Category Archives: statute interpretation

United States v. Taylor

487 U. S. 326

June 24, 1988

The Speedy Trial act requires trial within 70 days of indictment. The day before that time limit expired, the suspect ran away. When he was finally recaptured, the government wasted two months before it brought him to trial again. The District Judge found that the 70 day limit had expired, and also found that the “lackadaisical” attitude of the government after recapturing him was responsible for the great delay. The judge dismissed the case with prejudice. The question was whether the judge had abused her discretion in so doing.

The Court ruled 6-3 that she had abused her discretion. Blackmun said that the Speedy Trial act allowed for dismissal without prejudice, and that to dismiss with prejudice, a judge had to weigh several factors. Among those were the seriousness of the charges, and the degree to which the defendant was responsible for the delay. The judge barely addressed these factors, and concentrated only on the “lackadaisical” actions of the government, which she didn’t even explain all that well. Blackmun resorted to legislative history to show that the various different factors really did need to be considered. Scalia joined everything except the legislative history part. In his concurring opinion he sounded his old notes about the importance of sticking to clear statutory text.

White concurred to say that a delay initially caused by the suspect absconding should almost always be dismissed without prejudice. Stevens, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. Dismissing with prejudice was a judgment call where reasonable judges could differ, and Stevens found no grounds to conclude that the judge had abused her discretion. He noted that the judge gave the runaway a harsh 5 year sentence for absconding, which was intended to compensate for the lost opportunity to prosecute the underlying charge. Allowing the case to be brought again risked essentially punishing him twice for the same drug charge. Stevens also said that the government’s delays were far more egregious than the “lackadaisical” label would leave you to believe.

I might be with Stevens on this one. The judge should not have dismissed with prejudice, but it probably wasn’t an abuse of discretion.


Stewart Organization, Inc. v. Ricoh Corp.

487 U. S. 22

June 20, 1988

A contract dispute from Alabama went to federal court. The contract said that venue would be in New York, but Alabama had a state policy against putting binding venue selection in contracts. The question was whether Alabama’s federal court had to follow the state policy, or if it could consider it preempted by federal jurisdiction rules. The dispute centered on Section 1404(a). It said “For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought.”

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that 1404(a) governed the situation. Marshall identified the key issue as whether or not 1404(a) was meant to cover the general topic of forum selection clauses. He said it was, because forum selection clauses bear heavily on any possible transfers, and the interests of justice in ordering them. Marshall thought 1404(a) was a perfectly reasonable housekeeping rule, and allowed it to preempt any Alabama policies on the topic. He stressed that the federal courts would still weigh the equities of transfer – they would make neither state policies nor forum selection clauses dispositive, but would consider both along with other factors.

Kennedy, joined by O’Connor, concurred to say that federal courts should almost always follow venue selection clauses, unless there was a really strong reason not to. Scalia dissented. He felt the wording of 1404(a) was too vague to  conclude that it covered forum selection clauses, especially given that other federal jurisdiction rules covered arbitration clauses far more specifically. Scalia also felt that the majority’s interpretation was inconsistent with the policy goals of the Erie doctrine. It wouldn’t, he contented, stop forum shopping, and it could produce inequitable administration of the law.

I really hate lawyers who will fight to the death over every single stupid little jurisdictional thing. These meta-lawsuits – lawsuits about lawsuits – clog up way too much of the Supreme Court’s valuable time. After I read this case’s first sentence (“This case presents the issue whether a federal court sitting in diversity should apply state or federal law in adjudicating a motion to transfer a case to a venue provided in a contractual forum-selection clause.”) I actually said aloud “Oh, for crap’s sake.” The Court did, at least, make the right decision. When you agree to a venue selection clause in a contract, pacta sunt servanda should prevail.

Liljeberg v. Health Services Acquisition Corp.

