19 February 2013

SCOTUS Handles Supremely Important Trivialities

One of the never ending fascinating aspects of American law is the not at all intuitive to a layperson process by which the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, decides which cases to consider.  The vast majority are trivial in and of themselves, but have immense symbolic importance as they guide so many other cases in the system that they have far greater broad relevance in the principles that they declare.

Today's U.S. Supreme Court rulings

Today wasn't unusual. 

One case decided if a search and seizure of drugs from a pickup truck by a drug sniffing dog used by a non-federal Florida policeman was valid (it was, the unanimous court ruled because no evidence rebutting the dog's reliability was offered by the defendant). 

Another case held that the arrest and search of two men without probable cause when there was a warrant outstanding to search a New York State apartment for a particular handgun.  The officers did not know at the time of the arrests and search had just found a gun and drugs in the apartment the two men had just left when the arrest took place.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that an arrest and search five minutes after the men had left the apartment, and a mile away, was not justified by a doctrine allowing the arrest and search of occupants of a searched premises who are in the immediate vicinity of the premises.  It is possible that the Court of Appeals, on remand, may still find that their arrest and search was valid on other grounds.  Three of the nine judges on the Court dissented, arguing that an arrest which was actually just 0.7 miles away and was made as soon as possible as the men departed should have been valid.

In a third case, the State of Georgia and a federal anti-trust agency sued a hospital district formed under Georgia law for anti-trust violations was not barred by sovereign immunity from anti-trust laws where the statute authorizing the hospital district didn't provide for sovereign immunity from anti-trust laws, even though the Georgia legislature had the power to give it this immunity if it had wished to do so.  As a result, the hospital district will have to win an anti-trust court case against both the state and the federal government before it can purchase the second of two hospitals in a Georgia county.

In a fourth and final case, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed an appeal of an order directing an Arkansas man to return his child to his wife from whom he was getting a divorce to Scotland, pursuant to an international treaty, even though the child was now in Scotland and the wife might have the practical ability to ignore the Arkansas courts if the order was reversed on appeal.  A concurring opinion urged Congress to adopt a better law governing appeals in these kinds of cases.

None of the particular cases was important, in and of itself

None of these cases, in and of themselves, were particularly important. 

But for the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide them, none of these cases would have been particularly notable from the eyes of the trial court judge involved.  Each was a bread and butter ordinary piece of criminal or civil litigation.

Tens of thousands of police drug seizures take place every day and as in almost every Fourth Amendent case, the defendants were in fact in possession of contraband or powerful evidence against them, so their factual guilt was not in doubt.  The empire wil not rise or fall on the outcome of these individual drug possession cases.

It isn't entirely clear why it is necessary for federal law and federal agency resources to be invoked in a dispute over the authority of a local government in a dispute between a local government and a state government, and the ultimate decision regarding who should own one of two county hospitals is only barely a legal question at all.  In the worst case scenario, patients in the county will have to drive half an hour or so to the next county over to find a competing provider (and in an emergency, of course, there is no competition, the closest hospital is always your only choice).  The other irony is that a concern about monpolistic pricing and practices is being raised in a market where the patients aren't told the price until they get their bills anyway.  Any outcome of this case would have left both parties with options going forward.

Civil procedure issues related to child custody disputes are rarely the province of the federal courts, but it is customary that the U.S. Supreme Court get involved when two court systems that don't have authority over each other are involved in parallel litigation over the same child, particular when the case has an international dimension as this one did.  These irreconcilable tangles are still rare enough that intervention at the highest level is feasible when they come up.  Realistically, there is every reason to think that the outcome of the case won't change at all when the appeal that the husband was authorized to continue prosecuting in the state court system is resolved on the merits (probably against him).

Each case had broad legal implications for thousands of other cases

Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't take these cases because they were individually important.  It took the cases to clear up broadly applicable matters of principle and thereby insure accuracy and uniformity in the administration of federal laws or the U.S. Constitution, respectively.

The importance of an individual U.S. Supreme Court usually has far more to do with the bureaucratic issues that it poses for the court system as a whole and the clarification it provides to ambiguous laws than it does with the intrinsic importance of the case itself (although some cases that go to the U.S. Supreme Court are intrinsically important).  Each ruling provides a nudge that guides thousands of other cases.

One case on the scope of occupant searchers, or on the means by which a dog sniff can provide probable cause for a search will each guide hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers and thousands of appellate court panels at both the state and federal level for decades in probably tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases.

The issue of sovereign immunity for local governments will guide legislative drafting practices in all fifty states and guide federal bureaucrats and judges attempting to determine when federal law applies to local governments in hundreds of thousands of situations every year, most of which will never actually be litigated on the merits before a judge.

The Court's ruling on mootness in the context of dueling assertions of jurisdiction in an international child custody case will have application in all manner of jurisdictional mootness disputes in every manner of case (far beyond international custody cases) for decades and may spur Congress or the State Department to attempt procedural reforms of the international custody case regime.

The mere fact that resources can be found to litigate these issues all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in relatively mundane cases involving less than well heeled parties is also a hopeful statement that our system does work.

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