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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.

Originally posted to DParker on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 02:45 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Cross on Public Land, Salazar v. Buono, No. 08-47 (4+ / 0-)

    Was argued three months ago described here.  The case, depending on how broadly they address it, could dispose of the Soledad Cross issue, something I have become somewhat involved in.

    Actually, the 9th circuit is waiting on the decision to proceed on their appeal.  If interested in the details you can go on my websiteon the subject, start at the end of the first article, or go to the second one if unfamiliar with the issue.

    It will be the first such decision since three new members have joined the court, all practicing Catholics.   We will soon know whether that is relevant.

  •  Color me surprised (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cn4st4datrees, DParker, soothsayer99

    not! A law firm that doesn't know the law. I'm guessing they're heavy contributors to the Republican party.

    I stand by the truth, that way I don't have to be near any Republicans.

    by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 02:57:54 PM PST

  •  "After all, those prisons don't fill themselves." (5+ / 0-)

    amen and we ALL should care about that

    thank you DL for an excellent summary here

  •  Justice Scalia, is that you? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cn4st4datrees
    Nice characterization of Melendez; I don't think Nino himself could've put it in any more one-sided terms.

    Mom, the mall is a way for the corporate fatcats to imprison you into a life of servitude. I've got some stuff you should read.

    by burrow owl on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 03:05:10 PM PST

  •  Well, after all, (4+ / 0-)

    the Sixth Amendment says that a criminal defendant has the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him" not the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him unless it is a pain in the ass for the prosecution."

    We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

    by DParker on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 03:10:55 PM PST

    •  The problem here is that the State bears (4+ / 0-)

      the entire burden of proof in a criminal matter, and the Defendant is not obligated to put on any defense. In the VA case, it sounds like what VA did is say that the Defendant may be required to do so if it wants to challenge paper reports without the investigator present to testify. I don't think VA will do well on this one.

      •  I think you're right (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ferallike, cn4st4datrees

        I hope so, at any rate.

        We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

        by DParker on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 03:40:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Something to point out here in that Va Case (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cn4st4datrees, DParker

          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.

          is that the f***ing Attorney General who's trying to sidestep the Constitution is now our f***ing Governor! Va is not only going to go backwards, we're going outside of the US Constitution if McDonnell has his way. And I look at all the good Governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine did in 8 years and see that all go to hell in a handbasket with the newly elected Constitution twisting, male chauvinist fundie in the Governor's mansion.

          Thank you so much for the synopses of the upcoming Supreme Court cases. I would not have changed a thing in your diary as it was excellent! Any future diaries on this subject matter will receive cheering and applause from me, DParker. It would be a true blessing if this were to become a regular series if possible as your explanation of the legal implications would be very educational to us "laypersons."

          The beatings will continue until morale improves. -8.50, -6.92

          by ferallike on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 01:56:56 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The only good thing is, he gets ONLY 4 years (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            DParker

            to fuck us all over. Virginia has strict term limits - one term, NO re-election.

            If we can just ride it out (and look into ways of hogtying him for the duration), we can get someone who isn't a total fundie asshole in 2012.

            If it's
            Not your body
            Then it's
            Not your choice
            AND it's
            None of your damn business!

            by TheOtherMaven on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 03:04:46 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  This diary is very well done. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, cn4st4datrees, DParker

    It's a fine preview/program on upcoming cases.

    Thanks for publishing!

    Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects. -Herodotus

    by TerribleTom on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 03:33:00 PM PST

  •  Briscoe, Melendez-Diaz (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, cn4st4datrees, DParker

    i've testified as a defense expert in marijuana cases facing the state Crime Lab techs around a dozen times, and found then universally misinformed.

    Defendants should ALWAYS make them take the stand.

  •  I like your case positioning summaries. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cn4st4datrees, DParker

    Thanks.

    The Virginia case could set some very ugly precedent, if they are allowed to do what they currently are doing.

    On one hand, it's more expensive to prosecute under the more strict standard of having to have the scientist actually present evidence like other evidence is presented.

    On the same hand, it's EXPENSIVE, and frankly, I think we lock way too many people up.

