On November 29, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Moore v. Texas. In 1980, Bobby James Moore was convicted of capital murder for the shooting of James McCarble, a seventy-year-old store clerk, in Houston, Texas. Moore was convicted and received a death sentence, which was affirmed on appeal. After a federal court granted habeas corpus relief, a new punishment hearing occurred in 2001, and Moore was again sentenced to the death penalty. His sentence was again affirmed on appeal. Moore sought state habeas relief and argued that, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia he was exempt from execution, because he was intellectually disabled. The state court granted habeas relief based on Moore’s Atkins argument, applying a definition of intellectual disability used by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas reversed the grant, noting that the Texas legislature had not yet passed Atkins legislation and that the AAIDD definition of intellectual disability diverged from that previously adopted by Texas courts in the wake of Atkins--a 1992 definition used by AAIDD’s predecessor the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), as well as the Texas Health and Safety Code. Moore, the Court of Criminal Appeals held, ultimately failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that he was intellectually disabled within the meaning of Atkins, as applied by Texas courts.
The question before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and the Court’s decisions in Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.
To discuss the case, we have Kent S. Scheidegger who is Legal Director and General Counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
On December 7, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corporation. Jevic Transportation, Inc., a trucking company headquartered in New Jersey, was purchased by a subsidiary of Sun Capital Partners in 2006. In 2008 Jevic filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, at which that point it owed about $73 million to various creditors. Jevic’s former truck drivers then sued it for violating federal and state Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Acts, by failing to provide the requisite 60 days’ notice before a layoff. Separately, unsecured creditors filed a fraudulent conveyance action. In March 2012, representatives of all the major parties met to negotiate a settlement of the fraudulent conveyance suit. The representatives--except for the drivers’ representative--agreed to a settlement that would provide for payment of legal and administrative fees, a schedule for the payment of various creditors (though not the drivers), and ultimately a “structured dismissal” of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The drivers and US Trustee objected, arguing that the settlement would improperly distribute estate property to creditors with lower priority than the drivers, in violation of the Bankruptcy Code. The Bankruptcy Court rejected these objections and approved the proposed settlement. The U.S. District Court and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that the Bankruptcy Court had not abused its discretion in approving a structured dismissal that did not adhere strictly to the Bankruptcy Code’s priority scheme.
The question now before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether a bankruptcy court may authorize the distribution of settlement proceeds in a manner that violates the statutory priority scheme.
To discuss the case, we have Thomas Plank, who is the Joel A. Katz Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law.
On November 2, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Venezuela v. Helmerich & Payne International. Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Company owns a subsidiary that, in 2007, contracted to provide Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation the use of Helmerich’s drilling rigs. When unpaid invoices to the state-owned company surpassed $100 million in 2009, Helmerich refused to renew the contract and prepared to remove its equipment. Employees of the Venezuelan corporation, along with the Venezuelan National Guard, blockaded the equipment yards, and then-President Hugo Chavez issued a Decree of Expropriation.
Helmerich sued in federal district court under the expropriation and commercial activity exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Venezuela moved to dismiss, and the district court granted the motion with respect to the expropriation claim but denied it with respect to the commercial activity claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, holding that because the expropriation claim was neither insubstantial nor frivolous, the district court should not have granted the motion to dismiss that claim--but should have dismissed the commercial activity claim because the subsidiary’s commercial activity had no “direct effect” in the United States.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether the pleading standard for alleging that a case falls within the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s expropriation exception is more demanding than the standard for pleading jurisdiction under the federal-question statute, which allows a jurisdictional dismissal only if the federal claim is wholly insubstantial and frivolous.
To discuss the case, we have Donald Earl “Trey” Childress III, who is Professor of Law at the Pepperdine University School of Law.
On December 5, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCrory v. Harris and Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. In these related cases, the Court considered redistricting plans introduced in North Carolina and Virginia after the 2010 census.
Plaintiffs in McCrory argued that North Carolina used the Voting Rights Act’s “Black Voting Age Population” requirements as a pretext to place more black voters in two particular U.S. House of Representatives districts in order to reduce black voters’ influence in other districts. The district court determined that the redistricting plan was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that violated the Equal Protection Clause because race was the predominant factor motivating the new plan.
Plaintiffs in Bethune-Hill each resided in one of twelve newly proposed majority-minority districts for the Virginia Legislature, created to satisfy Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires that any new districting plan must ensure that there be no “retrogression” in the ability of racial minorities to elect the candidate of their choice. They argued that the new districts constituted racial gerrymanders that violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that the plaintiffs did not establish that race was the predominant factor in the creation of 11 of the 12 challenged districts. The district court also held that, although race was the predominant factor in the creation of one district, the General Assembly was pursuing a narrowly tailored compelling state interest in creating it.
In McCrory, appellants contend the lower court decision against them erred in five critical ways: (1) presuming racial predominance from North Carolina's legitimate reliance on Supreme Court precedent; (2) applying a standard of review that required the State to demonstrate its construction of North Carolina Congressional District 1 was “actually necessary” under the VRA instead of simply showing it had “good reasons” to believe the district, as created, was needed to foreclose future vote dilution claims; (3) relieving plaintiffs of their burden to prove “race rather than politics” predominated with proof of a workable alternative plan; (4) clearly erroneous fact-finding; and (5) failing to dismiss plaintiffs' claims as being barred by claim preclusion or issue preclusion. Appellants further argue that, in the interests of judicial comity and federalism, the Supreme Court should order full briefing and oral argument to resolve the split between the court below and the North Carolina Supreme Court which reached the opposite result in a case raising identical claims.
The Bethune-Hill appellants also assert five errors by the lower court: (1) holding that race cannot predominate even where it is the most important consideration in drawing a given district unless the use of race results in “actual conflict” with traditional districting criteria; (2) concluding that the admitted use of a one-size-fits-all 55% black voting age population floor to draw twelve separate House of Delegates districts did not amount to racial predominance and trigger strict scrutiny; (3) disregarding the admitted use of race in drawing district lines in favor of examining circumstantial evidence regarding the contours of the districts; (4) holding that racial goals must negate all other districting criteria in order for race to predominate; and (5) concluding that the General Assembly's predominant use of race in drawing House District 75 was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.
To discuss the case, we have Jack Park, who is Of Counsel at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.
On November 28, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Beckles v. United States. Travis Beckles, who had previous felony convictions (mostly for drug possession and sales), was an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and was therefore convicted in district court and subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines after being found in possession of a firearm. Pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines, Beckles was eligible for a sentence range from 360 months to life imprisonment, and the court sentenced him to 360 months in prison, five months of supervised release, and a $5,000 fine. Beckles appealed and argued that the Sentencing Guidelines imposed an unreasonable sentence, that his prior convictions did not qualify as “violent felonies” subject to sentencing enhancement under ACCA, and that possession of a sawed-off shotgun was not a “crime of violence” subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction and sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s decision and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of Johnson v. United States, which determined that the residual clause of ACCA was unconstitutional. On remand, the appellate court again upheld Beckles’ conviction and sentence. The appellate court also held that the Johnson decision did not affect this case because Beckles was not sentenced under the residual clause of ACCA but rather under express language from the Sentencing Guidelines about sentencing enhancements for crimes of violence.
The three questions now before the Supreme Court are: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.
To discuss the case, we have Carissa Byrne Hessick, who is the Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland "Buck" Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.