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Last week at the Court: In Plain English

After a few weeks of relative quiet at the Court, this week offered Court watchers lots to talk about.  Thanks to four oral arguments and four opinions, plus lots of other Court-related activity, there’s plenty to explain in Plain English.

Let’s start with this week’s opinions, two of which deal with the concept of “preemption.”  Preemption is one of those legal terms that means pretty much what it sounds like:  one source of law (here, a federal statute) trumps another (such as the right to sue in state court).  For example, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, involved a 1986 federal statute that created a compensation system for children who are injured by vaccines, which is funded by taxes on the sale of the vaccines themselves.

But the “Vaccine Court” which disperses the funds decided that Hannah Bruesewitz, a nineteen-year-old who has suffered seizures and developmental delays since she was vaccinated against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus as a baby, could not prove that she was injured by the vaccine, and it denied her parents any money for her injuries.  Their solution?  They sued the drug manufacturer.  And here is where the preemption concept comes in.

By creating the compensation fund, the Court held last week, Congress preempted any right the parents had to bring their own suit against the manufacturer itself.  That decision means that because the parents could not meet the standard to receive money damages from the compensation fund, they had no remedy at all.

Some Court watchers might wonder where the justice is in such a decision – after all, shouldn’t parents be able to hold someone accountable for a serious injury to their child?  Well, yes, they should – but that is exactly why Congress worked together with the drug manufacturers to create the so-called “Vaccine Court.”  Some, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, actually see the decision in the case as achieving justice for more children; if parents could sue drug companies without going through the system that Congress created, then the companies could be faced with so many lawsuits that they might decide to stop making vaccines at all.  And legally, the FDA and specialized tribunals like the Vaccine Court are in a better position, say many (including Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Breyer, who concurred), than juries of laypeople to decide on proper product design.

There is no doubt that this kind of case is typical of those reaching the Court – difficult to decide, with legal and equitable arguments on both sides.

In the second of its preemption opinions this week, Williamson v. Mazda (which I discussed when the case was argued back in November), the Court considered a federal regulation that allowed car makers to choose whether to install lap-and-shoulder belts or only lap belts in middle rear seats.  Mazda opted to install only lap belts in the middle rear seat of the minivan where Thanh Williamson was riding; in a head-on collision, she jackknifed over the belt and died.  When her husband sued Mazda, the company relied heavily on a similar case from 2000 involving airbags, arguing that Williamson’s claim was preempted by the federal regulation that allowed it to make the lap-belt-only choice.  But the Court used a common legal tool called “analogy and distinction” to reach a different result.  This case was not like the airbag case, the Court said, because the carmaker based its design choice on cost, rather than safety, and nothing in the federal regulation indicated that “seatbelt choice” was “a significant objective of the federal regulation.”

Whew!  Enough on preemption.  Now let’s talk about another technical legal issue, habeas corpus (believe it or not, the lawyers reading this column probably wish we were still talking about preemption).  “Habeas corpus” is a means by which defendants who have been convicted can challenge their convictions on the ground that they are being held in violation of the Constitution – and that’s all most lawyers know about it, because it is generally regarded one of the densest, most difficult areas of the law.  But certainly one key theme of habeas corpus cases is the timing requirements for bringing a claim.  As Jud Campbell explained here on Thursday, most states have a specific rule on how much time a defendant has to bring a habeas claim in state court.  And when a state denies a prisoner habeas relief based on what the Court has described as an “independent and adequate state procedural ground[]” – like being too late – a state prisoner cannot get habeas relief in federal court either.  The problem in Walker v. Martin, the case that the Court decided last week, is that California uses a slightly different rule to determine whether a prisoner has been too late in seeking habeas relief in state court:  it requires only that prisoners must file their habeas claims without “substantial delay.”

In Charles Martin’s case, the state courts denied his habeas claims as being too late.   Based on that denial, the federal district court denied habeas relief as well.  But the Ninth Circuit was not so sure, and it eventually reversed, applying a standard designed to ensure that habeas petitioners could understand their rights.  Because in its view California had not demonstrated that the state rule was “firmly established” and “regularly followed,” the state grounds for denying habeas were not adequate to allow the federal court to dismiss the petition.

The state’s response?  First, the law was clear and consistent enough; second, federal courts should defer to states and assume that their procedural rules are valid . . . unless they demonstrably are not.

The Court agreed, somewhat unsurprisingly to most (as habeas claims are notoriously difficult to bring and sustain), explaining that a statute does not have to specify exactly how much time a prisoner has to file to be sufficiently clear under habeas rules.  Furthermore, the state applies the “without substantial delay” standard hundreds of times a year, meaning that it is “regularly followed.”  In short, Martin’s argument failed, said a unanimous Court, and Martin waited too long to challenge his conviction.

One reason why habeas is hard to understand is that the rules are technical; another reason is that some people see it as unfair that it is so hard to challenge a conviction.  But Congress made the rules more stringent, and the Court applied these stringent rules more stringently, after the federal courts were so inundated with habeas claims that they could accomplish very little other work.  Therefore, the idea is balance:  allow prisoners to bring habeas claims (as they are constitutionally and statutorily allowed to do), but limit severely the timing and circumstances under which they are allowed to bring them.

In one last opinion this week, the Court held that railroads could use a federal law to challenge an Alabama tax.  The federal law says that states cannot tax rail carriers in a discriminatory way; Alabama’s tax on diesel fuel applies only to railroads and not other transportation companies that are the railroads’ main competitors.  And although the substance of CSX Transportation v. McBride may not be that interesting (sorry, tax folks), many have commented that the alliance of Justices Thomas and Ginsburg in dissent certainly is; while they agree with each other about two-thirds of the time, it’s highly unusual for the two Justices to agree only with each other.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the highlight of the week on the oral argument front:  United States v. Bond.  Dahlia Lithwick compared the case to a Lifetime movie, and I can’t disagree.  But (as she also explained) the case – full of juicy facts about best friends and wandering husbands and illegitimate pregnancies and poisoning plots – really boils down to a very technical constitutional issue about standing – who can bring a case in federal court, and on what grounds.   At issue are the Tenth Amendment (which reserves to the states any powers not delegated to the federal government), a chemical weapons treaty, and a six-year prison sentence for a single blistered thumb.  Yes, we’ll be on tenterhooks waiting for the opinion in this one . . . and I’ll explain that opinion in Plain English.

Recommended Citation: Lisa Tucker, Last week at the Court: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 28, 2011, 9:15 AM),