Category Archives: 9-0

Shell Oil Co. v. Iowa Dept. of Revenue

488 U. S. 19

November 8, 1988

Shell extracted much of its oil from the outer continental shelf, which is all the land beneath the first three miles of coastal waters. Iowa imposed an income tax on Shell for the business it did in Iowa, but Shell contended that it was partially immune from the tax due to the oil it sold there from the continental shelf. Shell said that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) exempted all oil and gas extracted from state taxation laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Iowa’s tax was not preempted by OCSLA. Marshall said that when the text of OCSLA is carefully parsed, it only bans taxation by states adjacent to the continental shelf itself. Marshall showed that this was the correct interpretation through recourse to legislative history. While a state like California could not tax the business activity of extracting oil just off its coast, all states remained free to tax the refined oil and gas that was eventually sold within state lines. Thus, Iowa’s income tax on all the oil and gas sold by Shell within the state was just fine.

While this ruling was pretty trivial, the day it was announced was momentous. That evening, Bush slaughtered Dukakis in the Electoral College. Reportedly, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun watched stonily as the election results rolled in. They had all stubbornly stayed on the Court throughout the eight Reagan years, but now they faced either four or eight years from the Bush-Quayle team. The future of the liberal bloc looked grim indeed.


West v. Atkins

487 U. S. 42

June 20, 1988

When a prisoner received insufficient care from a doctor contractually employed by a prison, he tried to sue the doctor under Section 1983. The question was whether the doctor could be legally described as “acting under color of state law.” The lower courts did not think so, and cited a 1981 ruling called Dodson where public defenders were held immune from 1983 suits.

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. Blackmun said that the doctor was working for the state prison, and that the prisoner could not choose another doctor. The fact that the doctor worked for the prison only by contract was totally irrelevant. He was a state actor with respect to the prisoner. Blackmun distinguished Dodson because public defenders have a unique adversarial relationship with the government. Though doctors exercise independent professional judgment, their interests are in no way adversarial to the prison.

Scalia concurred in judgment. He disagreed with the Court’s assumption that the right the doctor allegedly violated “under color of law” was the Eighth Amendment. Scalia thought it would be the 14th Amendment, if anything, that the doctor violated. Frankly, I’m not sure the doctor violated either one. I can certainly accept this ruling that prison doctors are state actors. I’m less certain that insufficient medical care violates any Constitutional right.

New York State Club Assn., Inc. v. City of New York

487 U. S. 1

June 20, 1988

A statute with the Orwellian sounding name “Human Rights Law” banned certain private clubs from discriminating in membership based on race or sex. The law was limited in several respects, leaving alone clubs with less than 400 members, and clubs that were religious or benevolent in character – this based on the state’s finding that business activity was not prevalent at those organizations. A large club mounted a facial challenge to the law, based on both the First Amendment right to freedom of association, and the Equal Protection clause, given the aforementioned exemptions from the law’s reach.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected these facial challenges. White first brushed aside one of those asinine jurisdiction challenges, because Court precedent did allow private associations to mount facial challenges. Nonetheless, in light of prior rulings in Rotary Club and Roberts v. Jaycees, White said there was little chance the New York law was invalid on its face because of the association concerns. Indeed, it seemed carefully drawn to leave most freedom of association rights intact, and could not be described as overbroad. With respect to the Equal Protection challenge, White said that New York had proffered rational reasons for exempting religious and benevolent organizations, and that no hard evidence had been offered to rebut the state’s reasoning.

O’Connor, joined by Kennedy, concurred to say that there could be an odd case where the law did violate a club’s association rights, and that the law was still vulnerable to an as-applied challenge. Scalia did not join the Equal Protection section, but concurred in judgment. He did not take the state’s reasoning at face value, but looked at the clubs classified as religious and benevolent for himself before concluding that the distinction drawn by the law was a defensible one (in case your wondering, ‘benevolent’ organization are mostly lodges like the Masons, VFW, or Knights of Columbus).

I have already given my opinion about laws like this in my Rotary Club write up, and I will not repeat it here. If you follow the principle of stare decisis, then this case was correctly decided. But I would have overruled Rotary Club, because that decision was awful, and doesn’t deserve precedential respect.

Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp.

