Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Committees of the U. S. House of Representatives issued subpoenas seeking information about the finances of President Trump, his children, and affiliated businesses. The subpoenas were issued to financial institutions and the President’s personal accounting firm. The President in his personal capacity, his children, and affiliated businesses argued that the subpoenas lacked a legitimate legislative purpose and violated the separation of powers. The President did not argue that any of the requested records were protected by executive privilege.The Supreme Court vacated decisions by the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit and remanded. The courts below did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information. A congressional subpoena is valid only if it is “related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress” and serves a “valid legislative purpose.” Congress may not issue a subpoena for the purpose of “law enforcement,” because that power is assigned to the Executive and the Judiciary.While executive privilege protections should not be transplanted to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, a limitless subpoena power could transform the established practice of the political branches and allow Congress to aggrandize itself at the President’s expense. The subpoenas at issue represent not a run-of-the-mill legislative effort but rather a clash between rival branches of government over records of intense political interest. Separation of powers concerns are no less palpable because the subpoenas were issued to third parties.A balanced approach is necessary to address those concerns. Courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President’s information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs in light of its particular legislative objective. Courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective and should be attentive to the nature of the evidence that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. Courts should assess the burdens imposed on the President and incentives to use subpoenas for institutional advantage. Other considerations may also be pertinent. View "Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP" on Justia Law

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The New York County District Attorney’s Office served a subpoena duces tecum on the personal accounting firm of President Trump, seeking financial records relating to the President and his businesses. The President, acting in his personal capacity, sought to enjoin enforcement of the subpoena.The Second Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of injunctive relief. Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude or require a heightened standard for the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President. The Court examined precedent concerning federal subpoenas, from Aaron Burr’s motion for a subpoena directed at President Jefferson, through Monroe, Clinton, and Nixon, and concluded that, with respect to the state subpoena, the President’s “generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.”The Court rejected an argument that a state grand jury subpoena for a sitting President’s personal records must meet a heightened standard of need because of the possibility of diversion, stigma, and harassment. The President conceded that the criminal investigations are permitted under Article II and the Supremacy Clause; the receipt of a subpoena does not categorically magnify the harm to the President’s reputation and grand jury secrecy rules aim to prevent the stigma the President anticipates.Although a President cannot be treated as an “ordinary individual” when executive communications are sought, with regard to private papers, a President stands in “nearly the same situation with any other individual.” Absent a need to protect the Executive, the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence. A President may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen, including the right to challenge the subpoena on grounds permitted by state law, such as bad faith and undue burden or breadth. A President can raise subpoena-specific constitutional challenges in either a state or a federal forum and can challenge the subpoena as an attempt to influence the performance of his official duties, in violation of the Supremacy Clause. View "Trump v. Vance" on Justia Law

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The Major Crimes Act (MCA) provides that, within “the Indian country,” “[a]ny Indian who commits” certain enumerated offenses “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of [those] offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” 18 U.S.C. 1153(a). “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.” McGirt was convicted by an Oklahoma state court of sexual offenses. He unsuccessfully argued in state postconviction proceedings that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation and his crimes took place on the Creek Reservation.The Supreme Court held that McGirt was entitled to a federal trial. For MCA purposes, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country.” An 1856 Treaty promised that “no portion” of Creek lands “would ever be embraced or included within, or annexed to, any Territory or State,” 11 Stat. 700, and that the Creeks would have the “unrestricted right of self-government,” with “full jurisdiction” over enrolled Tribe members. Once a federal reservation is established, only Congress can diminish or disestablish it. Congress did not end the Creek Reservation during the “allotment era,” when Congress sought to pressure many tribes to abandon their communal lifestyles and parcel their lands into smaller lots owned by individual tribal members. Other limitations on the promised right to self-governance, including abolishing the Creeks’ tribal courts and requiring Presidential approval for certain tribal ordinances fell short of eliminating all tribal interest in the contested lands. Many of Oklahoma’s arguments rest “on state prosecutorial practices that defy the MCA, rather than on the law’s plain terms.” Acknowledging the potential consequences of its ruling, such as unsettling convictions and frustrating the state’s ability to prosecute future crimes, the Court stated that Oklahoma and its tribes have proven that they can work successfully together and Congress remains free to supplement its statutory directions about the lands. View "McGirt v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) requires covered employers to provide women with “preventive care and screenings” without cost-sharing requirements and relies on Preventive Care Guidelines “supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration” (HRSA) to define “preventive care and screenings,” 42 U.S.C. 300gg–13(a)(4). Those Guidelines mandate that health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods. When the Federal Departments incorporated the Guidelines, they gave HRSA the discretion to exempt religious employers from providing contraceptive coverage. Later, the Departments promulgated a rule accommodating qualifying religious organizations, allowing them to opt out of coverage by self-certifying that they met certain criteria to their health insurance issuer, which would then exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without any cost-sharing requirements.In its 2014 “Hobby Lobby” decision, the Supreme Court held that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened the free exercise of closely-held corporations with sincerely held religious objections. In a later decision, the Court remanded challenges to the self-certification accommodation so that the parties could develop an approach that would accommodate employers’ concerns while providing women full and equal coverage.The Departments then promulgated interim final rules. One significantly expanded the church exemption to include an employer that objects, based on its sincerely held religious beliefs, to coverage or payments for contraceptive services. Another created an exemption for employers with sincerely held moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage. The Third Circuit affirmed a preliminary nationwide injunction against the implementation of the rules.The Supreme Court reversed. The Departments had the authority under the ACA to promulgate the exemptions. Section 300gg–13(a)(4) states that group health plans must provide preventive care and screenings “as provided for” in comprehensive guidelines, granting HRSA sweeping authority to define that preventive care and to create exemptions from its Guidelines. Concerns that the exemptions thwart Congress’ intent by making it significantly harder for women to obtain seamless access to contraception without cost-sharing cannot justify supplanting that plain meaning. “It is clear ... that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The rules promulgating the exemptions are free from procedural defects. View "Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Two teachers at Roman Catholic elementary schools were employed under agreements that set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. Each taught religion and worshipped with her students, prayed with her students. Each teacher sued after her employment was terminated. One claimed violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the other claimed she was discharged because she requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. The Ninth Circuit declined to apply the Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees.The Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose the adjudication of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. Several factors may be important in determining whether a particular position falls within the ministerial exception. What matters is what an employee does. Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith lie are the core of a private religious school’s mission. The plaintiff-teachers qualify for the exception; both performed vital religious duties, educating their students in the Catholic faith, and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” but their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion is important. The Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the Hosanna-Tabor decision as a checklist; that court invested undue significance in the facts that these teachers did not have clerical titles and that they had less formal religious schooling than the Hosanna-Tabor teacher. The Court rejected a suggestion that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a “practicing” member of the religion with which the employer is associated. View "Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru" on Justia Law

