of the issues with which the Supreme Court deals (excepting, of course, those cases that garner a lot of publicity). Thus, I think that many of us underestimate the important role played by the Court in our daily affairs. For example, the cases in which the Court will be hearing argument next week cover topics which both have relevance to our personal lives today and carry major implications for the future. The issues raised range from the rights of parents whose children are abducted to foreign countries, to the antitrust implications of professional football, to the right of a defendant to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
These are the cases set next week for oral argument in the Supreme Court.
Alabama v. North Carolina:
This case is actually Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Commission versus North Carolina. The states named in the suit, along with other southern states, entered into a compact for the disposal of the region's low-level radioactive waste. The commission formed as part of the compact chose a site in North Carolina for a radioactive waste disposal facility. North Carolina took money from the pact for the construction of the storage site, but then withdrew from the agreement. It did not, however, repay the money. The other states who are party to the agreement, and the commission, are suing to get their money back. The issue is whether the sovereignty of the state means that it cannot be sued by a commission, and whether the commission can collect monetary sanctions from a state.
Why you should care: This is not the sexiest of cases, but it does involve the interesting question of the extent of state sovereignty, and the ability of states to renege on agreements with other states. Should North Carolina prevail, it may be a disincentive for states to form agreements with other states in the future to solve regional problems.
Briscoe v. Virginia:
Last year, in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court held that the Confrontation Clause means what it says, and that thus if the prosecution in a criminal case wants to rely on forensic evidence, it must bring the scientist to court to testify rather than relying on a written statement. Virginia responded by enacting legislation that allowed the admission of the written reports of forensic scientists, but also allowed the defense to call the scientist to testify in its case. The question is whether this satisfies the defense's constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses.
Why you should care: Virginia's solution means that in order to exercise his constitutional right to confrontation, a defendant would have to ensure that his jury hears the evidence against him twice: once in the prosecution's case when the report is read, and again in the defense case when the expert is called in for cross-examination. Thus, it manages to turn a constitutional protection for the defendant into a benefit for the prosecution. The argument of Virginia, and of the state Attorneys General who have filed an amicus brief in support of Virginia, is that it is just too difficult to prosecute people, especially in drug cases, by following the Constitution, and that therefore the Constitution should be evaded. After all, those prisons don't fill themselves. What the prosecution does not explain is why the solution proposed by Justice Scalia in Melendez-Diaz - that the defense be required to request the relevant witness be produced before the state has to do so - would not satisfy its concern that forensic scientists are testifying in cases in which their work is not an issue.
United States v. Comstock:
This litigation involves the constitutionality of Federal law that permits the civil commitment of prisoners who have served their sentences, or who are confined as being incompetent to stand trial, if the prisoners have been found to be sexually dangerous.
Why you should care: Many states, including California, have variations of this law, permitting the civil commitment after the completion of prison sentences of sexual offenders who are deemed to have a mental disorder which causes their behavior. These laws follow the model of statutes permitting the involuntary commitment of mentally ill people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, except that the hoops through which the sexual offenders must leap to gain freedom are far narrower and more plentiful than those of others who are civilly committed. Obviously, these laws are wildly popular, and there is a logic to treating those who manifest their mental illness in sexual abuse in the same way that others debilitated by mental illness are treated. On the other hand, statutes, such as the Federal one at issue here, that condition release on predictions of future behavior encourage the use of unproven science (in the form of predictive instruments) and leave a lot of room for arbitrary and unfair decisions about whether an inmate should be freed. To put it simply, how firm does the evidence that a person is likely to be a future danger have to be to justify locking him up for the rest of his life?
Abbott v. Abbott:
Mr. Abbott, a British citizen, and Mrs. Abbott, an American citizen, married in England. Their son was born in Hawaii. The Abbotts subsequently moved to Chile, where their marriage fell apart. The Chilean family court issued orders giving Mrs. Abbott daily control of the child, and Mr. Abbott visitation rights. The court also ordered that neither parent could take the child out of Chile without the other parent's agreement. Despite this order, Mrs. Abbott took the boy to the United States and sought a divorce in a Texas court. Mr. Abbott is now arguing that the Hague Convention, which requires signatory states such as the United States to return abducted children to their home countries, dictates that his son should be returned to Chile. However, the Hague Convention only applies to children who have been taken away from parents with custodial rights. Thus, the issue is whether an order that a child cannot be taken out of a country without parental consent give both parents custodial rights.
Why you should care: All right, maybe this sounds a little boring, but growing internationalism means increasing numbers of international marriages, and a correspondingly increasing number of ways in which one parent can attempt to deprive the other of his or her children. Thus, a great many Americans have relied on the Hague Convention to recover their children from foreign countries. A clarification of the legal status required to trigger the Hague protections is, and will continue to be, crucial to parents who want to protect their custodial rights to their children following relationship dissolutions.
American Needle v. NFL:
American Needle is a cap-making company which for almost 50 years was one of the entities licensed by the NFL to make caps with football team logos. In 2001, however, the NFL entered into an exclusive agreement with Reebok, giving Reebok the sole right to produce clothing, caps, etc. with NFL team logos. Not surprisingly, the cost of NFL-labelled clothing soared. Meanwhile, American Needle sued the NFL, arguing that because teams are individual business entities, its agreement with Reebok violates anti-trust law. The issue is: is the NFL a single entity, or is it an illegal monopoly of individual companies?
Why you should care: The interaction of anti-trust law and professional sports has historically created a lot of litigation - perhaps most famously in Flood v. Kuhn, in which Justice Blackmun's majority opinion held that major league baseball was not subject to antitrust law, a ruling that was enveloped in a flowery paean to the game of baseball. Given that the definition of a monopoly is an agreement between rival companies to act together in order to reduce competition, it seems clear that the NFL qualifies as one when it comes to the production of official team souvenirs. A victory for professional football here may encourage other companies to form mythical entities in order to restrict competition and thus keep prices high while evading antitrust statutes.
Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer, & Ulrich LPA:
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was designed to protect people from abusive and overreaching conduct by debt collectors. One of these protections is that it empowers people to seek damages against debt collectors who violate the Act. Under certain conditions, debt collectors are immune against such damages. One of those conditions is if the collector commits a bona fide error, despite the existence of procedures to protect against such error. In this case, the defendant law firm served the plaintiff with a complaint seeking repayment of a debt. The accompanying documents told Ms. Jerman that she could only contest the debt by filing a written response. However, the law does not require that the response be in writing. Thus, the law firm incorrectly told Ms. Jerman that she had to do more than was required by law to assert that (as was true in this case) the debt had already been paid. When Ms. Jerman sought damages, the defendant argued that, although it is, well, a law firm, it did not know that the law did not require written responses. The question, then, is whether ignorance of the law counts as a bona fide error.
Why you should care: Abusive tactics by debt collectors are an additional stressor suffered by many people in bad economic times, so this case is particularly timely. Obviously, should ignorance of the law be available as a defense, more debt collectors are likely to engage in illegal tactics. Ignorance of the law is generally not a defense in criminal prosecutions, so it is hard to see why a law firm should be able to evade responsibility by asserting it in a civil context.