Mixed Bag: This Week at the Supreme Court

Supreme Court 3/28/16

With Spring—and Spring Break—in full swing, the U.S. Supreme Court took a break from hot-button issues and heard arguments in more run-of-the-mill cases. But the breadth of the topics addressed ensures there’s something here for almost everyone to enjoy—except, perhaps all those middle school kids in the chamber.

First up: attorneys’ fees in CRST Van Expedited v. EEOC, No. 14-1375.

Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a $4.7 million fee award against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the district court levied after dismissing the agency’s sex discrimination suit.

The dismissal wasn’t on the merits, so it can’t support a fee award, the Eighth Circuit said.

Neither party thinks that’s right, but the EEOC still says it shouldn’t be required to pay any fees.

Bloomberg BNA labor reporter Kevin McGowan said things don’t look good for the EEOC, as at least five justices were skeptical of the agency’s argument. Read why here.

Later that day the justices took up the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457.

The question in Betterman is whether the right to a speedy trial extends to sentencing, but Bloomberg BNA criminal law reporter Lance Rogers said the justices showed “little interest” in that issue. Instead, they wanted to know if the question was better analyzed as a violation of due process, he said.

That’s important because prejudice can be presumed under the speedy trial standard, but not under the due process standard, Lance said. Read more here.

Next, the justices took on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in Sheriff v. Gillie, No. 15-338.

Here, Ohio hired private attorneys, designated as “special counsel,” to collect debts on behalf of the state.

The debtors claimed that the use of state letterhead by the private attorneys was “misleading” under the FDCPA. The Sixth Circuit agreed, and said the private attorneys weren’t state “officers” exempt from FDCPA liability.

But similarly situated private attorneys can breathe a sigh of relief, said U.S. Law Week’s Patrick Gregory said. “The justices didn't seem likely to find that Ohio-retained attorneys misled debtors by using state letterhead in their collection efforts,” he said.

Read Patrick’s take here.

That same day, the court heard argument over administrative exhaustion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act in Ross v. Blake, No. 15-339.

New documents were submitted to the court just one day before oral argument, and Bloomberg BNA’s Jessica DaSilva said that’s likely to get this case “dismissed as improvidently granted.”

Read why here.

On to Welch v. United States, No. 15-6418, a surprisingly fascinating case for court-watchers. The case asks whether the court’s decision last term in Johnson v. United States—striking down the Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause—is retroactive.

That might not be in and of itself fascinating, but bear with me.

The court granted this pro se petition without a relist (eyebrows raised). The respondent United States actually sided with the petitioner here, who was represented at oral argument by a fifth-year biglaw associate (quick inhale). As a result, the court had to appoint an amicus to argue the other side (drool seeping out of gaping mouth).

Ok… now that you clearly want to read about this case, you can do so here.

Finally, the last argument of the court’s March sitting was U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes, No. 15-290.

The question there was whether a jurisdictional determination from the Army Corps—bringing landowners within the Corps’ reach—is reviewable by a federal court.

Bloomberg BNA water reporter Lars-Eric Hedberg said the justices seemed to think it should be reviewable. Read Lars’s take here.

That’s all until the court returns April 18, when the court will hear the government’s plea to allow the Obama administration’s deferred action immigration programs to finally go into effect.

Until then, keep up with all the Supreme Court news with a free trial to United States Law Week.