    IF THEY ARE GOING TO SCREW THE PEOPLE, MAKE THEM OWN IT.

    by potatohead on Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 11:04:47 PM PST

  •  Quick correction! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DParker

    The NFL is not a trust, nor is a combination of entities a necessarily a trust.  A trust is a legal entity consisting of a document creating the trust, a grantor (aka settlor), a trustee, beneficiaries and trust property.  In the 1890's, when the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed, corporations were not permitted to engage in interstate commerce.  But, businesses entities in the form of a trusts were.  The Sherman Antitrust Act was thus named because it was directed at the anticompetitive monopolies that the oil, steel, railroad, and other trusts had become.  Once corporations were permitted to engage in interstate commerce, they replaced trusts as the preferred business organization for such purposes.

  •  DParker: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DParker

    I know this is late, and first of all congratulations on getting your diary rescued.  Tipped and recc'd.

    Very succinct writing, well put and comprehensible (the latter not something easily attained in parsing SCOTUS cases).

    And so this sincere request:  since you do this so well, and since it is of importance to the public to stay aware of even "mundane" SCOTUS actions, would it be possible for you to make this a regular diary?

    Because, as your format demonstrates, there are good reasons Why you [we] should care.

    The question is not what, but who you want to be. --F.R. Prince

    by cn4st4datrees on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 03:18:07 AM PST

    •  Thank you so much (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      freelunch, zadarum, Kewalo

      If people want to read it, I would love to continue to preview the Supreme Court oral argument schedule.

      We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

      by DParker on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 04:55:28 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Keep it coming! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DParker

        I really admire your ability to explain a complex matter in plain English.  I don't know where you get your info from, but, I subscribe to a Public Citizen email that gives a summary of Supreme Court cases it thinks are important and/or is involved in.  Unfortunately, its synopses are so cryptic that even a lawyer might have some difficulty figuring out why he should care. All this to say, keep up the good work.  I, for one, will keep an eye out for your future diary entries.

    •  I second this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DParker

      I am also late in coming to this diary, but I would love to have a regular summary of the cases, even (perhaps especially) the 'mundane' ones.  I'm subscribing to you just in case you decide to make it a regular feature (please do!).

  •  And in another life, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    freelunch, DParker

    instead of being transplanted to a small mountain town as a very young boy to grow up in a relatively idyllic lifestyle, I remained in the Los Angeles area during my formative years.

    I naturally gravitated towards Hollywood and the motion picture industry, becoming a fair actor, then moving into direction and production.

    This lifestyle, however, was too hectic and demanding, and so I diverged.  I pursued higher education, became interested in the law, gained my law degree, and began practice.  Trial law was my forte.  I was the sought-after public defender, and though my practice was far from lucritive, it was sufficient.

    My problem was that I cared.  I cared for the rights of the minority, I cared for the oppressed and the downtrodden.  I won a few cases that would have appeared hopeless.  On a whim I ran for a judgeship and against all odds I was elected to the bench.

    I took this charge seriously, and in my courtroom only the law prevailed, the law being not a static proscription but an evolving system of psychosocial approach to alleviating injustice.

    A federal appointment followed, my closet remained clear of the usual suspects, and dream of all dreams I was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

    I ruled justly, even when it went against all personal bias, because after all the law is the law.  Such dedication took its toll, and I retired before I became jaded.

    Today I look back fondly at my life.  I helped a few people, pissed most everyone else off, but my judgements and votes remained consistent with justice.  I was a good lawyer.

    But that's in another life.  Just a dream.

    The question is not what, but who you want to be. --F.R. Prince

    by cn4st4datrees on Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 03:39:45 AM PST

  •  Predictions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kewalo, DParker

    North Carolina has to pay the money back. Likely line of reasoning is that the Court will say that this is merely a contract case and that by entering into a contract, NC has made itself subject to the usual and customary rights and responsibilities inherent in contracts.

    Briscoe. Scalia will get to write the opinion and evicerate Virginia for being arrogantly unwilling to follow the clear language in Melendez-Diaz. It will be the most entertaining decision of the year for those who like snark.

    Comstock, Court will allow the procedures, but set up some minor improvements in protection of rights in the civil commitment phase.

    Court will order Mrs. Abbott to return child to Chile because she intentionally violated a valid court order.

    American Needle wins, but never gets another contract from any team because the NFL is pouting (see MLB and their conspiracy not to hire free agents).

    Lawyers lose. Their defense for breaking the law is absurd. I'm not sure Scalia would be writing this one, but if he were, his language would be as sharp in mockery of the lawyers as his language mocking Virginia will be.

  •  Terrific diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DParker

    I'm so glad this diary was rescued, otherwise I would have missed it.

    I really appreciate that you are able to translate the legalese into plain English.

    Thanks very much, and I'll look forward to other diaries.

    Rec and tipped.

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