Friedrichs & SCOTUS

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked off 2016 with a doozy of an oral argument. The petitioners in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 15-915, asked the court to strike down—on First Amendment grounds—a nearly 40-year-old precedent allowing public unions to charge fees to non-members.

The fate of that case—Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977)—seemed bleak over the last few terms. But Monday’s argument seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.

Often swing-Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was especially critical of Abood. In response to the argument that unions (and the fees they charge to non-members) make it easier for the state to ensure labor peace, Kennedy said, “We could assume that a state is always benefitted and is more efficient if it can suppress speech.” Yikes!

Read my full rundown here.

Both cases argued on day two of the court’s January argument session involved criminal law. In the first, Molina-Martinez v. United States, No. 14-8913, the high court considered whether “to ‘tweak’ the stringent plain-error standard when a district court has imposed a sentence using the wrong range under the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, even though the sentence imposed also falls in the correct guidelines range,” Bloomberg BNA’s Alisa Johnson explained.

Alisa said the justices had “strong reactions” to that argument, and suggested that the defendant here had an uphill battle.

Read Alisa’s coverage here.

Next the court considered a state-on-top habeas case, Duncan v. Owens, No. 14-1516. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said that the defendant here was convicted based on evidence that wasn’t established at trial. The trial judge’s explanation of the verdict “was nonsense,” the Seventh Circuit said.

The “Supreme Court seemed to acknowledge [] frustration for when they ‘think something is wrong, but not wrong enough to grant relief under’ ” the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Bloomberg BNA’s Jessica DaSilva said, quoting a law professor.

Read Jessica’s take here.

Day three of oral arguments for the week began with a separation of powers dispute. At issue in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, No. 14-770, is whether Congress can pass a law that makes it easier for victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism to collect nearly $2 billion in judgments.

U.S. Law Week’s Nicholas Datlowe said the justices “pressed hard for a principle that could distinguish when Congress had crossed the line from legislating to resolving a specific case, but appeared dissatisfied with each side's answers.”

Read Nick’s story here.

Finally, the justices ended the week with a double jeopardy case, Puerto Rico v. Valle, No. 15-108. The question is whether Puerto Rico is a distinct sovereign from the federal government for double jeopardy purposes, but Bloomberg BNA’s Lance Rogers said the “decision could have broader implications down the road in political discussions about the prospect for increased self-governance, or even statehood.”

One interesting note on Puerto Rico v. Valle, Lance points out that just “days before the argument, the court sent the lawyers in the case a letter asking them to be prepared to discuss ‘whether this Court has jurisdiction to review the ruling of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico under 28 U.S.C. 1258,’ which says the U.S. Supreme Court may only review commonwealth decisions interpreting a federal statute or that are in conflict with federal rights.”

This case then becomes another example of the court throwing up procedural roadblocks that could prohibit them from deciding the case on the merits.

But, Lance said, “None of the justices [] asked any questions about jurisdiction,” during Puerto Rico v. Valle.

I’m sure the lawyers were ecstatic to cram for apparently no reason.

Read Lance’s run down of the argument here.

U.S. Law Week summarizes Supreme Court arguments each week after arguments. If you missed any of the previous oral arguments, check out U.S. Law Week’s blog for updates.

In fact, why not take a free trial to United States Law Week to keep up with all the Supreme Court news?