05 June 2017

Five More Unanimous SCOTUS Rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court issued five unanimous opinions today, which I summarize below with my commentary in italics. 

Justice Gorsuch has now participated in three U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but, because all three were uncontroversial and none involved an opinion written by him, we still have no useful actual information about how he will behave as a Justice. These decisions only confirm the already expected conclusion that he is unlikely to become a gadfly who fights otherwise consensus rulings in the way that Justice Thomas has sometimes tended to be.

* A three judge panel's decision on an injunction related to election districts in a special election in the wake of racial gerrymandering was remanded in a per curium opinion because the trial court's analysis of the equitable issues involved in fashioning a remedy was only perfunctory. The case is North Carolina v. Covington.

While the decision doesn't presume a particular outcome on remand, the Supreme Court disavows a rule that injunctive relief is almost always available to prevent an election in a racially gerrymandered district as a remedy. The decision feels like a consolation prize in the wake of the Court's recent affirmation of a racial gerrymandering decision on the merits in North Carolina.

* ERISA plans established by hospital systems owned and controlled by a church are "church plans" for purposes of ERISA. The decision was 8-0. The case is Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton.

The language of the new statute expanding the definition of church-plans, which are exempt from many ERISA regulations, from true churches to certain church-controlled entities was far from clear on its face, but the Supreme Court's resolution is an expansive bright-line rule that will have wide effect in the health care industry (and probably in church controlled educational institutions as well).

* Civil forfeiture is not available as a remedy from someone who received no profits from the crime in question, even if that person was convicted as a co-conspirator in the crime. The decision was 8-0. The case is Honeycutt v. United States.

This ruling provides a very meaningful limitation on the civil forfeiture remedy with broad application in a situation where the statutory scheme could plausible have permitted either result.

The Sentencing Law and Policy Blog has an interesting insight on this ruling:
The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.
* The SEC can seek disgorgement (i.e. a surrender of profits obtained from securities fraud), but the applicable statute of limitations was unclear. The Supreme Court holds (per the official syllabus) that "Because SEC disgorgement operates as a penalty under §2462, any claim for disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action must be commenced within five years of the date the claim accrued." The decision is 9-0. (This decision and the next constitute the second and third decisions of Justice Gorsuch in his service as a Supreme Court Justice).  The case is Kokesh v. SEC.

In yet another example of Congress not doing its job to make the law clear in a situation where there would inevitably be litigation over the issue, Congress failed to clarify whether and what statute of limitations applies to SEC claims for disgorgement of securities fraud proceeds in one of multiple plausible ways (a different one of which was chosen by the judges of the Second Circuit). The practical effect of the decision is to increase the amount of fraud profits that securities fraud perpetrators can hold onto in the face of SEC litigation, with the benefit of allowing people whose conduct might be challenged as securities fraud (but who are not charged by the SEC in the vast majority of circumstances) clarity about when they are in the clear.

* An individual developer brought a takings claims related to a zoning dispute and his real estate company sought to intervene in the federal court action. Was the real estate company required to have Article III standing? Per the official syllabus: "an intervenor of right must demonstrate Article III standing when it seeks additional relief beyond that requested by the plaintiff. That includes cases in which both the plaintiff and the intervenor seek separate money judgments in their own names." The decision was 9-0.  The case is Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc.

It is remarkable that this basic question of civil procedure that has potentially been an issue under the federal rules of civil procedure since the 1930s is only being resolved now. The outcome, however, makes perfect sense and is pretty much compelled by prior case law, which may help to explain why it took so long to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is remanded to determine the correct resolution on the merits under the correct legal standard.

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