Bread and Butter: SCOTUS Oral Argument Breakdown for Week of Nov. 30

Good old bread and butter Supreme Court cases filled the oral argument calendar during the first week of the December sitting, with ERISA, equitable tolling and law of the case doctrine in the spotlight. (If you are still reading this, you are one dedicated Supreme Court watcher!)

Let’s start where the court did—the law of the case doctrine and jury instructions. In Musacchio v. United States, No. 14-1095, a criminal jury was erroneously instructed that it had to find the defendant guilty of an additional element. Now the defendant claims that the government’s failure to object to that instruction makes it the law of the case. Because there wasn’t any evidence on that additional element, the defendant claims the conviction should be overturned.

This excerpt from Bloomberg BNA’s Lance Rogers suggests that the justices had a hard time swallowing that argument:

“The jury found him guilty of both A and B, but the statute is satisfied if he's found guilty of just A, said Justice Stephen Breyer. ‘How could it have been harmful?’ ”

“ ‘He's still guilty on A,’ Justice Antonin Scalia chimed in. ‘I just don't see how you get around that.’ ”

Read Lance’s full rundown here.

The argument in Green v. Brennan, No. 14-613, was less cut and dry. In this labor case, the justices considered when the limitations period for bringing a constructive discharge claim begins to run. The justices had three choices to choose from—those offered by the parties and an additional one offered by an amicus appointed by the court. Read about those options here.

On to day two (also known as Dec. 1). The court started the morning with Merrill Lynch v. Manning, No. 14-1132, considering jurisdiction under the federal securities laws. “A group of broker-dealer firms that allegedly engaged in a naked short-selling manipulation scheme may have an uphill climb to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that a suit by investors claiming their stock was diluted belongs in federal district court, even though the complaint alleges only New Jersey state law violations,” Bloomberg BNA’s Phyllis Diamond says. Phyllis’s breakdown is here (this one is behind the paywall).

That same day the justices also heard Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States, No. 14-510. That case tackles equitable tolling under the Indian Self-Determination Act, a law that encourages tribal management of programs that would otherwise be run by the federal government. Bloomberg BNA’s Patrick Gregory says the “justices seemed skeptical about applying equitable tolling to the claims of an American Indian tribe that mistakenly believed it would get class action tolling.” Read Patrick’s full take here.

Finally, with only one argument on Dec. 2, the court ended the week with an ERISA case that could have a big impact on health-care policy, Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Insurance, No. 14-181. Bloomberg BNA’s Jacklyn Wille says the justices seemed to take as a given that state databases forcing certain employers to turn over information about medical benefits are “a crucial tool in states' efforts to improve public health, control costs, aid research, provide transparency and foster competition among medical providers.” But the court has to decide whether a Vermont law requiring the disclosures is preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Jacklyn says the “justices and counsel devoted much [] attention to whether these databases significantly burden employers and other entities that must report data.” Read her full coverage here.

That’s all for this week’s Supreme Court arguments. Next week the court will tackle some hot-button issues, including redistricting and affirmative action. Follow along with a free trial to United States Law Week.

If you missed Bloomberg BNA’s earlier oral argument coverage, you can catch our weekly breakdowns on our blog.