Supreme Court Update: Wood v. Milyard (10-9995), Astrue v. Capato (11-159) and Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. (10-1472)

May 29, 2012 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

This Update will clear out one backlogged case: Wood v. Milyard (10-9995), an important read for habeas procedure junkies, and two of the Court's five decisions last week: Astrue v. Capato (11-159), holding that children conceived via in vitro fertilization after the death of their biological father do not qualify for Social Security survivors' benefits; and Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. (10-1472), holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1920's provision allowing prevailing parties to recover costs for "interpreters" does not extend to translators of written documents.

Wood v. Milyard (No. 10-9995) addressed two questions: (1) Whether courts of appeal have the right to raise sua sponte a habeas timeliness defense not raised by the State, and if so, (2) Whether they can do so even when the State "intelligently chooses not to rely on it?" The answers: Yes and No. We'll skip the facts since they aren't important to the merits. Suffice it to say that Wood filed a federal habeas petition as to which there was a serious question about timeliness. The District Court initially dismissed the petition sua sponte as untimely. However, it later vacated its dismissal and instructed the State to file a pre-answer response addressing timeliness, among other things. The State responded by identifying the critical issue relevant to timeliness. But instead of requesting a ruling on that issue, the State said it did not concede, but would "not challenge" the timeliness of Wood's petition. The District Court ruled in the State's favor on other grounds and Wood appealed. The Tenth Circuit sua sponte required the parties to brief the timeliness issue and affirmed the District Court's ruling on the alternative basis that the petition was untimely. The Tenth Circuit's decision created a circuit split over whether courts of appeal can sua sponte raise timeliness issues, which the Court granted cert to resolve.

Justice Ginsburg penned the Court's decision. As she explained, the general rule in our adversary system is that a timeliness defense that is not raised in an answer is forfeited, and an issue not raised in the trial court is off the table on appeal. But, of course, rules are made for exceptions. In Granberry v. Greer (1987), the Court found just such an exception for an exhaustion defense that the State inadvertently failed to raise in the district court, because exhaustion is a doctrine rooted in concerns beyond the parties – most importantly, comity between the state and federal courts. The Court extended Granberry's logic to a district court's sua sponte raising of a timeliness defense in Day v. McDonough (2006), concluding that policy considerations, such as finality of judgments, judicial economy, and comity, place the one year time limit imposed by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in the same category as exhaustion. Day, however, emphasized that district courts cannot raise a timeliness defense that was intentionally omitted. Turning to the case at hand, the Court quickly reasoned that the policy reasons for allowing district courts to raise timeliness defenses sua sponte apply equally to appellate courts. Therefore, appellate courts have the authority, but not the duty, to raise this issue. This authority should be reserved for exceptional cases, however. Here, the State knowingly waived any timeliness defense to Wood's habeas petition. Under these circumstances, it was an abuse of discretion for the Tenth Circuit to resurrect it.

Justice Thomas, joined by Scalia, concurred in the judgment only. In their view, Day was wrongly decided. When the State failed to raise the timeliness defense in the district court, it waived the defense and neither the district court, nor court of appeals, had the authority to raise it sua sponte.

In Astrue v. Capato (11-159), shortly after Robert and Karen Capato were married, Robert was diagnosed with cancer. The couple was able to conceive one child naturally, but Robert also deposited his semen in a sperm bank before undergoing chemotherapy. After Robert's death, Karen began in vitro fertilization, carrying out the couple's desire for their first child to have a sibling. Eighteen months after Robert's death, Karen gave birth to twins. Karen applied for Social Security survivors' benefits for the twins, but the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied the application. Under the SSA's reading of the Social Security Act, the twins could qualify for benefits only if they could inherit from Robert under state intestacy law. The SSA determined that the twins did not qualify, because Robert had died domiciled in Florida, where a posthumously born child may inherit through intestate succession only if conceived during the decedent's lifetime. The District Court agreed with the SSA, but the Third Circuit reversed.

