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Last week’s opinions in Plain English

There were no oral arguments at the Court last week, but the Court remained busy, issuing three opinions.  Even though many Supreme Court cases make headlines, most do not, because they only affect a small segment of the population.  Last week’s opinions were a case in point:  they dealt with fairly narrow issues, some of which are not of enormous interest to the general public.  That said, the decisions are still important not only because the parties involved needed their disputes resolved, but also because the cases clarify key areas of federal law.

For example, let’s start off with Milner v. Department of the Navy, in which the Court held that an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) precluding the disclosure of certain records only applies to human resources and employee relations issues.   Here, the Court said that because maps of the Navy’s explosive storage facilities did not fall under the exception, the Navy was wrong when it refused to disclose such maps to Milner, who lived near a Navy base in Washington State.  Narrow?  Yes.  But the Court felt that it needed to step in and decide this case because federal appellate courts had disagreed about the meaning of the exception (called “Exemption 2”).  Indeed, if you review the Supreme Court rules (great Sunday afternoon reading), you’ll find that one of the Court’s priorities is to resolve so-called “circuit splits” like this one.  Why?  Because the Court wants to make sure that federal law is the same whether you live in Montana or Massachusetts; when the lower courts disagree, it’s the Court’s job to be the final arbiter.

Milner is also a great example of another of the Court’s primary jobs:  statutory interpretation.  As I explained last week, courts use “tools of construction” to interpret ambiguous terms in statutes.  Here, because the adjective “personnel” plainly referred to human beings, the Court held,  the federal government had erred in interpreting it more broadly.  The Court also considered legislative intent, or Congress’s purpose in passing FOIA, and noted that Congress wanted government to be transparent, a goal that was circumvented by interpreting the term too broadly.

In another difficult and somewhat obscure area of the law, the Court also issued an opinion about deadlines for filing habeas petitions in Wall v. Kholi.  As I explained here, most experienced lawyers do not understand habeas; the rules are numerous and dense, designed to preclude most challenges to terms of imprisonment, and they are hard to decipher.  Most lawyers do know that habeas rules are strict, strict, strict, denying relief to the vast majority of defendants.  But the Court has been a bit more lenient than usual in recent habeas cases, and Wall was no exception.

Critical to the concept of habeas is “tolling,” or stopping the habeas clock (which usually ticks on quickly and mercilessly).  Tolling is important because, when allowed, it gives a defendant more time to bring a habeas claim.  In Wall, the Court held that when Kholi asked a Rhode Island court to reduce his sentence, that request properly “tolled” his federal habeas claim; otherwise, his time to petition the federal court would have run out.  In holding that tolling is proper upon a “properly filed application for state post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim,”  the Court agreed with the intermediate appellate court that his state claim was not a direct appeal but instead was “collateral.”   Collateral review tolls the statute, the Court said, opening the doors for other defendants to wait out their state claims before filing federal habeas petitions.

But the case that made the most headlines this week was definitely Skinner v. Switzer,  As Lyle explained here on Monday, habeas was also relevant in this case, which involved an effort by Hank Skinner, a Texas death-row inmate, to have DNA evidence recovered from a crime scene tested.  The Court agreed with Skinner (whose trial attorney did not seek to have all available evidence tested) that defendants can file lawsuits under federal civil rights laws to have DNA evidence tested; they are not, as the state argued, required to rely only on federal habeas laws (which, as I explained above, would be more restrictive).  But the Court and many commentators emphasized that even if, as a matter of fairness, Mr. Skinner could sue to have the DNA tests run, he would not necessarily win that suit; indeed, under prior Court holdings, he probably would not.  Still, as the three dissenting Justices commented, it certainly seems likely that many inmates will sue under a civil rights theory – figuring that they have nothing to lose – making this a case that will cause the federal trial courts to sit up and take notice.

Recommended Citation: Lisa Tucker, Last week’s opinions in Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 14, 2011, 8:11 AM),