Category Archives: justiciability

Bowen v. Massachusetts

487 U. S. 879

June 29, 1988

This case involved a dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Massachusetts about the HHS disallowing a reimbursement for Massachusetts health expenditures. Massachusetts wanted the claim heard in District Court, as ostensibly allowed by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). HHS contended that the APA did not allow suits against it in District Court for “money damages,” and that, in any case, Massachusetts had an adequate remedy through suing in Claims Court under the Tucker Act.

The Court ruled 6-3 that a District Court could have jurisdiction. Stevens said that the phrase “money damages” was a legal term of art referring to monetary compensation for other harm done. By contrast, seeking merely to gain an amount of money legally due was known as asking for “monetary compensation.” Stevens said that legislative history, as well as a lower court opinion by no less of an authority than Robert Bork, proved this distinction. Thus, Massachusetts could still ask for a money judgment against HHS in District Court. Stevens also found that the Claims Court would not offer an adequate remedy. Those courts did not provide equitable relief, such as the declaratory and injunctive relief Massachusetts was also seeking. Furthermore, there was reason to believe that the Medicaid administration questions involved in the case were really beyond the scope of the Claims Court’s wheelhouse.

White concurred in judgment. He cryptically noted that he agreed with all of the majority’s ultimate conclusions, except for its statement that Massachusetts could request monetary compensation in District Court. He said that they would have to settle for mere declaratory and injunctive relief. Scalia, joined by Rehnquist and Kennedy, dissented vigorously. He thought the majority’s distinction between “money damages” and “monetary relief” was total crap, and utterly unsupported by legal history. Almost any suit, he argued, to obtain money is a suit for “money damages.” Thus, the APA barred District Court jurisdiction. He also claimed that the majority’s reasons for holding that the Claims Court could not provide an adequate remedy were completely specious. The Claims Court was more than capable of taking the case and providing an adequate solution for Massachusetts.

Scalia made particular note that both of the case’s major holdings would effectively deprive the Claims Court of most of its docket, and cause a ream of other policy problems. He even predicted that lower courts would probably confine the ruling to its immediate facts, because trying to apply it would cause total chaos in the Claims Court. He closed with these words which I could not more heartily agree with: “Nothing is more wasteful than litigation about where to litigate, particularly when the options are all courts within the same legal system that will apply the same law. Today’s decision is a potential cornucopia of waste.”

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Torres v. Oakland Scavenger Co.

487 U. S. 312

June 24, 1988

Jose Torres was one of 16 people who was appealing a District Court ruling. Unfortunately, due to clerical error, his name was left off the list of people in the formal appeal. The Appeals Court refused to allow him to be part of the case, reasoning that without formal notice of appeal, it quite simply had no jurisdiction pertaining to him. Torres countered that the appeal rules were not meant to penalize minor errors and technicalities.

The Supreme Court left Torres high and dry in an 8-1 ruling. Marshall said that appeal rules should be interpreted liberally, but that this liberality could not be extended to instances where no jurisdiction existed. Without his name in the official appeal, a court could simply offer Torres no cognizance. Scalia, concurring in judgment, didn’t even like Marshall’s assertion that any spirit of liberality should animate application of the rules.

Brennan waged a lonely dissent. Rather than sum it up, I’ll quote the final paragraph. “After today’s ruling, appellees will be able to capitalize on mere clerical errors and secure the dismissal of unnamed appellants no matter how meritorious the appellant’s claims and no matter how obvious the appellant’s intention to seek appellate review, and courts of appeals will be powerless to correct even the most manifest of resulting injustices. The Court identifies no policy supporting, let alone requiring, this harsh rule, which I believe is patently inconsistent not only with the liberal spirit underlying the Federal Rules, but with Rule 2’s express authorization permitting courts of appeals to forgive noncompliance where good cause for such forgiveness is shown. Instead, the Court simply announces by fiat that the omission of a party’s name from a notice of appeal can never serve the function of notice, thereby converting what is in essence a factual question into an inflexible rule of convenience.”

All right, NOW I’m mad at the majority in Houston. If you’re going to be activist about jurisdiction, at least be consistent about it. Worse yet, Brennan makes a great case that pleading the case of Jose Torres wasn’t even activism, but just what the law demanded. I myself would have joined Brennan’s opinion. Torres got screwed over badly, and if a majority of the Justices were going to press the case of Houston, they should have pressed his case too.

Houston v. Lack

487 U. S. 266

June 24, 1988

A prisoner without a lawyer mailed off a Habeas appeal. Although he put it in the prison mail three days early, it arrived at the clerk’s office one day late. Under the Habeas jurisdiction statute, the 30 day filing deadline for an appeal was completely mandatory. In a desperate bid to save his appeal, the prisoner, Prentiss Houston, argued that the appeal should be considered filed when placed in the prison’s mail.

The Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 vote. Brennan said that the word “filed” was slightly ambiguous – just ambiguous enough to allow a new rule that placing an appeal in the prison mail system constituted filing. Brennan stressed that in non-prison contexts, the standard rule of the appeal needing to reach the clerk’s office still applied. This special rule was necessary because a prisoner without a lawyer has no way to take extra precautions, and has to trust everything to the prison mailbox.

Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Kennedy, dissented. He said what everyone really knew: that “filed” meant filed in the clerk’s office, and that Brennan’s plea of ambiguity fooled no one. He felt Brennan was especially going rogue in making “filed” have a different definition solely for the prison system. Scalia contended that the word ought to have just one meaning. He also rejected some additional arguments put forth by Houston that the majority did not address. His answer to all of them was essentially ‘rules are rules.’ Scalia noted that the Supreme Court itself had the power to change this particular rule, and should have done so rather than resort to an activist judicial ruling.

So, let’s be honest, this ruling was blatant activism. And yet, I’m finding it absolutely impossible to get angry at the majority. As Charles Dickens once wrote, here’s an instance where “the law is a ass.” Scalia’s dissent is obviously correct on the merits, but it’s really missing some empathy in its tone.

United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

487 U. S. 72

June 20, 1988

An abortion rights group sued the IRS to get the Roman Catholic Church’s tax exempt status revoked. It served a subpoena on the United States Catholic Conference, demanding evidence to be used in the suit. The Catholic Conference refused, and the court held them in contempt. The Conference challenged the contempt on the grounds that the court had no subject matter jurisdiction in the underlying suit. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a non-party witness could challenge a contempt ruling because of an alleged lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Court ruled 8-1 that such a challenge could be mounted. As Kennedy explained, subject matter jurisdiction was absolutely fundamental to all workings of any Article III court. Without such jurisdiction, any and all actions of the court were absolutely void. An old precedent about grand juries was easily distinguished, and concerns that challenges to jurisdiction might be abused were brushed aside as irrelevant. Anyone, even a non-party witness, was allowed to point out that the court had no legal grounds for being in session. Marshall dissented, and did the ‘read what the lower court judge said’ thing in lieu of explaining why.

The Court’s decision was obviously correct; elementary in fact. The underlying legal dispute though, is the very face of evil. Not content with murdering babies, the abortion rights group was trying to cripple the Catholic Church for daring to speak up in defense of those babies. If anyone wants to know why Donald Trump has pledged to overturn the horrific Johnson amendment on religious involvement in politics, this is the reason why.

Civil politics is an intrinsically spiritual domain. The nation who uses its laws to honor God and do good is blessed. The nation who uses its laws to dishonor God and do evil is cursed. It is Christian churches, above all other organizations, who ought to be involved in civil politics the most. No other group is so well equipped to discern when a legal policy is murderous and reprobate. Back in the late 1960s, when states first began legalization abortion for rape, incest, and birth defects, the Catholic Church stood almost alone in opposition. They alone perceived the beginning of a great genocide, and they alone raised the prophetic voice of alarm.

God will judge America one day for its legal system’s open embrace of sin. And God will also judge those who tried to cripple and silence the lonely voices in the wilderness who tried to fight back.

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.

Webster v. Doe

486 U. S. 592

June 15, 1988

The Director of the CIA fired an employee upon finding that his homosexuality was a danger to the agency. The employee charged that this both violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and a grab bag of Constitutional protections. The CIA argued that the statutes governing the CIA gave the director full, and unreviewable discretion to dismiss employees when he finds cause.

The Court ruled 8-0 that the firing could not be challenged on APA grounds, but held 6-2 that a Constitutional challenge could at least be entertained (Kennedy did not participate). Rehnquist said that for an APA challenge to firings, the laws and regulations relevant to the agency need to have some meaningful standards. The CIA, by its governing statutes and policies, really did seem to give the Director practically unreviewable discretion in personnel decisions. Rehnquist did not think the governing statute clearly preempted Constitutional challenges though. A remand would be necessary to get the record developed further on just what the exact Constitutional issues were.

O’Connor dissented from the Constitutional portion. She felt that the CIA’s business was too top secret for a Constitutional challenge to a firing to be appropriate. Scalia concurred in judgment on the APA portion, but he thought the majority set the bar too high in how few governing policies there needed to be before the Court would accept unreviewable agency discretion. He strongly dissented about the Constitutional portion. There was no statutory evidence that the Director’s unbounded discretion was to exclude Constitutional issues. Indeed, Scalia claimed the right to Constitutional challenges should not be lightly presumed. The decision could open Pandora’s box on a number of fronts – would it mean that the president could not dismiss a cabinet member because he disliked the cabinet member’s religion?