Led by Justice Ginsburg (again), a unanimous Court reversed, upholding the SSA's reading of the statute. Section 402(d) of the Social Security Act provides that "[e]very child (as defined in section 416(e) of this title)" of a deceased insured individual "shall be entitled to a child's insurance benefit." Section 416(e), in turn, states in relevant part that the term "‘child' means (1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual." A subsequent section, 416(h), further provides in relevant part: "In determining whether an applicant is the child or parent of [an] insured individual for purposes of this subchapter, the Commissioner of Social Security shall apply [the intestacy law of the insured individual's domiciliary State]." Capato's case turned on whether § 416(e) or § 416(h) supplied the controlling definition of "child." Capato argued, and the Third Circuit agreed, that whenever the claimant is "the biological child of a married couple," there is no need to look beyond § 416(e): that child is a "child" for the purposes of the statute.

The Court found this reasoning to be flawed. First, nothing in § 416(e) indicated that the term "child" referred only to biological children, or to children of married parents. Moreover, it was "far from obvious" that the twins in this case would be considered the "biological child[ren] of married parents," given that, under Florida law, a marriage ends upon the death of a spouse. The Court agreed with the SSA that § 416(e)(1)'s tautological definition of "‘child' means . . . child" had to be supplemented with § 416(h)(2)(A)'s instruction to apply state intestacy law. Although § 416(e) did not cross-reference § 416(h), § 416(h) clearly indicated that its provisions governed the determination of whether an applicant was a child "for purposes of this subchapter" – a subchapter that included both § 402(d) and § 416(e). The SSA's reading was better attuned not only to the text of the statute, but also its purpose of benefitting primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner during his or her lifetime. It was Congress' prerogative to use eligibility to inherit under state intestacy law as a "workable substitute for burdensome case-by-case determinations whether the child was, in fact, dependent on her father's earnings." Finally, at a minimum, the SSA's interpretation was at least reasonable, and therefore entitled to Chevron deference. For the curious: the Court noted that several states do accord inheritance rights to posthumously conceived children, within certain time limits, ranging from children born within two years of the parent's death, to children in utero within three years of the parent's death. Florida is not one of those states, however.

Finally, in Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. (10-1472), the Court took up a question that has no doubt dominated dinner tables conversations nationwide: what, exactly, is an "interpreter"? Plaintiff Kouichi Taniguchi, a professional baseball player in Japan, sued a resort for an injury he sustained as a guest. After the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands granted summary judgment in the resort's favor, the resort submitted a bill of costs that included fees paid to translate documents from Japanese to English. 28 U.S.C. § 1920, as amended by the Court Interpreters Act, includes "compensation of interpreters" among the costs that may be awarded to prevailing parties in federal lawsuits. Based on that provision, the District Court awarded costs for the translation services, explaining that they "fal[l] within the meaning of ‘compensation of an interpreter.'" The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that "interpreter" can reasonably encompass "translator," and that so construing the statute was compatible with FRCP 54, which "includes a decided preference for the award of costs to the prevailing party."

The Court reversed 6-3, thereby resolving a circuit split on the question. Writing for a majority that included the Chief and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Kagan, Justice Alito considered the meaning of the term "interpreter" at some length. Both in 1978, when Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act, and in earlier years, several dictionaries defined "interpreter" as one who translates oral – as opposed to written – language. Only a small handful of texts in print in 1978 suggested that an "interpreter" might also be a translator of written language, and even some of those indicated that oral translation was the most common usage. Based on the Court's survey of available dictionaries, it determined that the ordinary or common meaning of "interpreter" does not include a translator of writings, but instead denotes "one who translates orally from one language to another." Since nothing in the context of § 1920 or the Court Interpreters Act indicated that Congress intended to reach beyond the ordinary meaning of the term, that common meaning must apply. Nor was the Court impressed with the Ninth Circuit's determination that Rule 54 favored awarding costs: nothing in that rule provides a "sound basis for casting aside the ordinary meaning of the various items enumerated in the costs statute[.]"

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented. Putting the same dictionary definitions on the scale, the dissenters read the balance differently, concluding that "employing the word ‘interpreters' to include translators of written as well as oral speech, if not ‘the most common usage,' . . . is at least an ‘acceptable usage.'" The dissenters noted federal district court decisions referring to translators of written documents as interpreters, as well as circuit court decisions concluding that costs for document translations may be awarded under § 1920. The dissenters also observed that trial courts had awarded costs for document translation services long before Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act, which did not signal any intent to do away with the practice.

We'll be back soon with the three other decisions issued last week, and the two issued today.

Kim & Jenny

From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400