486 U. S. 847

June 17, 1988

Judge Collins of Louisiana was determining who owned a hospital. While this case was going on, Loyola was looking to sell land to the hospital, though only if Liljeberg won the suit (as he eventually did). Judge Collins was on Loyola’s board of trustees, but he was unaware of all this at the time. When these weird connections came out afterward, the losing party moved to vacate the ruling of Judge Collins, on the ground that he violated a federal law about judges recusing themselves when they have a stake in the outcome. Collins argued that he didn’t know about the conflict of interest until afterward, so there was no harm.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed in a terrible 5-4 ruling. Stevens said that the federal law on disqualification was meant to protect citizens from even the appearance of impropriety on the part of judges. Thus, even if a judge did not know about a conflict of interest, they had a duty to recuse if they should have known. Based on his attendance at several trustee meetings, Collins clearly should have known, and at a minimum he should have personally tried to vacate his ruling the day it all came to his attention. Because the obliviousness of Judge Collins was so staggering, Stevens agreed with the lower court that the proper remedy was vacating the ruling entirely – something federal law only allowed in extreme cases.

Rehnquist, joined by White and Scalia, dissented from this nonsense. When a judge really wasn’t aware of any conflict of interest until afterward, there was no harm done. Furthermore, “[t]o hold that disqualification is required by reason of facts which the judge does not know, even though he should have known of them, is to posit a conundrum which is not decipherable by ordinary mortals.” Rehnquist was equally unimpressed by the monumental overreaction of ruling that this mistake was extreme enough to warrant vacating the ruling nearly a year after the fact. O’Connor said she agreed of most of Rehnquist’s points, but left open the possibility of a new trial if the lower courts really thought it was necessary.

I hate judges recusing themselves over stupid minutia like service on a board of trustees, or a tiny amount of stock owned in a broad portfolio. It can often lead to tie votes that waste everyone’s time and money – you’re pleasing an unreasonable jerk who will say that a Justice was just voting to protect their interest in three shares of stock, but at way too high a cost. At one point, Stevens sententiously intones that “people who have not served on the bench are often all too willing to indulge suspicions and doubts concerning the integrity of judges.” True enough, but we don’t have those doubts over specious crap like stock portfolios or trustee boards.

Let’s be blunt about it: 99% of the time, our “suspicions and doubts” are based on the judge’s political leanings and biases. If Stevens was being honest, he’d admit that the greatest appearances of partiality come when the judge apparently votes in line with his political preferences. How ironic that political leanings are the reason a judge is least likely to recuse himself to avoid the appearance of partiality! At any rate, when Justices like Brennan and Marshall are (completely by coincidence, I’m sure) voting for criminal defendants, unions, and racial minorities in nearly every case, it’s hard for me to take complaints about being on a board of trustees seriously.

This is the very first case of Kennedy being the swing vote and betraying the other conservatives. Sadly, it would not be the last case. In fact, this ruling contains some creepy prefiguring of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The majority worries about the judge’s appearance of impropriety more than the presence of actual impropriety. Four years later, a majority composed of largely the same Justices ruled that Roe must be reaffirmed, because whether or not it was incorrectly decided, public perception of the judiciary would be undermined by overruling it. In other words, appearance matters more than the actual facts and legal substance – truly a horrifying perversion of justice and legal priorities!

Mackey v. Lanier Collection Agency & Service, Inc.

486 U. S. 825

June 17, 1988

Creditors tried to obtain money by garnishing an ERISA employee welfare plan. A Georgia law banned garnishing ERISA plans, but this law was said to be pre-empted by ERISA itself. Additionally, the debtors argued that even without the Georgia law, the suits for garnishing were also pre-empted by ERISA. ERISA did openly say that state laws about ERISA were pre-empted, and it did prohibit any garnishment of employee pension plans, but it was murkier about employee welfare plans.

The Court unanimously ruled that the Georgia law was pre-empted, but split 5-4 about the garnishment. White said the Georgia law was flatly banned by the text of ERISA, and that was that. With respect to the garnishment question, White observed that the law did seem to tacitly assume in a few places that employee welfare plans might be sued. He also emphasized that the part of the law explicitly protecting pension plans from garnishment would be surplusage if all plans were meant to be implicitly protected from garnishment. Finally, White rejected the argument that Congress seemed to reject the possibility of welfare plan garnishment when they amended ERISA in 1984. He contended that the intent of the original drafters was what mattered, and not latter amending legislators.

