WASHINGTON – The following is a summary of cases the U.S. Supreme Court will hear for the week of April 14-18, 2008:
Case: Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle
Argument Date: Monday, April 14
Law in Question: Title 28 of the United States Code as it relates to judicial jurisdiction
Concern: Can Native Americans sue non-Native Americans in Tribal Courts?
Impact: A ruling in this case will help to settle an otherwise unanswered question from past court decisions as they relate to the unique existence of Native Americans and the laws they live by. The issue here is when a dispute arises between a Native American and a non-tribal business.
Question Presented: Whether Indian tribal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate civil tort claims as an other means of regulating the conduct of a nonmember bank owning fee-land on a reservation that entered into a private commercial agreement with a member-owned corporation?
Background: The Sioux tribe in north-central South Dakota are the predominate but not unitary fixture in this rugged landscape. Within the reservation's boundaries one can find a healthy amount of non-tribe residences and businesses. While Sioux courts have jurisdiction over the territory there is a conflict over the extent to which non-tribal members can be sued in these courts. This case presents a somewhat complicated history of contracts and lawsuits involving a non-tribal bank and a Sioux family.
The question presented to the court in this case focuses on a claim of discrimination by the Long family against the bank. The tribal family claims they were subjected to predatory and discriminatory practices by the non-tribal bank. The bank responds by saying they can not be subject to the rulings of tribal courts because doing so would improperly allow for "non-members doing business with tribal members [to] be swept into tribal courts as defendants, triggering all of the unknowns this entails."
Case: Bridge v. Phoenix Bond & Indemnity
Argument Date: Monday, April 14
Law in Question: Title 18 of the United States Code as it relates to racketeering a.k.a. RICO
Concern: Can a RICO charge be made even if there is no harm shown by the alleged illegal actions? Also does it matter, when it comes to to the mail fraud claim, who is the last responsible party for sending out the mail in question?
Impact: RICO has been a favorite of federal prosecutors going after mob figures. This case doesn't offer that aspect of the law. Rather it focuses on the conduct of private businesses engaged in a specific activity proscribed under Illinois law. Beyond that, it isn't clear what impact this case will have on future business disputes in other fields.
Question Presented: "Whether reliance is a required element of a RICO claim predicated on mail fraud and, if it is, whether that reliance must be by the plaintiff."
Background: There is a rather lengthy and, as it turns out, competitive process by which Chicago area property-owners can lose their land if they don't pay their property taxes. This case stems from a complaint between companies that compete for the right to make money off of these delinquent taxpayers. The process mandates that these entities preserve the integrity of the bidding system by not colluding with each other to draw a competitive advantage. Phoenix Bond claims some of its competitors are doing just that and as such, violating federal racketeering laws. Those competitors say there is nothing improper going on and that even if there was Phoenix Bond can't show injury has been caused. Lower courts have been divided on the issue.
Case: Greenlaw v. United States
Argument Date: Tuesday, April 15
Law in Question: Title 18 of the U.S. Code as it relates to sentencing guidelines
Concern: Can an appeals court increase a convict's sentence even though it wasn't asked to do so?
Impact: This case like the other sentencing cases the Court has heard this Term has a negligible impact on regular law-abiding folks.
Question Presented: "Whether a federal court of appeals may increase a criminal defendants sentence sua sponte and in the absence of a cross-appeal by the Government."
Background: This is the "be careful what you ask for" case in front of the court. Michael Greenlaw will spend a huge chunk of his life behind bars no matter how the court rules. The convicted drug dealer was sentenced to more than 36 years in the pokey. Greenlaw felt that was too much time and asked the appeals court to review his sentence. The government originally pushed for a sentence that was nearly 20 years longer than what the trial judge imposed. While not pleased with the sentence, the government did not seek its own appeal for a longer sentence. The appellate judge however tossed aside Greenlaw's claims and without prompting from the government increased the sentence to more than 55 years. He has appealed once again to the Supreme Court, hoping to overturn the longer sentence. Greenlaw argues the legal precedents of appellate review do not allow for an increased sentence in this case. Interestingly, the government agrees but wants to make sure the original sentence of 36 years holds and isn't subject to downward revision by another court.
Case: Irizarry v. United States
Argument Date: Tuesday, April 15
Law in Question: Title 18 of the U.S. Code and the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984
Concern: What notice is required by sentencing judges before handing down a sentence that is an upward departure from established guidelines?
