Yesterday in plain English
on Dec 15, 2009 at 12:04 pm
This is a new feature on SCOTUSblog.Â The Supreme Court deals with a lot of technical legal issues.Â Our posts tend to be written in the same way, so that if you arenâ€™t a lawyer it can be hard to understand exactly what weâ€™re saying.Â We try not to go too deep into jargon, but itâ€™s hard. Â As a result, we donâ€™t connect with all of our readers as well as we could.Â Many of you arenâ€™t lawyers.Â Itâ€™s important that everyone understand the Supreme Court, and we want to be a comprehensive resource.
So, on a regular basis, weâ€™re going to step back and write about whatâ€™s happening at the Court in plain English.Â Weâ€™ll also sneak in some more basic background on how the Court works.Â That background material will also be incorporated into a â€œThe Supreme Court in Plain Englishâ€ entry on SCOTUSwiki. Â When the Court is doing a lot, and we have a lot of content, we may write these posts every day.Â When things are slower, it may be more like once a week.
As always, let us know what you think by emailing us atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letâ€™s start with yesterday morning.Â The Supreme Court decides what cases it wants to decide.Â Someone who loses a case in the lower courts files a â€œpetition for certiorariâ€; the winner gets to file a â€œbrief in opposition.â€Â The Court takes around one in every 100 cases.
Yesterday morning the Court â€œgranted certiorariâ€ â€“ i.e., it agreed to decide â€“ three new cases.Â The parties to the lawsuits will now file new briefs â€œon the meritsâ€ â€“ i.e., about who should win or lose â€“ and then the Court will hear oral arguments.Â In these cases, arguments will probably be heard in March.Â Then the Court will decide the cases, probably in May or June.Â Starting in July, the Court is in recess for the summer.
The three cases are: City of Ontario v. Quon; Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson; and Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder.
- The Quon case involves text messages.Â A government employee wants to keep private texts that he sent on a pager.Â (We didnâ€™t realized anyone used pagers anymore, or that they could be used to send texts.)Â He argues that the government canâ€™t read the texts because that would violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that the government cannot engage in â€œunreasonableâ€ searches and seizures.Â He won in the lower court, but the government successfully asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.
- The Robertson case involves the violation of a â€œcivil protection orderâ€ used to keep someone away in a domestic violence case.Â One party claims that the other violated the order and should therefore be held in â€œcriminal contemptâ€ â€“ i.e., be criminally convicted for violating the order.Â The question in the case is whether one private person can ask to hold the other in â€œcriminal contemptâ€ or instead â€“ because itâ€™s a criminal case â€“ that is only something that can be done in the name of the government.
- The Carachuri-Rosendo case involves deportation for drug crimes.Â The issue is whether under the immigration laws a legal immigrant can be deported whenever he has been convicted of several crimes involving drugs, or instead only when the government specifically charges the immigrant with being a â€œrepeat offender.â€
Whenever the Court agrees to hear new cases, it also announces the ones in which it has â€œdenied certiorari.â€Â One important case that the Justices refused to hear yesterday involved the Guantanamo Bay detainees.Â Four former detainees tried to challenge a lower court ruling that they could not sue Donald Rumsfeld and ten military officers for supposedly being involved in torture and religious bias.
The Court also refused to hear a case challenging the reorganization of Chrysler during the auto bailout.
The blog also reported yesterday on one of the four cases the Court decided last week.Â The Justices start releasing their opinions in November or December and finish just before they start the summer recess.Â Yesterdayâ€™s write-up was about Alvarez v. Smith, in which the Court had agreed to decide how long the police could hold onto seized property without giving the property owner a hearing.Â But the Supreme Courtâ€™s opinion said that the Court wouldnâ€™t decide that issue because all the owners had gotten their property back.Â So in legal jargon, the case was â€œmoot.â€Â The federal courts donâ€™t have the power to decide â€œmootâ€ disagreements because the Constitution gives them the power only to rule in actual â€œcases and controversies.â€
Our round-up has included lots of coverage of the Court.Â One thing that might interest you is an interview on C-SPAN of three former Solicitors General over the weekend â€“ Paul Clement, Drew Days, and Kenneth Starr.Â The Solicitor General is the federal governmentâ€™s lawyer in the Supreme Court.Â The Solicitor Generalâ€™s Office has around twenty lawyers in total who argue in the Court.Â They also decide whether the government will appeal rulings in the lower courts.