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Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) self-incrimination in a capital punishment trial and (2) the statue of limitations for child custody petitions under the Hague Convention:

(1)  White v. Woodall [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-794]

  • Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?

(2) Lozano v. Alvarez  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-820]

  • Can a district court considering a petition under the Hague Convention for the return of an abducted child to the child’s home country toll the running of the one-year filing deadline when the abducting parent has concealed the whereabouts of the child from the other parent?

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) EPA rulemaking and (2) the Child Status Protection Act :

(1)  EPA v. EME Homer City Generation [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1182]

  • Did the EPA permissibly interpret the phrase “contribute significantly” when it balanced achievable emission reduction levels against the cost of achieving such emission reductions?
  • Can states wait for the EPA to adopt a rule quantifying each state’s “good neighbor” obligations before they adopt a state implementation plan prohibiting emissions that “contribute significantly” to other states’ pollution problems?

(2)  Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osoria [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-930]

  • Does the Child Status Protection Act grant relief to an alien who qualifies as a child derivative beneficiary at the time a visa petition is initially filed, but who reaches age 21 (“ages out”) when the visa becomes available to the principal beneficiary?

 

Dec 092013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) airline immunity under the Transportation Safety Act when an employee files a false report; and  (2) if a court’s decision is “final” when contractual attorney fees remain unresolved:

(1)  Air Wisconsin Airlines v. Hoeper  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-315]

  • Can a court deny an airline immunity under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act for a report made by its employees to the Transportation Security Administration about another employee, without first determining that the airline’s disclosure was materially false?

(2)   Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-992]

  • Can a district court’s decision that does not resolve a request for contractual attorney’s fees be a “final decision” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291?
Dec 042013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case about the rights of citizens of public roads cutting through military installations:

(1)  US v. Apel  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1038]

  • Can 18 U.S.C. § 1382, which prohibits a person from reentering a military installation after a commanding officer has ordered him not to reenter, be enforced on a portion of a military installation that is subject to a public roadway easement?

The other case scheduled for today, Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Garden Citizens in Action, Inc., settled.  You can nevertheless read our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/11-1507, and some thoughts on the settlement here. 

Mount_Holly-NJ-We-Buy-HousesI read pretty much the same panoply of “important” Supreme Court cases in law school as every other budding lawyer.  Then, like most, I went out into practice and gave little thought to the Supreme Court’s docket.  Sure, the LII Supreme Court Bulletin helped me stay knowledgeable about cases relevant to my practice, as well as the ones garnering national headlines; but, like most lawyers, I was too invested in solving my own clients’ problems to pay much attention to what the Supremes were up to on a daily basis.  In short, the “important” cases in my world were the ones clogging my email inbox and covering every horizontal surface of my office with stacks and stacks of paper.

So maybe I have a little different perspective on the Mount Holly case than those who have been focused on watching the Supreme Court for years and years.  Mount Holly recently settled, which is rather rare for cases awaiting Supreme Court oral argument.  Some see this is a bad thing—an undeveloped parcel in our legal system’s highest-rent neighborhood and a wasted opportunity to get clarity and uniformity in the application of an important statute.  And it may well be all that, but it’s also something else—an excellent outcome for the parties.

It is easy to think of the Supreme Court not so much as a body for deciding actual cases and controversies impacting real people, but as some sort of uber law teacher doling out lessons in Constitutional Law and statutory interpretation.  When we do that, we risk forgetting that Dred Scott was a living, breathing person.  So was Fred Korematsu.  And Oliver Brown.  Or maybe you would insert Norma Jean McCorvey or Dick Heller or Salim Hamdan.   Whatever the case, my point is the same: so much of the what the Court does addresses the very real problems of very real people notwithstanding the broader policy implications for the rest of us.

Which brings me back to the Mount Holly case, which court watchers will tell you was about answering the Question Presented:  “Are disparate impact claims cognizable under the Fair Housing Act?”  But it was also about (or, instead, really about) where the residents of the former Mt. Holly Gardens would live in the aftermath of a long and controversial effort to redevelop their neighborhood into a community where they could not possibly hope to buy or rent homes.

Why did it settle?  Certainly not because the interest groups aligned on either side of the issue suddenly became disinterested. In one of the few pieces discussing the details of the actual settlement (instead of its political or jurisprudential ramifications), MSNBC’s Adam Sherwer reports that the settlement was the result of a local election in which the township voted in pro-settlement councilmembers, who subsequently made good on their promise.  (Perhaps there is a civics lesson about checks-and-balances in here, too….)

Sherwer reports that, under the terms of the settlement, “the township will compensate the residents who want to leave and provide new homes for those who want to stay.”

It’s possible to overemphasize the parties, to be sure.  Many a lawyer who sat through Professor Charles Whitebread’s bar exam prep lecture remembers his mother’s thoughts on the passing of Ernesto Miranda. (He is the unnamed law professor at the start of this article from Philly.com, which recounts the punchline.)  And, as the Daily Writ points out, litigants often file “test cases” in federal district courts specifically in the hopes of making it all the way to the Supreme Court to test the legality of controversial laws.  But there will always be a herd of pundits and experts to focus on the broader implications and ramifications of each decision our Supreme Court renders.  In fact, we assiduously and carefully do it ourselves in each Bulletin because finality and uniformity are, by design, twin features that make the Supreme Court both unique and very, very important to our form of government.  Its rulings affect not only the litigants, but everyone who must now conform their behavior to the Court’s interpretation of what the law means.

