On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Bernard v. Minnesota, which was consolidated with Birchfield v. North Dakota andBeylund v. Levi.
In Bernard, William Robert Bernard, Jr., admitted he had been drinking, but he denied driving his truck and refused to perform a field sobriety test. He was arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired and taken to the police station, where he refused to consent to a chemical test in violation of Minnesota state law. Bernard was charged with two counts of first-degree test refusal pursuant to state law. In Birchfield, Danny Birchfield was arrested after failing field sobriety tests after he had driven his vehicle into a ditch, but he refused to consent to a chemical test, resulting in a misdemeanor charge. He moved to dismiss the charge and claimed that the state law in question violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. In Beylund, Steve Beylund consented to a blood alcohol to test to confirm he was driving under the influence, but only after being informed it was a criminal offense to refuse a blood alcohol test in North Dakota. The test confirmed he was over the legal limit, and Beylund was charged with driving under the influence.
The men in these cases challenged state statutes criminalizing refusal to submit to a chemical test, arguing among other things that the statutes violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Minnesota and the Supreme Court of North Dakota rejected their respective challenges. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court in these consolidated cases is whether, in the absence of a warrant, a state may make it a crime for a person to refuse to take a chemical test to detect the presence of alcohol in the person’s blood.
To discuss the case, we have Jonathan Ellis, who is an Associate at Latham & Watkins.
On May 19, 2016, the Supreme Court decided CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC. In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a sexual harassment suit against CRST Van Expedited (CRST) on behalf of approximately 270 female employees. When a number failed to appear for depositions, however, the district court barred the EEOC from pursuing their claims as a discovery sanction. The remaining claims were dismissed on various other grounds, including 67 claims that the district court dismissed for failure of the EEOC to separately investigate, find reasonable cause for, or attempt to conciliate them. In addition, the court awarded CRST some $4.46 million in attorney’s fees and expenses, on the basis that the claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all but two claims, vacated the award of fees and costs, and remanded the case. On remand, one of the remaining claims was withdrawn and the other settled. CRST renewed its petition for fees, costs, and expenses, and the district court again awarded it approximately $4.6 million.
On a second appeal, the Eighth Circuit again reversed the award, finding that claims which had been dismissed for the EEOC’s failure to meet presuit obligations could not serve as grounds for a fees award, and remanding for an individualized determination as to whether other claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted CRST’s subsequent petition for certiorari, vacating the judgment of the Eighth Circuit and remanding the case by a vote of 8-0. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a unanimous Court held that a favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate to find that a defendant is a prevailing party for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees award. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Kenton J. Skarin, who is an Associate at Jones Day.
On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Simmons v. Himmelreich. This case arose out of lawsuits filed by federal prisoner Walter Himmelreich after he was assaulted by a fellow prisoner. Himmelreich’s initial lawsuit, filed against the United States, was ultimately dismissed pursuant to an exception under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for certain discretionary actions by prison officials. While that suit was still pending, however, Himmelreich filed a second suit: a constitutional tort action against individual Bureau of Prisons employees. When Himmelreich’s initial suit was dismissed, these employee defendants argued that his action against them was foreclosed by the FTCA’s “judgment bar” provision, under which a judgment in an FTCA suit forecloses any future suit against individual employees. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employees. On appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the judgment bar provision did not apply to Himmelreich’s suit. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari to resolve a Circuit split on whether the judgment bar provision applies to suits that, like Himmelreich’s, are dismissed as falling within an “exception” to the FTCA.
By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case. Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, holding that the FTCA’s judgment bar provision does not apply to claims dismissed because they fall within an FTCA "exception."
To discuss the case, we have Aaron Nielson, who is Associate Professor of Law at Brigham Young University Law School.
On June 9, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Williams v. Pennsylvania. Terrance Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed Williams’ conviction and sentence, and his initial attempts to obtain state postconviction relief failed. His subsequent petition for federal habeas relief also failed. He again sought post-conviction penalty-related relief in state court and prevailed in the Court of Common Pleas on a claim of unlawful evidence suppression. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the grant of relief and lifted the stay of execution (though a temporary reprieve was later granted by the governor for other reasons). The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, who had joined the opinion reversing the grant of relief to Williams, had also been the District Attorney for Philadelphia during Williams’ trial, sentencing, and appeal. In that capacity, Castille had authorized his office to seek the death penalty for Williams. Williams had moved to have Chief Justice Castille recuse himself from hearing the appeal of post-conviction relief, but Castille declined to do so.
The central question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether Justice Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and remanded the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that under the Due Process Clause, where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Cassandra Burke Robertson, who is Professor of Law, Laura B. Chisolm Distinguished Research Scholar, and Director, Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
On May 23, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Wittman v. Personhuballah. In 2012, the Virginia State Legislature adopted a redistricting plan that altered the composition of the Third Congressional District by increasing the percentage of African-American voters in the district. In 2013, a number of Third District residents sued state election officials, arguing that the District was racially gerrymandered in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A three-judge district court agreed and held the redistricting plan to be unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that judgment and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its intervening decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. On remand, the district court again held that the redistricting plan was unconstitutional and ordered the Virginia General Assembly to devise a remedial plan. When the Assembly did not do so the court devised its own remedial plan and ordered election officials to implement it.
Ten Members of Congress from Virginia, intervenors in the District Court below, appealed its rejection of the 2012 plan to the Supreme Court, alleging various errors in the District Court’s reasoning. By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Breyer indicated that the intervenors lacked standing to pursue their appeal.
To discuss the case, we have Derek Muller, who is Associate Professor of Law at Pepperdine University School of Law.