Sheila McCorkle is a summer associate at Akin Gump.

With the Supreme Court seeming to release its decisions in bulk as of late, Plain English author Lisa Mc Elroy has called in for reinforcements to help with coverage of the horde of recent opinions. (Lisa posted earlier today on more of the past week’s rulings.)

In Dillon v. United States, the Court touched on an issue related to the once-controversial disparity between the sentences given to crack cocaine offenders and those whose offenses involved powdered cocaine. In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were amended to eliminate this differential treatment, and a later provision allowed these new Guidelines to be applied retroactively to defendants' sentences. In this case, the Court addressed whether a district court acted properly when it refused to reduce a defendant's sentence below the range of potential sentences in the new Guidelines. Although the Court held a few years ago in United States v. Booker that the Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, in sentencing proceedings, on Thursday it clarified that this rule did not apply to proceedings intended to modify an existing sentence.

This was bad news for Percy Dillon, who was trying to take a second bite of the sentence reduction apple. Dillon, who was convicted in 1993 of a crack cocaine offense, received a lower sentence because of the new Guidelines, but he argued that he should receive an even lower sentence based on his good behavior in prison. But the majority of the Court disagreed, holding that Booker did not apply to the provision allowing for the sentence reduction. Justice Stevens, the lone but impassioned dissenter, believed that under Booker, courts faced with cases like Dillon's should be able to reduce prison sentences below the amended Guidelines.

For bankruptcy buffs, and you know who you are, the Court ruled in Schwab v. Reilly that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee does not need to object to a debtor's exemption (i.e., the assets that the debtor is allowed to keep) to recover more than what the debtor declared to be the exempted asset's value. In this case, the debtor had claimed an exemption for what she described as the full value of her kitchen equipment:  $10,718.  It turned out, however, that the equipment was in fact worth nearly $17,000.  The debtor argued that because the trustee didn't object to the exemption before the deadline to do so, she could keep all of the equipment.  By a vote of six to three, the Court disagreed.  It explained that unless the debtor makes it clear that she intends to claim the whole asset as fully exempt, an exemption claim is limited to a dollar-value "interest" in the asset.

In New Process Steel v. National Labor Relations Board (No. 08-1457), the Court displayed its mathematical skills, holding in no uncertain terms that two does not equal three. Specifically, the Court held that, under the National Labor Relations Act, a group must have three members to exercise the delegated authority of the National Labor Relations Board. That proved to be a problem considering for more than two years, only two members had acted as a quorum, deciding nearly six hundred cases. In an opinion by Justice Stevens that was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, the Court held that reading the statute, which provides that "three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board," to allow two members to act as the Board would undermine the will of Congress.

The Court handed traditional alfalfa farmers a defeat in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms.  In that case, it held that the district court was wrong when it told a federal agency that the agency could not partially deregulate a genetically modified alfalfa crop, nor could it allow that crop to be planted until it finished a detailed environmental review.  With regard to the partial deregulation, it explained that none of the four criteria for a permanent injunction "“ that is, an order stopping the deregulation "“ had been met; moreover, the district court could have protected the farmers without taking a step as drastic as banning virtually all planting of genetically modified alfalfa.

And in a relatively low-profile case involving transnational shipping rules, the Court held in Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. v. Regal-Beloit Corp. that when cargo starts its journey overseas, the portion of the trip during which the goods are shipped by train is governed by the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA), rather than the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act.

Our last case emphasizes the truism that you should always read the fine print! In Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, by a vote of five to four, the Court weighed in on how to determine who should decide challenges to the validity of an agreement to arbitrate. The Court held that if the challenge is specific to the arbitration provision at issue in the case, then a court must decide that challenge.  However, if a party challenges the enforceability of the agreement as a whole, the challenge is for the arbitrator.

The last few days and weeks of Court watching this Term should be exciting, as we expect decisions in several high-profile cases, including Bilski, McDonald and Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (a law school favorite!).  Stay tuned!

Posted in Plain English / Cases Made Simple