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SCOTUS News, April 7th, 2017: McLane and Dean

No argument sessions for SCOTUS this week. On Monday they released their latest orders, as well as two decisions, in McLane v. EEOC and Dean v. US.

Summary Judgment

The guiding principles set down last week in Moore v. Texas also concern Henderson v. Davis and Martinez v. Davis. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded these two cases back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in light of their decision in Moore.

Similarly, The Court vacated and remanded Rowell v. Pettijohn in light of last week’s decision in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman.

Certiorari Granted

Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC concerns the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a very old but rarely invoked law. The law allows lawsuits by non-U.S. citizens for violations of international law. In the Jesner case, petitioners argue that a New York-based bank played a role in financing terrorism. Prior precedent is muddy. The Justices will determine the extent of corporate liability under the ATS.

– In Ayestas v. Davis, petitioner argues he received ineffective assistance of counsel. In this case, petitioner Ayestas asked for funds to hire a specialist to investigate his case. He asked for these funds because he felt his lawyers had provided inadequate investigative help. This case turns on language concerning the grant of these funds. The services a defendant seeks must be “reasonably necessary” for his proper representation. SCOTUS will decide whether Ayestas’ circumstances qualify for these funds after all.

McLane v. EEOC

McLane v. EEOC ostensibly concerns the relevance of pedigree information during an employment discrimination case for Damiana Ochoa, a McLane employee. Ochoa failed a mandatory strength test after returning to work from maternity leave. The case got to the Supreme Court, however, because of the standards used to evaluate whether to enforce or dismiss EEOC subpoenas. The district court in the original case refused to enforce the subpoena in part. That court ruled that the EEOC’s desire to collect so-called “pedigree information” about McLane’s other employees was not necessary. The EEOC argued that they needed to know how many McLane employees failed the strength test. The EEOC then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

In their review, the Ninth Circuit panel noted that other Circuit Courts usually use abuse-of-discretion review in cases like these. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit on those grounds. SCOTUS holds that the decision to enforce or quash a subpoena must be based on abuse-of-discretion. All other Circuit Courts apply the abuse-of-discretion standard, as opposed to the de novo strategy the Ninth Circuit used. The Supreme Court also ordered the Ninth Circuit to consider McLane’s arguments on how burdensome the EEOC subpoena may be. In addition, the Supreme Court emphasized that district court discretion is important in cases like these. District courts have a lot of experience with EEOC investigations. This experience should not be discounted so readily on appeal.

Dean v. United States

Dean v. US concerns sentencing guidelines for firearm possession during violent crimes. Dean committed two armed robberies. During each robbery, he used a semiautomatic weapon. The US Code prescribes a minimum five year sentence for a first offense of this kind. For a second offense, the minimum is twenty-five years. This means that Dean would serve a minimum of thirty years in prison for his offenses. Dean committed other crimes as well, in a multi-count case. Because of his youth and other circumstances of the case, Dean’s counsel asked for a more lenient sentence for his other offenses. A district court judge agreed. In addition to the thirty-year sentence, the judge handed down small sentences for Dean’s other crimes. The sentences must be consecutive, but the law does not establish clear lengths the other sentences must be.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit overturned these sentences. The Eighth Circuit ruled that each sentence had to be considered individually, despite the thirty-year minimum. SCOTUS disagrees, siding with the district court and with Dean. Dean convinced the judge to reduce his sentence in the original case. For SCOTUS, compassion is a factor in sentence reduction, but in addition, the letter of the law is clear. Or rather, unclear. Both the original district judge, and SCOTUS, find that the sentencing guidelines for firearm use in felonies do not restrict a judge’s discretion. Judges decide sentences for crimes not covered by the mandatory minimum guidelines in whatever manner they deem appropriate. Under the law, there is no rule that prevents a judge from sentencing a defendant to a one-day consecutive sentence after they serve their minimum sentence (in this case, thirty years). The Eighth Circuit argued about congressional intent. The Justices point out that, “Congress has shown that it knows how to direct sentencing practices in express terms”. And when to leave the decision-making to judges.

The Crowd and the Algorithm

Easy week for the FantasySCOTUS Crowd and the {Marshall}+ Algorithm. The Crowd was dead-on in both McLane and Dean.

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McLane v. EEOC

Justice Ginsburg’s brief partial dissent in McLane is a blip on the radar that neither the Crowd nor the Algorithm can be blamed for missing. She concurred with the abuse-of-discretion standard, but wrote that the district court erred in its assessment of the EEOC’s relevance claim.

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Dean v. United States

The Algorithm had trouble with Thomas and Alito in the Dean case, but the Crowd also had smaller margins there. (And {Marshall}+ put Kennedy firmly on the 50-50 line). Thomas and Alito both have track records that generally do not favor criminal defendants. But they, like their colleagues, show zealous attention to the specific wording of the laws under the microscope. And Justices, regardless of their usual proclivities, rarely ascribe congressional intent to vague statutes.