Order List

December 15, 2003 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!

Lots of news today, so I'll get right to it. First, the Court granted cert in 3 cases and asked for the views of the SG in a fourth:

1. Dept of Transportation v. Public Citizen (03-358): This is a case for all the environmental lawyers out there: Did a presidential foreign affairs action that is otherwise exempt from environmental review requirements under NEPA and the Clean Air Act become subject to those requirements because the executive agency promulgated administrative rules concerning implementation of president's action?

2. Cheney v. US District Court for the District of Columbia (03-475): While Cheney is celebrating the capture of Saddam, he can also celebrate the Court's grant of his cert petition in the case challenging the activities of his energy task force. The Court will consider 2 questions: (1) Can the Federal Advisory Committee Act be construed, consistent with the Constitution, principles of separation of powers, and this court's decisions governing judicial review of executive branch actions, to authorize broad discovery of process by which vice president and other senior advisors gathered information to advise president on important national policy matters, based soely on unsupported allegation in complaint that advisory group was not constituted as president expressly directed and advisory group itself reported? (2) Did court of appeals have mandamus or appellate jurisdiction to review district court's unprecedented discovery orders?

3. F. Hoffman-La Roche Ltd. v. Empagran SA (03-724): This looks to be an interesting antitrust case: May plaintiffs pursue Sherman Act claims seeking recovery for injuries sustained in transactions occurring entirely outside US commerce?

4. Bates v. Dow Agrosciences LLC (03-388): The Court asked the SG to weigh in on this case, so he will opine on which, if any, state law crop injury claims are preempted by FIFRA.

In addition to these cert actions, the Court issued 2 opinions. First, the Court issued a unanimous opinion, by the Chief, in Maryland v. Pringle (02-809). In this case, Maryland police stopped a car for speeding, searched the car (with permission), and recovered drugs. All three occupants denied ownership of the drugs, and all three were arrested. Pringle later admitted that the drugs were his, but attempted to suppress that confession as fruit of an illegal arrest. Today, the Court rejected that argument, finding that Pringle's arrest was fully proper. In this case, there was no question that the police had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed -- they had recovered illegal drugs -- so the only question was whether the police had probable cause to believe that Pringle committed that crime. The Chief spends a few pages emphasizing that "probable cause" is an inherently fact-intensive, case-by-case judgment, and then concludes that there was probable cause here. He begins his "analysis" by summarizing the relevant facts: Pringle was one of 3 people in a car in the middle of the night; the police found a wad of rolled-up cash in the glove compartment; the drugs were accessible to all occupants of the car; and all 3 occupants failed to offer any information about ownership of the drugs. With this foundation, the Chief concludes: "We think it an entirely reasonable inference from these facts that any or all three of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine. Thus a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe Pringle committed the crime of possession of cocaine, either solely or jointly." This, my faithful readers, is the entire analytical portion of the opinion. Gotta love the Chief! He concludes the opinion by distinguishing 2 cases that Pringle cited.

In the second case, the Court established a bright line rule for district judges to apply when deciding whether to "recharacterize" a pro se litigant's motion as a habeas petition. Castro v. United States (02-6683). As a matter of longstanding practice, district judges will sometimes recharacterize a pro se litigant's motion as a Section 2255 (habeas) petition even though the litigant has captioned his motion differently. This practice can have serious consequences because federal law imposes severe restrictions on "subsequent" or "successive" petitions. Because of these restrictions, the Court holds today that a district court may not recharacterize a motion as a habeas petition unless the court informs the litigant of its intent to recharacterize, warns the litigant that recharacterization will subject subsequent habeas petitions to the "second or successive" restrictions, and provides the litigant with the opportunity to amend or withdraw his motion. This core holding of the case is evident from the first paragraph of Breyer's opinion (joined in full by everyone but Scalia and Thomas who only joined in part). The rest of the opinion adds some meat to this holding (although not much meat) and resolves a jurisdictional question (does federal law even allow the Supreme Court to consider this case). Scalia (joined by Thomas), concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, primarily because he thinks recharacterization is a bad thing. We have an adversarial system after all.

That's all for tonight, and most likely for the rest of 2003. Have a Happy Holiday Season, and Best Wishes for the New Year!


From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin & Dana.
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