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits almost all robocalls to cell phones, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). A 2015 amendment created an exception that allows robocalls made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States, 129 Stat. 588. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government-debt exception was a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand strict scrutiny and was severable from the robocall restriction.The Supreme Court affirmed. Under the Free Speech Clause, the government generally has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. Content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny. The government-debt exception is content-based because it favors speech made for the purpose of collecting government debt over political and other speech. The exception does not draw distinctions based on speakers, and even if it did, that would not automatically render the distinction content-neutral. The exception focuses on whether the caller is speaking about a particular topic and not simply on whether the caller is engaged in a particular economic activity. While the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech, this law does not simply have an effect on speech, but is directed at certain content and is aimed at particular speakers. The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like. View "Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc." on Justia Law

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When Americans cast ballots for presidential candidates, their votes actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each state appoints based on the popular returns. With limited exceptions, states appoint a slate of electors selected by the political party whose candidate has won the state’s popular vote. Most states compel electors to pledge to support that party's nominee and remove a “faithless elector” from his position; a few impose a monetary fine on any elector who flouts his pledge.Three Washington electors violated their pledges to support Hillary Clinton in 2016 and were fined $1,000 apiece. The Electors challenged their fines, arguing that the Constitution gives members of the Electoral College the right to vote however they please. The Washington Supreme Court rejected their claims.The Supreme Court affirmed. A state may enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President. Article II, Section 1 gives the states the authority to appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” The power to appoint an elector includes the power to condition his appointment, including requiring that electors pledge to cast their Electoral College ballots for the party’s presidential nominee. States can demand that an elector actually live up to that pledge, on pain of penalty.Nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits states from taking away presidential electors’ voting discretion. Article II’s use of the term “electors” and the Twelfth Amendment’s requirement that the electors “vote,” “by ballot,” do not establish that electors must have discretion. From the first elections under the Constitution, states sent electors to the College to vote for pre-selected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. The electors rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role. Ratified at the start of the 19th century, the Twelfth Amendment acknowledged and facilitated the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting. View "Chiafalo v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Court held that states may impose a sanction on "faithless electors" who pledge to vote for the nominee of their political party in the presidential election and fail to do so. The Court cited its contemporaneous opinion, Chiafalo v. Washington. View "Colorado Dept. of State v. Baca" on Justia Law

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A generic name—the name of a class of products or services—is ineligible for federal trademark registration. Booking.com, a travel-reservation website, sought federal registration of marks including the term “Booking.com.” Concluding that “Booking.com” was a generic name for online hotel-reservation services, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) refused registration. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court decision that “Booking.com”—unlike the term “booking” standing alone—is not generic.The Supreme Court affirmed. A term styled “generic.com” is a generic name for a class of goods or services only if the term has that meaning to consumers. Whether a compound term is generic turns on whether that term, taken as a whole, signifies to consumers a class of goods or services. Consumers do not perceive the term “Booking.com” that way. Only one entity can occupy a particular Internet domain name at a time, so a “generic.com” term could convey to consumers an association with a particular website. An unyielding legal rule disregarding consumer perception would be incompatible with a bedrock principle of the Lanham Act. The PTO’s policy concerns do not support a categorical rule against the registration of “generic.com” terms. Several doctrines ensure that registration of “Booking.com” would not yield its holder a monopoly on the term “booking.” View "Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V." on Justia Law

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Montana grants tax credits to those who donate to organizations that award scholarships for private school tuition. To reconcile the program with the Montana Constitution, which bars government aid to any school “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination,” the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated “Rule 1,” which prohibited families from using the scholarships at religious schools. Parents sued, alleging that the Rule discriminated on the basis of religion. The Montana Supreme Court held that the program, unmodified by Rule 1, aided religious schools in violation of the Montana Constitution’s no-aid provision and that the violation required invalidating the entire program.The Supreme Court remanded. The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution. Disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character” imposes “a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny. Montana’s no-aid provision does not zero in on any essentially religious course of instruction but bars aid to a religious school “simply because of what it is.” The protections of the Free Exercise Clause do not depend on a case-by-case analysis. To satisfy strict scrutiny, government action must advance interests of the highest order and must be narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests. Montana’s interest in creating a greater separation of church and state than the U.S. Constitution requires cannot qualify as compelling. The Montana Supreme Court was obligated to disregard the no-aid provision and decide this case consistent with the Federal Constitution. View "Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue" on Justia Law