486 U. S. 800

June 17, 1988

In an antitrust suit against Colt, both principal charges could be resolved on the basis of patent law. The Seventh Circuit and the Federal Circuit ended up playing a hilarious ping pong game over who had jurisdiction, with each insisting the other did. The law said the Federal Circuit had jurisdiction for cases “arising under” patent law, but the Federal Circuit contended that the case really arose under antitrust law, and that patent law was an ancillary and possibly even unnecessary feature of the lawsuit. They ended up issuing a ruling anyway, just to stop the ping pong nonsense

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Federal Circuit had no jurisdiction. The “arising under” language for patent law was meant to mirror similar language granting all federal courts jurisdiction for cases “arising under” federal law. As Brennan explained, cases arose under federal law only when the federal law was the true basis for the complaint. Because there were grounds for finding antitrust violations without reference to patent law at all, there was no way the suit against Colt could be said to arise under patent law. Brennan added that once the Federal Circuit initially determined that it lacked jurisdiction, the Seventh Circuit should have considered itself bound to take the case. He chided the Federal Circuit for capitulating and finally making a ruling.

Stevens, joined by Blackmun, wrote a concurrence to note that the question of the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction should be decided at the time of appeal, given that the initial complaint can be extensively modified during the course of a case’s time in District Court. This is the goofiest jurisdiction case I’ve read yet, and I hope future ones will have the same kind of weird humor about them.

Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft v. Schlunk

486 U. S. 694

June 15, 1988

After an automobile accident, Herwig Schlunk wanted to sue the German company Volkswagen. He served their American subsidiary, on the understanding that the notice would be relayed back to the German parent corporation. Volkswagen said they should have been served in Germany, according to the dictates of the Hague Convention. Schlunk responded that this was not necessary if proper service could be effected by through the American subsidiary.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that service to the subsidiary was acceptable. O’Connor looked through the drafting history of the Hague Convention, and concluded that it intended to leave local laws about service still operating, with international service only being required if local laws failed to give adequate notice. According to American law, service on the German parent is considered legally effectuated when the American subsidiary is served, so there was no need for the Convention to come into play.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, dissented from much of the reasoning. They disputed that the Convention was meant to leave all local laws unchallenged, because this would often allow for ineffective service. Nonetheless, Brennan did agree that a wholly owned subsidiary was good enough that international service could be seen as completely unnecessary.

My strongest feeling about this case has nothing to do with any of the legal principles. Instead, my key takeaway is that Volkswagen’s parent company is ridiculously hard to spell.

Huffman v. Western Nuclear, Inc.

486 U. S. 663

June 15, 1988

The Atomic Energy Act required the Department of Energy to restrict enrichment of foreign Uranium “to the extent necessary to assure the maintenance of a viable domestic uranium industry.” By the mid-1980s, the Department of Energy determined that the domestic Uranium industry had last been viable in 1983, and that no possible restrictions could return it to viability. The Department thus refused to impose any restrictions at all. Domestic Uranium producers charged that the Department had no right to abandon all restrictions.

The Court unanimously ruled that the Department was in the clear. Blackmun emphasized that the Department had to follow a statutory command. If the Department truly felt that the domestic Uranium industry could never be made viable, then any restrictions imposed would still fail to meet the statutory standard. Thus, it was abandonment of duty to impose no restrictions at all. All in all, a very simple textualist ruling.

Johnson v. Mississippi

486 U. S. 578

June 13, 1988

When Samuel Johnson was sentenced to death, one of the aggravating circumstances was a prior felony conviction in New York. Some time later, New York vacated that conviction, and Johnson argued that the prior conviction aggravating circumstance was now destroyed. Mississippi disagreed for several reasons. Though it was now vacated, Johnson had indeed been convicted at one point in time, and allowing other states to throw death penalty sentences into question through overturned verdicts was bad public policy. Finally, Johnson had not challenged the New York conviction in his original round of Mississippi appeals.

The Court unanimously rejected all these arguments (though O’Connor concurred only in judgment, without opinion). Stevens said that New York’s action worked a total expunging¬† of the conviction. Thus, the death sentence was indeed based on an aggravating circumstance which was simply not factual. Further, allowing overturned verdicts in other states to affect death penalty impositions was good public policy, because it helped the system to become more accurate. Finally, because the Mississippi Supreme Court was not consistent in applying their rule against raising new legal concerns after the first round of appeals, Stevens was unimpressed by Mississippi’s contention that Johnson should have raised the issue in his original appeal.