But today, the day the parties were to argue Mount Holly, it seems appropriate to take a moment to look past the role of the Supreme Court as the last word in interpreting the law and to remember that, like all American courts, it hears real cases about real people with real problems.

Craig Newton is the Associate Director for Content Development at the Legal Information Institute and is a graduate of Cornell Law School.   Read his bio on our site or on LinkedIn.  Newton’s Law is a blog in which he shares his observations on the law’s connections to, well, everything.

Dec 032013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) preemption of state law tort claims under the Airline Deregulation Act and (2) standing to bring a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act:

(1)  Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-462]

  • Does the Airline Deregulation Act preempt a state claim for breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing concerning a frequent flyer program?

(2)   Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-873]

  • What is the appropriate framework to determine standing in a false advertising action under the Lanham Act?
Dec 022013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the role of federal courts in private arbitrations and (2) the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act:

(1)   BG Group, PLC v. Republic of Argentina  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-138]

  • Does an arbitrator or a court decide whether a precondition to arbitration has been satisfied?
  • To what extent can federal courts review such decisions?

(2)   Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-515]

  • Can a federal court exercise jurisdiction over a state suit alleging violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act where the gaming activity is not located on Indian lands?
  • Does tribal sovereign immunity bar a state from suing a tribe in federal court for violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act?
Nov 132013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) warrantless searches of shared dwellings and (2) the Labor-Management Relations Act:

(1)   Fernandez v. California [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-7822]

  • Can police obtain consent from a cotenant to search a dwelling after another cotenant who objected to the search is lawfully removed?

(2)   Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-99]

  • Does an agreement stipulating that an employer will remain neutral and give access to employee information in exchange for a union’s support of an employer-friendly ballot initiative, constitute a “thing of value” in violation § 302 of the Labor-Management Relations Act; or, must a thing of value be monetary for purposes of § 302?
Nov 122013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the knowledge required to convict a defendant of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm; (2) criminal liability and causation for drug-related deaths; and (3) retaliation against private contractors working for publicly held companies under Sarbanes-Oxley:

(1)   Rosemond v. US  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-895]

  • In order to convict a defendant of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence or a drug-trafficking crime, does the government need to prove that the defendant intentionally facilitated or encouraged the use of the firearm, or merely that the defendant knew that the principal used a firearm during the crime?

(2)   Burrage v. US [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-7515]

  • Can a defendant who sells drugs to someone who dies of an overdose be held criminally liable for that person’s death if the drug contributed to the victim’s death but was not the sole cause?

(3)   Lawson v. FMR, LLC  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-3]

  • Does the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, which forbids publicly traded companies, mutual funds, and contractors or subcontractors of such companies from discriminating or retaliating against an employee because of certain protected conduct, protect an employee of a privately-held contractor or subcontractor of a public company?

“At its most fundamental level, the problem is one of access to the sources of law on the African continent. Judges, legal professionals, civil society organizations and the general public have difficulties in accessing legal information. This is negatively impacting on the rule of law, access to justice, and economic development.” – Mariya Badeva-Bright, AfricanLII

bannerimg01AfricanLII is unusual.  Like the 22 other LII “namesakes” around the globe, it promotes open access to legal information. Unlike any of the others, it is not identified with a particular country or jurisdiction.  Instead, it supports the construction and operation of “national LIIs” in African countries.  Right now, it helps 8 African nations (Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe) make their law freely available to the public.  Next year, it will add two more.  And it is working with partners in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia to form networks of regional cooperation that will make each of the national organizations more resilient, more effective, and far more self-sufficient.

What’s our involvement?  The LII has worked on the problem of legal access in Africa since 1996, when we were instrumental in the founding of the Zambian LII, ZamLII. More recently, working with the Open Society Institute and the Canadian International Development Research Center and with LIIs in Africa, India, and Canada, we have identified the critical success factors that will allow others to do as we have done.  In turn, we’ve learned how to make legal information happen under conditions that we can barely imagine.  Sometimes the help has been at a more practical level  – a few months ago, Sara Frug and the LII’s engineering team helped AfricanLII move its hosting services to a more stable platform in the “cloud”, offering faster and more reliable service to African users of the service.  We can be — and often are — called into a strategy session at a moment’s notice, using Skype and collaborative document writing and editing to put us “just down the hall” from AfricanLII’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

Often, we’ve been called on to explain the practical advantages of open access to law.  In Africa, open access to law helps ensure basic human rights — and it also leads to stronger economies and better public administration.  As LII Director Tom Bruce remarks, “Public legal information does more than simply saying what the law is.  Knowing what the law is has incredible value if you are involved in a legal proceeding, of course.  But legal information also provides a showcase for official bodies, advertises opportunities for economic development, provides information about the stability and likely direction of the business climate, and encourages the formation of transnational communities of practice”.

Mariya says, “We have heard of places in Africa where lawyers base their arguments in court purely on personal conviction, rather than on the law.  Where there are LIIs, we begin to see that legal argument and the quality of justice are improving.”

We’re proud to help make that happen — and not so proud that we can’t learn from those in Africa that are making it happen every day.