On October 31, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. Varsity Brands, Inc. designs and manufactures clothing and accessories for use in various athletic activities, including cheerleading. Design concepts for the clothing incorporate many elements but do not consider the functionality of the final clothing. Varsity received copyright registration for the two-dimensional artwork of the designs at issue in this case, which were very similar to ones that Star Athletica, LLC was advertising. Varsity sued Star and alleged, among other claims, that Star violated the Copyright Act. Star countered that Varsity had made fraudulent representations to the Copyright Office. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Star argued that Varsity did not have valid copyrights because the designs were for “useful articles” and cannot be separated from the uniforms themselves, all of which tends to make an article ineligible for copyright. Varsity argued that the copyrights were valid and had been infringed. The district court granted summary judgment for Star and held that the designs were integral to the functionality of the uniform. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, however, and held that the uniforms Varsity designed were copyrightable.
The question now before the U.S. Supreme Court asks what the appropriate test is to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under section 101 of the Copyright Act.
To discuss the case, we have Zvi Rosen, who is an adjunct professor at New York Law School.
On October 11, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Bosse v. Oklahoma. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Booth v. Maryland that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing jury in a death penalty case from considering victim impact evidence that does not directly relate to the circumstances of the crime. Four years later in Payne v. Tennessee, the Supreme Court clarified that the ban only applied to certain kinds of victim impact testimony.
Shaun Michael Bosse was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty and, over Bosse’s objection, asked three of the victims’ family members to recommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended the death penalty, and the jury sentenced Bosse to death. Bosse appealed, arguing that the testimony violated the Eighth Amendment under Booth. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth’s ban as it related to characterizations of the defendant and opinions about the sentence.
By a vote of 8-0, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and remanded the case. The Supreme Court held in a per curiam opinion that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals erred in concluding that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. Supreme Court decisions remain binding precedent until reconsidered, the Court explained--even when subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Alito joined.
To discuss the case, we have Erin Sheley, who is Assistant Professor, University of Calgary Faculty of Law.
On November 7, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in National Labor Relations Board v. SW General, Inc. SW General, Inc. provides ambulance services to hospitals in Arizona. A union had negotiated “longevity pay” for SW General’s emergency medical technicians, nurses, and firefighters. In December 2012, between the expiration of one collective bargaining agreement and the negotiation of a new one, SW General stopped paying the longevity pay. The union filed an unfair labor practices claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which issued a formal complaint. An administrative law judge determined that SW General had committed unfair labor practices, but SW General contended that the NLRB complaint was invalid because the Acting General Counsel of the NLRB at the time, Lafe Solomon, had been serving in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA). President Barack Obama had nominated Solomon--who had then been serving as Acting General Counsel after the General Counsel had resigned--to serve as General Counsel, but the Senate had not acted on the nomination. The president had ultimately withdrawn the nomination and replaced it with that of Richard Griffin, who was confirmed. In the intervening period--including when the NLRB complaint had issued against SW General--Solomon had continued to serve as Acting General Counsel. SW General argued that under the FVRA, Solomon became ineligible to hold the Acting position once nominated by the president to the General Counsel position. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed, and vacated the NLRB’s enforcement order. The NLRB then obtained a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court.
The question now before the Supreme Court is whether the FVRA precondition in 5 U.S.C. 3345(b)(1), on service in an acting capacity by a person nominated by the President to fill the office on a permanent basis, which requires that a person who is nominated to fill a vacant office subject to the FVRA may not perform the office’s functions and duties in an acting capacity unless the person served as first assistant to the vacant office for at least 90 days in the year preceding the vacancy, applies only to first assistants who take office under subsection (a)(1) of 5 U.S.C. 3345, or whether it also limits acting service by officials like Solomon, who assume acting responsibilities under subsections (a)(2) and (a)(3).
To discuss the case, we have Kristin Hickman, who is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Harlan Albert Rogers Professor of Law, and Associate Director, Corporate Institute at the University of Minnesota Law School.
On November 9, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Lynch v. Morales-Santana. Morales-Santana’s father was born in Puerto Rico but acquired U.S. citizenship in 1917 under the Jones Act of Puerto Rico. Morales-Santana was born in 1962 in the Dominican Republic to his father and Dominican mother, who were unmarried at the time. In 1970, upon his parents’ marriage, he was statutorily “legitimated” and was admitted to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident in 1976.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which was in effect at the time of Morales-Santana’s birth, limits the ability of an unwed citizen father to confer citizenship on his child born abroad, where the child’s mother is not a citizen at the time of the child’s birth, more stringently than it limits the ability of a similarly situated unwed citizen mother to do the same.
In 2000, Morales-Santana was placed in removal proceedings after having been convicted of various felonies. An immigration judge denied his application for withholding of removal on the basis of derivative citizenship obtained through his father. He filed a motion to reopen in 2010, based on a violation of equal protection and newly obtained evidence relating to his father, but the Board of Immigration Appeals denied the motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the Board’s decision, however, and concluded that Morales-Santana was a citizen as of birth. The Attorney General of the United States then obtained a grant of certiorari from the Supreme Court.
The two questions now before the Supreme Court are: (1) whether Congress’s decision to impose a different physical-presence requirement on unwed citizen mothers of foreign-born children than on other citizen parents of foreign-born children violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in conferring U.S. citizenship on respondent, in the absence of any express statutory authority to do so.
To discuss the case, we have Elina Treyger, who is Assistant Professor of Law at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.
On November 1, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. v. U.S. ex rel. Rigsby. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. (State Farm) administered separate wind and flood damage policies in the Gulf Coast area at the time of Hurricane Katrina. In general, State Farm was responsible for paying wind damage from its own assets, while federal funds would pay for flood damage. The Rigsby sisters were State Farm claims adjusters who allegedly discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that, with respect to properties covered under both wind and flood policies, State Farm was unlawfully classifying wind damage as flood damage in order to offload the cost of payment onto the federal government. Rigsby sued on behalf of the United States under the provisions of the federal False Claims Act (FCA), and continued to litigate the case after the United States declined to intervene. The district court focused discovery and trial on a single bellwether claim, and the jury found an FCA violation and awarded damages.
Both sides appealed, with the Rigsbys (classified under the FCA as “relators”) seeking additional discovery to uncover and pursue other similar FCA violations by State Farm--and State Farm arguing, among other things, that the case should be dismissed because the Rigsbys’ counsel had violated the FCA’s seal requirement, by disclosing the existence of the FCA lawsuit to various news outlets. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit acknowledged the seal violation but concluded after applying a multi-factor test that the breach did not warrant dismissal here.
The question now before the Supreme Court is what standard governs the decision whether to dismiss a relator's claim for violation of the False Claims Act's seal requirement, an issue on which the federal circuit courts of appeals have split three ways.
To discuss the case, we have Cory Andrews, who is senior litigation counsel at the Washington Legal Foundation.