While I’m not too upset about the ruling, Scalia is definitely more tightly reasoned about the Constitutional issue. I also enjoyed a digression of his, where he debunked the notion that Constitutional safeguards are necessarily more important or sacred to a person than other safeguards. “A citizen would much rather have his statutory entitlement correctly acknowledged after a constitutionally inadequate hearing, than have it incorrectly denied after a proceeding that fulfills all the requirements of the Due Process Clause.” This is a great, and usually unappreciated point. The legal system does care about stupid procedures in the Bill of Rights far more than actual injustices.

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, à la Amanda Knox.

Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co.

486 U. S. 196

May 23, 1988

In May of 1984, a federal court in Colorado issued final judgment on everything but attorneys fees. The attorneys fees issue received final judgment in August. Following this, an appeal was lodged on the merits, but this appeal was dismissed because the time limit for appeal had started running in May, and had expired. The plaintiff then contended that, under a Colorado state law, the clock did not start running on appeals until the question of attorneys fees got settled, and that this state law should be applied by the federal court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled otherwise. Scalia said that prior cases had largely assumed that judgment was final and ripe for appeal prior to determination of attorneys fees. Since the fees are not a part of the underlying merits, it does not make sense to wait for them to be settled before starting the appeals clock. Furthermore, because uniformity and bright line rules are much to be desired in the realm of federal litigation, Scalia declined the suggestion that federal courts be forced to follow state laws defining when judgments become final. Scalia also brushed aside a last ditch contention that all this was a change in the rules which should be only applied prospectively, and not to the instant case.

This is one of those strange unanimous cases where you fully expect a Brennan/Marshall dissent, but it’s not there. Eventually, you get so used to them backing the ‘little guy,’ no matter what, that a case where it doesn’t happen seems downright shocking.

Goodyear Atomic Corp. v. Miller

486 U. S. 174

May 23, 1988

At a federal government owned nuclear power plant, an employee got injured due to an unsafe scaffolding that violated Ohio regulations. Although established preemption law exempted federally owned power plants from all state regulations, the employee wanted a worker’s compensation bonus that Ohio provided when the injury was directly caused by violation of a state regulation. The question was whether this bonus payment was preempted too.

The Court ruled 6-2 that this bonus was not preempted (Kennedy did not participate). Marshall first brushed aside a stupid justiciability challenge which questioned whether the lower court ruling was final. Turning to the merits, Marshall admitted that all state regulation whatsoever was preempted unless Congress gave “clear and unambiguous” blessing to extra state regulation. In this case, Congress did, in the form of a law that allowed all worker’s compensation schemes to continue unabated. Marshall stressed that different states had all kinds of zany and strange worker’s compensation rules at the time this law was passed. Ohio’s bonus for a workplace violating a regulation certainly qualified, even if the underlying safety regulation itself could not be imposed against the power plant.

White, joined by O’Connor, dissented. He saw the Ohio bonus rule as essentially a backdoor to the state imposing all its power plant regulations. He did not want the states doing indirectly what they could not do directly. Although there was the federal statute which allowed worker’s compensation schemes to operate on federal property, White did not think it unambiguously extended to weird rules like the Ohio bonus one. Far more illustrative of Congressional intent, he thought, was that body’s continuing reluctance to subject federally owned plants to direct state safety regulation.

Cases like this are the reason why being a Supreme Court Justice is hard. There’s really no one good answer here. Both Marshall and White have perfectly reasonable and defensible arguments. I’m at a loss to say which is more right, and which is more wrong.

Chick Kam Choo v. Exxon Corp.

486 U. S. 140

May 16, 1988

When a Singapore citizen was killed on a Exxon tanker, his wife filed a maritime case in a Federal District Court in Exxon’s home state of Texas. The District Court said that it was the improper forum because the case was far more connected to Singapore than America. The widow filed again in Texas state court, but Exxon got the District Court to issue an injunction against the state court considering the issue, due to the District Court’s previous improper forum ruling. The widow said that this injunction against the state court violated the Anti-Injunction Act.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court agreed. O’Connor said that the Anti-Injunction Act allowed injunctions to prevent issues resolved in federal courts from being re-litigated in state courts, but that this power should be narrowly construed. While the District Court ruled that the District Court itself was an improper forum, it did not specifically rule that Texas state courts were also improper forums (though, in a concurrence, Justice White said that the District Court certainly would have had the legal right to do so).  O’Connor pointed out that the District Court had resolved one legal claims that she was raising in the state court case. O’Connor did admit that the injunction was valid to the extent that it barred that specific legal claim from being re-litigated.

This was the right decision. If federal courts are going to start issuing injunctions against state court proceedings, they better have the most crystal clear of legal justifications for doing so.