Short & Neat: This Week’s SCOTUS Oral Arguments


With the U.S. Supreme Court observing MLK Day on Monday, the court’s oral argument calendar was a bit abbreviated this week. But the arguments were anything but slow, hitting on the NFL and national security.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.

First up was No. 15-1498, Lynch v. Dimaya, which deals with criminal aliens.

“The Obama administration has prioritized deporting immigrants convicted of crimes, and President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to continue that policy,” I noted, following the argument in this case.

The court’s ultimate decision in this case could hamper that, though.

At issue is whether a scheme requiring deportation for certain immigrants convicted of certain crimes is unconstitutionally vague.

If that question sounds a little familiar, it’s because this case is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending saga that has dogged the court since its 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States.

In Johnson, the court struck down a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act that significantly enhanced criminal sentences. The law at issue there was too vague to pass constitutional muster, the Supreme Court said.

Since then, the court has considered whether to make that decision retroactive, whether it indicates that a provision of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines is unconstitutionally vague, and, now, whether this immigration provision is similarly constitutionally deficient.

It wasn’t clear from arguments which way this one would turn out.

But the government strongly urged the justices not to strike down the law. “What's at stake is the fact that the immigration laws are vital to the nation’s national security and foreign relations and the safety and welfare of the country,” the government’s lawyer said.

You can read more about the argument here.

Next up: debt collection. And if this topic doesn’t scream “fascinating” to you, consider that debt collection is a $13.7 billion industry, according to Bloomberg BNA bankruptcy reporter Diane Davis.

In No. 16-348, Midland Funding v. Johnson, the justices “questioned just how much leeway the debt buying and collection industry should have in the bankruptcy system to collect on stale debts,” Diane says.

“Federal appeals courts are split on whether it violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to file a proof of claim in a bankruptcy proceeding on a debt that the debt collector knows is otherwise time-barred,” she explains.

“Permitting such conduct could potentially flood the bankruptcy system with meritless claims, to the detriment of creditors; but disallowing it might flood Article III courts with FDCPA claims,” Diane says.

According to her, it’s “hard to predict how the court will rule,” but it’s “apparent that the debtor doesn't have as clear of a case as one might think.”

Read Diane’s take on the argument here (subscription required).

Ok… now to the really juicy stuff (keeping in mind that this is a blog post on oral arguments at the Supreme Court).

In No. 15-1293, Lee v. Tam, the court “questioned the constitutionality of a 70-year-old provision that lets the federal government withhold some legal protections for trademarks that officials conclude are disparaging,” according to Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr.

This case involves a rock band named The Slants, whose name the trademark office found to be disparaging to Asian-Americans and so refused to register the band’s trademark.

But the case has implications for Washington’s beloved football team, the Washington Redskins, whose trademark was pulled for a similar reason.

Greg says there’s no definitive answer which way the court will go. But oral argument “suggested it was more likely than not to invalidate the disparagement provision.”

I’ll say. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he could think of “50,000 examples” of why the government’s argument didn’t make sense.

Read more of Greg’s coverage of the argument here.

Finally, the court wrapped up this week’s oral arguments with a case involving individuals detained following the September 11 terrorist attacks, No. 15-1358, Ziglar v. Abbasi.

The case is brought by immigrants that overstayed their visas, who were later “detained after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,” Bloomberg BNA’s Patrick Gregory says. Those immigrants “allege that they were unconstitutionally confined based on appearing to be Muslim or Arab.”

But the Supreme Court isn’t considering the merits of those claims just yet. First the court is trying to decide whether the immigrants can even bring their claims.

That’s because the claims are brought against some of the nation’s highest law enforcement officials, including the former Attorney General and former director of the FBI.

Patrick says the justices seemed skeptical about letting such claims go forward.

You can read why here.

So what do you think? Exciting week at SCOTUS?

Well, hopefully all that excitement will tide you over for a while, as the court is set to take a month-long break, before resuming oral arguments on Feb. 21.

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