Supreme Court Update: Shapiro v. McManus (14-990) and Order List

December 11, 2015 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!

While most of the Courtward attention this week was focused on oral arguments in Evenwel v. Abbott (14-940) and Fisher v. UT Austin (14-981), concerning "one person one vote" and affirmative action in college admissions, respectively, the Nine also found time to release another unanimous decision. This time it was Shapiro v. McManus (14-990), which concerned the authority of a single district judge to take action in a case challenging the apportionment of congressional districts.

Since 1976, federal law has required that a "district court of three judges shall be convened" in any action "challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts." 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a). Unless the single judge initially presented with a request for a three-judge court "determines that three judges are not required," she must "immediately notify the chief judge of the circuit, who shall designate two other judges" to serve on the panel. § 2284(b)(1). Petitioners in such cases enjoy the right to appeal decisions of these three-judge panels directly to the Supreme Court, providing for prompt review of voting-rights questions, which are often weighty and time-sensitive. In this case, a group of pro se plaintiffs challenged Maryland's "crazy-quilt" redistricting plan, alleging that it violated their First Amendment rights to political association. They requested a three-judge panel, but the initial district judge who received the complaint concluded that it failed to state a claim and dismissed it under Rule 12(b)(6). The Fourth Circuit summarily affirmed.

The Supreme Court swiftly reversed, in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia. "Section 2284(a)'s prescription could not be clearer," Scalia wrote: When an action challenges the constitutionality of a redistricting plan, the district judge must refer the case to a three-judge panel. Although the statute provides that the initial district judge shall commence the process for appointment of a three-judge panel "unless he determines that three judges are not required," that clause is "an administrative detail," not "a grant of discretion to the district judge to ignore §2284(a)." Any other interpretation would run counter to § 2284(b)(3), which expressly prohibits a single judge from "enter[ing] judgment on the merits." Scalia also rejected Maryland's alternative argument, that the initial judge had authority to dismiss the case as "constitutionally insubstantial" under Goosby v. Osser (1973). There's a difference between raising a "substantial federal question" for jurisdictional purposes—the issue in Goosby—and determining that a plaintiff fails to state a claim for relief on the merits, as the district judge held in this case. Here, the petitioners' claim was based on Justice Kennedy's concurrence in Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004). Whether or not that theory is ultimately meritorious, it "easily clears Goosby's low bar" for jurisdictional purposes. In the absence of frivolity, the district judge was obligated to submit the case to a three-judge panel. Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to be reheard by a three-judge panel in the proper course.

On the orders front, the biggest news this week was the Court's decision not to grant cert in Friedman v. City of Highland Park (15-133), a pediatrician's Second Amendment challenge to a Chicago suburb's ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. This is just the latest in a long run of Second Amendment challenges the court has rebuffed since holding in 2010 that the Second Amendment right of individuals to keep and bear arms applies to state and local governments. Dissenting from denial, Justice Thomas (joined by Scalia) lamented the Court's repeated refusal to take up challenges to the lower courts' "noncompliance with our Second Amendment precedents."

Though the Court won't be hearing Dr. Friedman's Second Amendment challenge, it did add four new cases to fill out its calendar:

Birchfield v. North Dakota (14-1468), Bernard v. Minnesota (14-1470), and Beylund v. North Dakota (14-1506) (consolidated), which ask whether, in the absence of a warrant, a State may make it a crime for a person to refuse a blood alcohol test;

Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes (15-290), which asks whether the United States Corps of Army Engineers' determination that a property contains "waters of the United States" protected by the Clean Water Act constitutes "final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in court," and is therefore subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act;

Sheriff v. Gillie (15-338), which asks: (1) whether lawyers appointed by a State Attorney General to collect debts owed to the State are state "officers" within the meaning of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and (2) whether it is materially misleading under the FDCPA for such lawyers to use Attorney General letterhead to convey that they are collecting debts owed to the State on behalf of the Attorney General; and

Ross v. Shaidon (15-339), which asks whether the Fourth Circuit erred in finding a common-law "special circumstances" exception to the Prison Litigation Reform Act's requirement that inmates exhaust administrative remedies, when the inmate erroneously believes he has satisfied the exhaustion requirement by participating in an internal investigation.

That'll do it for this week. You may now start the weekend.