Kennedy, joined by Blackmun, O’Connor, and Scalia, dissented. He argued that some of the law’s features that implicitly pointed to allowing garnishment suits were being wrongly construed. He stressed that garnishment was extremely disruptive to ERISA plans. ERISA pre-empted state laws relating to plans, and if garnishment was so disruptive, then Kennedy felt that state laws allowing the procedure qualified. While the text specifically exempting pension plans was mildly redundant, Kennedy said that the majority’s refusal to come to grips with the 1984 amendments constituted far worse violence against the statutory text. The intent behind the amendment could not be ignored or dismissed on the argument that only the original drafters were relevant.

I’m all in favor of debts being paid, but Kennedy really is right about the effect of the 1984 amendments. The majority’s treatment of that argument is clearly cavalier, and I’m surprised that White got five votes for it.

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.

K mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc.

486 U. S. 281

May 31, 1988

A few months after the jurisdiction battle, the Supreme Court was ready for the merits. Section 526 of a law said that foreign goods bearing US trademarks could not be imported without the trademark owner’s permission. Agency regulations provided exceptions to 526 when the same basic entity had common control of both the US trademark and the foreign manufacturer of the goods, and also when the trademark owner had authorized a foreign company to use its trademark. Several trademark owners charged that these regulatory exceptions violated the basic text of 526.

By two different 5-4 alignments, the Court ruled that the ‘common control’ exception was all right, but the ‘authorized use’ exception was not. Kennedy, who wrote the Court’s judgment, said the agency would be deferred to if the text of 526 was ambiguous (Rehnquist, White, Blackmun, O’Connor, and Scalia joined this). He found the text ambiguous with regard to the ‘common control’ issue (White joined this). But he felt that the ‘authorized use’ exception was plainly foreclosed by the statute’s plain language. As a final matter, the ‘authorized use’ exception was severable from the rest of the regulation (Rehnquist, Blackmun, O’Connor, and Scalia joined these two points).

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Stevens, provided the three final votes to maintain the ‘common control’ exception. Brennan provided a seemingly unending discourse into Congressional intent and the history of agency interpretation. Both of which, he contended, proved that ‘common control’ is appropriately understood as a valid exception from 526’s general rule. In a section joined by White, he argued that the possibility of ‘authorized use’ would have been so unthinkable to 526’s original drafters that it did no harm to the statute to recognize it as another exception, even if the plain text seemed to suggest differently.

Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, Blackmun, and O’Connor, found both regulatory exceptions inconsistent with the statute. Scalia charged that the textual statutory ambiguity with respect to the ‘common control’ exception really wasn’t there. Worse yet, he argued, the agency itself interpreted the exception far more narrowly than the Court majority did in their process of finding ambiguity. Scalia also responded to Brennan’s approval of the ‘authorized use’ exception. He found it not quite so unthinkable to the original drafters as Brennan did.

These cases are precisely the kind that cause me to abandon this project for months at a time: ones that are long, not easily distilled, highly technical, and incredibly boring. I really don’t give a rip about foreign products with US trademarks, and I feel sorry for the nine Justices that they were forced to care about the issue for several months in 1988.

FERC v. Martin Exploration Management Co.

486 U. S. 204

May 31, 1988

A 1978 law provided a timetable by which different types of natural gas would transition from having a price ceiling to having no price ceiling (i.e. being deregulated). If there was any ambiguity about where certain gas fell on the timetable, it would be treated in the way “which could result in the highest price.” As it turned out, deregulated gas ended up selling for considerably less than regulated gas in the market. Thus, many gas providers contended that the regulated price ceiling classification was the one “which could result in the highest price.”

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed (White did not participate). Brennan said it was a simple textual case. The gas that theoretically could have the highest price of all was the deregulated gas, and not the gas with price ceilings. That market conditions currently deemed deregulated gas less expensive did not matter. Congress did not intend, Brennan showed, for market conditions to be inquired into in the course of classifying gas. Gas producers also argued that a regulatory agency had abused its authority in putting forth certain rules defining how gas would be classified. To the contrary, said Brennan, the agency had perfect statutory authority to do so, even if they had no affirmatively imposed obligation to do so. All in all, a good textualist ruling.

McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co.

