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Yesterday in plain English

This is a new feature on SCOTUSblog.  The Supreme Court deals with a lot of technical legal issues.  Our posts tend to be written in the same way, so that if you aren’t a lawyer it can be hard to understand exactly what we’re saying.  We try not to go too deep into jargon, but it’s hard.  As a result, we don’t connect with all of our readers as well as we could.  Many of you aren’t lawyers.  It’s important that everyone understand the Supreme Court, and we want to be a comprehensive resource.

So, on a regular basis, we’re going to step back and write about what’s happening at the Court in plain English.  We’ll also sneak in some more basic background on how the Court works.  That background material will also be incorporated into a “The Supreme Court in Plain English” entry on SCOTUSwiki.  When the Court is doing a lot, and we have a lot of content, we may write these posts every day.  When things are slower, it may be more like once a week.

As always, let us know what you think by emailing us at

Let’s start with yesterday morning.  The Supreme Court decides what cases it wants to decide.  Someone who loses a case in the lower courts files a “petition for certiorari”; the winner gets to file a “brief in opposition.”  The Court takes around one in every 100 cases.

Yesterday morning the Court “granted certiorari” – i.e., it agreed to decide – three new cases.  The parties to the lawsuits will now file new briefs “on the merits” – i.e., about who should win or lose – and then the Court will hear oral arguments.  In these cases, arguments will probably be heard in March.  Then the Court will decide the cases, probably in May or June.  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.

If you want to see the details of the issues and get access to the briefs, click through to this post (Today’s orders) and if you want to read Lyle Denniston’s take, look here (separate post).

  • The Quon case involves text messages.  A government employee wants to keep private texts that he sent on a pager.  (We didn’t realized anyone used pagers anymore, or that they could be used to send texts.)  He argues that the government can’t read the texts because that would violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that the government cannot engage in “unreasonable” searches and seizures.  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 “civil protection order” used to keep someone away in a domestic violence case.  One party claims that the other violated the order and should therefore be held in “criminal contempt” – i.e., be criminally convicted for violating the order.  The question in the case is whether one private person can ask to hold the other in “criminal contempt” or instead – because it’s a criminal case – that is only something that can be done in the name of the government.
  • The Carachuri-Rosendo case involves deportation for drug crimes.  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 “repeat offender.”

Whenever the Court agrees to hear new cases, it also announces the ones in which it has “denied certiorari.”  One important case that the Justices refused to hear yesterday involved the Guantanamo Bay detainees.  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.  The Justices start releasing their opinions in November or December and finish just before they start the summer recess.  Yesterday’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.  But the Supreme Court’s opinion said that the Court wouldn’t decide that issue because all the owners had gotten their property back.  So in legal jargon, the case was “moot.”  The federal courts don’t have the power to decide “moot” disagreements because the Constitution gives them the power only to rule in actual “cases and controversies.”

Our round-up has included lots of coverage of the Court.  One thing that might interest you is an interview on C-SPAN of three former Solicitors General over the weekend – Paul Clement, Drew Days, and Kenneth Starr.  The Solicitor General is the federal government’s lawyer in the Supreme Court.  The Solicitor General’s Office has around twenty lawyers in total who argue in the Court.  They also decide whether the government will appeal rulings in the lower courts.