SCOTUS Debates? Breaking Down This “Week’s” Oral Arguments


Presidential Debate

The stakes were high for the hours-long debate that took place earlier this week, where interruptions, allegations of question dodging and even threats to jail Democrats transpired.

I’m not talking about the Oct. 9 presidential debate though.

Nope. This all went down at U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments this “week.” With the court observing Columbus Day and Yom Kippur, the court heard all three of its arguments for the week on one day.

And that seemed to make some of the justices a little grumpy, such that the arguments seemed more like the heated presidential debates rather than proceedings in a hallowed institution.

Exhibit one: Interruptions.

During arguments in No. 15-777 Samsung Electronics v. Apple, the two tech giants went toe-to-toe over how much Samsung has to pay Apple for infringing its “design patents”—patents that protect a product’s ornamental features.


Patent law says that an infringer should be liable for the “total profit” from the “article of manufacture.”

The lower courts said the article of manufacture equals the entire phone, and awarded Apple all of Samsung’s $399 million profit from the sale of the infringing phones.

Samsung argues that the article of manufacture is much narrower.

One lawyer was attempting to answer a question from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about how a jury would figure out damages under that narrower rule, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor jumped in.

Ginsburg was having none of it.

“May he complete the answer to my question?” Ginsburg interjected.

He did.

Exhibit two: Complaining about the questions.

Staying with Samsung v. Apple, the justices and advocates were discussing the case through a hypothetical involving the VW Bug. The iconic car’s distinctive style makes it an “easy” case for determining that a big damages award would be appropriate for design patent infringement, one lawyer suggested.

But not everyone thought so.

“This hypothetical is not helpful to me, because I can't get over the thought that nobody buys a car, even a Beetle, just because they like the way it looks,” Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said.

Exhibit three: Allegations of question dodging. This one comes from the second argument of the day, No. 15-606 Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado.

The defendant here was convicted of a misdemeanor but he wants his conviction thrown out because he says one of the jurors made racist comments during deliberations.

Bloomberg BNA’s Nick Datlowe tells us that jury deliberations are usually a “black box,” with many jurisdictions prohibiting the introduction of juror testimony to challenge the conviction.

The justices considered, however, whether “racism was a sufficient reason to crack” the box open, Nick says.

All seemed to agree that the juror’s conduct here was deplorable, but some justices wondered if allowing an exception here would break the box wide open.

Would derogatory comments about a defendant’s religion, gender or sexual orientation also be sufficient to crack open the box, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wanted to know.

When the defendant’s lawyer repeatedly said that the court could just deal with that later, Alito accused him of dodging the question.

“You’re not being very helpful to the court in your answers,” Alito said. “Now, how would you distinguish religion from race if we were to reach an opposite conclusion in the religious case?”

Exhibit four: Threatening to throw democrats in jail.

Alito continued to press the defendant’s lawyer on the limits of the proposed exception.

If “it came out the jurors said this person is a Democrat, send him to jail, that would be a different result?” Alito asked. “You will not tell us whether the rule would apply” in that situation.

Read more about how this played out here.

The justices seemed to calm down after they broke for lunch.

In No. 15-7250 Manrique v. United States, the court focused on what defendants must do to appeal a restitution award. You can read Bloomberg BNA’s Alisa Johnson’s coverage of that argument here.

That’s all for the October sitting. The court will resume arguments Oct. 31.

Until then, stay on top of the latest Supreme Court developments with a free trial to United States Law Week.