486 U. S. 128

May 16, 1988

A labor law had a statute of limitations of 2 years in most cases, but 3 years in cases of “willful” violations. A labor dispute at a shoe company ended up turning on which limitation applied. Many lower courts had held that a violation was “willful” if the employee knew that that labor law was “in the picture.” The shoe company charged that this definition was way overbroad.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Court agreed. Stevens said that the “in the picture” standard could probably make almost any violation “willful.” In a recent case about a different law, “willful” had been defined as knowing that your conduct is illegal, or showing reckless disregard for that possibility. That, Stevens said, was an appropriate definition. He dismissed an alternative definition which would make “willful” any action taken despite knowledge of an appreciable possibility of illegality. That definition, said Stevens, could render a violation based on a good faith misinterpretation “willful.”

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blackmun, thought the ‘appreciable possibility’ definition was totally appropriate. The definition that the majority adopted might have worked fine for the law it was originally crafted for, but textual differences between that law and the labor law at issue counseled against adopting the same definition so readily. Sorry Marshall, but I’m not convinced. The majority’s narrow definition is good, and I’m glad it was adopted.

EEOC v. Commercial Office Products Co.

486 U. S. 107

May 16, 1988

After a discriminatory event, you have 300 days to file with the EEOC, provided that you first file with a state agency, and 60 days pass after that filing (unless the state agency terminates proceedings first). Suanne Leerssen filed with a Colorado agency 290 days after the alleged discriminatory event. The Colorado agency waived the 60 day waiting period to let the EEOC step in immediately. The company alleged to have discriminated against Leerssen said that the Colorado agency had not “terminated” its proceedings, and that the law dis not permit waiver of the 60 day period. Thus, since 290 plus 60 goes way past 300, the EEOC could not investigate the claim.

The Court ruled 5-3 that Leerssen’s complaint was within the EEOC’s 300 day limit (Kennedy did not participate). Marshall said that the word “terminate” was ambiguous, and that a waiver could certainly qualify as a termination. He thought it would be silly to make the 300 day limit effectively a 240 day limit, especially when the law wanted the EEOC and state agencies to work together, and allocate cases efficiently. Waivers, though not specifically provided for in the law, were a good means of helping this cooperation. Finally, Marshall was unimpressed that Leerssen’s filing was not timely under Colorado law (which had a 180 day limit). The EEOC, he said, need not care about state deadlines when figuring out its own 300 day deadline.

O’Connor joined much of Marshall’s opinion, but based her concurrence in judgment solely on the fact that the EEOC interpreted the waiver as valid. Had the EEOC not recognized the waiver, she would have deferred to that interpretation too. Stevens, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. He contended that a waiver was not a “termination” simply as a matter of plain language. I’m not sure I agree though. I’d probably go with Marshall on this one – his opinion is certainly far closer to the spirit of the law.

Department of Justice v. Julian

486 U. S. 1

May 16, 1988

For federal crimes, a pre-sentence report is prepared after conviction for the benefit of the judge, prison staff, and parole board. The convicted person is allowed an opportunity to read the report prior to sentencing, and prior to a parole evaluation, but is otherwise not given access to it. Two prisoners eventually tried to obtain their pre-sentence reports under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).

The Court ruled 5-3 that FOIA gave the prisoners the right to get copies of the reports (Kennedy did not participate). In the majority opinion, Rehnquist showed that two exceptions to FOIA did not apply. Documents which were statutorily protected from disclosure could not be obtained under FOIA, but this exception did not apply because prisoners did indeed have two legal opportunities to read the reports. Another FOIA exception barred disclosure if the documents would ordinarily protected from discovery during a legal case. While third parties are ordinarily banned from getting access to pre-sentence reports, Rehnquist said this exception did not apply either, because the prisoner himself is given a legal right of access.

Scalia, joined by White and O’Connor, dissented for two reasons. First, the statues tacitly implied that the subjects of pre-sentence reports were never allowed to retain copies of it. Thus, because permanent access was indeed prohibited, the first FOIA exception most certainly applied. Second, previous FOIA cases made plain that FOIA disclosure should never turn on the identity of the requesting party. Thus, because third parties could not get pre-sentence reports, the second exception applied as well. Scalia definitely had the better opinion of the two, though he himself wondered whether there was any good policy reason to ban prisoners from having a personal copy of the report.