I hardly need to tell you what Brennan said in a one paragraph concurrence joined by Marshall. But just in case you don’t know yet, he restated his continuing belief that the death penalty was always unconstitutional. White, joined by Rehnquist, concurred to point out that there were other aggravating circumstances against Johnson, and that the Mississippi Supreme Court could therefore decide, on remand, that his death penalty sentence ought to be summarily reimposed. I sure hope Mississippi did follow White’s recommendation, because this was yet another awful decision where a death sentence got overturned on dumb ticky-tacky grounds.

Michigan v. Chesternut

486 U. S. 567

June 13, 1988

One day in Detroit, a drug dealer saw a police car, and broke into a sprint. The police car followed him, and during the chase, the crook dropped drug packets. After his arrest, he claimed that the chase was an unlawful seizure of his person, because the police had no basis for suspecting criminal activity apart from his sprinting. The police responded that the bare act of following someone in a police car is not a Fourth Amendment seizure.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the police. Blackmun stated that the test for seizure is whether a reasonable person would feel they were free to leave. In the case at hand, the police issued no order to halt, did not turn on the car siren, and did not use the car to block the runner. Thus, Blackmun concluded that a seizure had not quite been committed, for a reasonable person could conclude that they were merely being monitored rather than completely stopped.

In a concurrence joined by Scalia, Kennedy noted that the Court had not decided if clear communication of an impending, but not yet effected seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. Shockingly, Brennan and Marshall did not dissent from the Court’s holding. I guess there has to be some limit to their pro-criminal obsession, but it’s always a shock to catch a glimpse of that limit.

Berkovitz v. United States

486 U. S. 531

June 13, 1988

A baby contracted polio after being given a faulty vaccine dose. His parents tried to sue the government for licensing the manufacturer, and for approving the lot with the faulty dose. The question was whether these government actions were amenable to suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The government argued that its actions were discretionary, and thus immune under the FTCA.

Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, interpreted the breadth of discretionary functions narrowly. Actions were only discretionary if there was a permissible exercise of policy judgment. The Berkovitz family charged that the government had not followed the plain text of several regulations when they licensed the vaccine manufacturer. Marshall agreed that the regulations imposed affirmative duties which were in no way discretionary. Turning to approval of the lot, Marshall found no regulations which imposed affirmative duties. Nonetheless, he said that liability could still be imposed if the government agency had standard internal policies which they did not follow, as the Berkovitz family charged. A remand was necessary to determine all this for sure.

As I’ve expressed before, I usually hate rulings that expand tort liability, but I hate governmental immunity even more, so I’m quite pleased with this ruling.

Van Cauwenberghe v. Biard

486 U. S. 517

June 13, 1988

Van Cauwenberghe (we’ll call him V.C. from now on) was a Belgium citizen who was extradited to America for a criminal trial. While in America for the trial, he was served with a closely related civil lawsuit. V.C. moved to dismiss the civil suit on the grounds of forum non conveniens, and on the grounds that criminal defendants present in America on extradition were immune from civil suits. The District Court ruled against these two grounds, and V.C. tried to appeal immediately, before the civil trial. The question was whether V.C. could appeal the jurisdictional issues prior to the completion of the District Court trial.

The Court ruled unanimously that early appeal was not possible. Marshall said that Court precedents allowed early appeal only if the issue was readily separable from all other issues in the trial, and only if review would be impossible after the full trial. With respect to immunity, Marshall held that the ultimate right sought by immunity was the right to not be subject to a binding final judgment, and not the right to have no trial at all. Thus, the immunity issue could still be reviewable after the full trial. With respect to forum non conveniens, Marshall said the determination was too intertwined with various other trial issues, and not readily separable at all. Poor V.C. was just going to have to go through his civil suit.

At a minimum, I wanted to see a dissent. The jurisdictional concerns raised by V.C. are not trivial, and I do think an alleged complete lack of jurisdiction is important enough for immediate appellate review. On both grounds, Marshall’s reasoning does not entirely satisfy. Reading this opinion leaves the unfortunate aftertaste of a foreigner being railroaded, √† la Amanda Knox.