Impact: The due process concern centers around the ability of newly-convicted criminals from making a case when a judge — without advance notice — hands down a sentence that goes beyond the proscribed standards. Presumably this could apply to all criminal sentences but such upward departures are not the norm which makes this case somewhat unique and not likely to have a great impact.
Question Presented: Whether Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(h), and the holding in Burns v. United States, 501 U.S. 129 (1991) requiring a court to provide reasonable notice to the parties that it is contemplating a departure from the applicable sentencing guideline range on a ground not identified for departure either in the presentence report or in a party's prehearing submission, has any continuing application in light of United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).
Background: Richard Irizarry was convicted of sending threatening e-mail messages to his former wife. The sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 41-51 months. But during the course of the trial it became well established that Irizarry suffers from a bunch of different mental illnesses.
"He became convinced that [his wife] had hacked the computer systems of the Ku Klux Klan, that she was sending him threatening letters, and that she was physically abusing the children by whipping them, forcing them to sleep outside, and ripping out their toenails with pliers."
The sentencing judge concluded that Irizarry's threat to his wife — and society at large — was such that a longer sentence was needed. The judge sentenced him to 60 months behind bars with an additional three years of supervised release. Irizarry's lawyers argue the judge's action was improper because it was done without an opportunity for the defense to present a case against the extended sentence. The 11th Circuit concluded the judge's reasoning for upward departure was justified and that no error had occurred.
Case: Kennedy v. Louisiana
Argument Date: Wednesday, April 16
Law in Question: Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment
Concern: Can Louisiana execute people convicted of child rape?
Impact: This is a life or death decision on Michael Kennedy. More broadly, a ruling against Kennedy could give cause to other states to pass similar legislation.
Questions Presented: 1. Whether the Eighth Amendments Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause permits a state to punish the crime of rape of a child with the death penalty. 2. If so, whether Louisiana's capital rape statute violates the Eighth Amendment insofar as it fails genuinely to narrow the class of such offenders eligible for the death penalty.
Background: Patrick Kennedy was convicted of the 1998 rape of his eight-year-old step-daughter. Three years earlier the Louisiana Legislature passed a law making child rapists eligible for the death penalty. Kennedy was the first person convicted under this law. Three decades earlier the Supreme Court determined the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment for rape convictions.
But the Legislature and the Louisiana Supreme Court see that precedent as referring only to adult victims. The state defends the law by arguing that "[c]hildren are a class of people who need special protection as they are immature and not capable of defending themselves. Rape of a child under 12 is a crime like no other."
It has been more than 40 years since anyone in this country has been executed for rape. A handful of states have laws providing for capital punishment in rape cases and certain other crimes even though no one was killed.
Kennedy and another Louisiana man also convicted under this law are the only two men in the country on death row for non-homicidal crimes. His lawyers argue the punishment for their client is cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. They further contend the court's past rulings are consistent with their argument "that capital punishment is categorically impermissible for person-on-person violence that does not result in death, and in which the offender does not attempt or intend to kill or display reckless indifference toward human life. The Louisiana Supreme Court had no warrant in this case to retreat from that well-settled rule."
Case: Taylor v. Sturgell
Argument Date: Wednesday, April 16
Law in Question: Fifth Amendment and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Concern: Can federal courts prevent cases from going forward if they closely resemble other litigation?
Impact: It is a fascinating if obscure legal reasoning that essentially says if your case is too similar to another one your case cannot proceed. The Court will have to consider the due process concerns and the "virtual representation" construction of the DC Circuit.
Question Presented: Can a party be precluded from bringing a claim, under a theory of virtual representation, and thereby denied the due process right to a day in court, when the party had no legal relationship with any party to the previous litigation and did not receive notice of that litigation?
Background: Brent Taylor is the executive director of the Antique Aircraft Association (AAA) and in 2002 he submitted a FOIA request with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about the 1930s vintage airplane known as the Fairchild F-45. After various delays and appeals the FAA denied the request citing the need to protect trade secrets of the aircraft.
Taylor eventually moved his case to the courts where a judge dismissed his suit because it was similar if not identical to another lawsuit filed by a fellow AAA member. The judge ruled Taylor held "virtual representation" in the outcome of the other case and therefore dismissed his suit.
That other suit resulted in an affirmation of the FAA's ruling. Taylor argues the construct of "virtual representation" is a violation of his due process rights.