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This week at the Court: In Plain English

Remember what I’ve been saying for the last few weeks?  Late spring is not only beautiful in Washington, D.C., it’s exciting, too – at least for Court watchers.  That’s because the opinions for the cases argued earlier in the Term start rolling in fast and furious, and this week was a great example.  On Monday, the Court issued opinions in three cases, and over the next four or five weeks it still has to decide nearly half of the cases from the October Term 2010.  Hold on to your hats . . . .

This week’s opinions also demonstrate what a wide variety of cases the Court hears.  We often refer to the Supreme Court as a court of “general jurisdiction” and the Justices as “generalists.”  What does that mean?  Well, it means that the Court is not a specialty court – for example, it does not hear only family law or bankruptcy disputes, unlike some courts established for those specific purposes – and that every Justice participates in deciding every case, regardless of whether she is an expert in the area of law being considered.  That’s an important reason why the parties file detailed briefs explaining the relevant legal concepts in a case: they are “briefing” the Justices on how the law in that substantive area works.  It’s also a reason why amici, or “friends of the Court,” weigh in; an “amicus brief” will often explain to the Court facts and statistics that might help in deciding the case, as well as the real-life ramifications of a particular decision.

But even though the three opinions of the week are about very different areas of law, they all got to the Court for one primary reason:  lower courts disagreed about a legal rule, and the Supreme Court stepped in to resolve the legal differences created by that disagreement.  In fact, this type of disagreement among the lower courts (usually among federal courts of appeals, and thus called a “circuit split”) is the primary reason why the Court chooses to grant cert.

Take Kentucky v. King, one of the cases decided this week.  In that case, the Court heard not only from the litigants (a criminal defendant and the state of Kentucky) but also from police organizations and many states, all of whom had an interest in how the case should come out.  As Orin Kerr explains in very Plain English, the case arose from an undercover drug bust.  Police officers followed a suspect into the breezeway of an apartment building and heard a door shut, but didn’t see which of two apartments the suspect had entered.  When they smelled marijuana coming from one apartment, they assumed that the drug dealer had entered that apartment and knocked on the door.  No one came to the door, and the officers heard noises that caused them to think that evidence was being destroyed.  They therefore kicked down the door, where they found Mr. King (but not the drug dealer they were pursuing), along with marijuana and cocaine.  The Court has previously “held” (or established a rule that) police can enter and search homes without a warrant when there are “exigent circumstances” – what most of us would call an emergency — such as the likely destruction of evidence.  But what happens if – as King argued (and the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed) in this case – the police effectively “create” the emergency?  Does the “exigent circumstances” rule still apply?  And if it did, wouldn’t that be a loophole?

Yesterday, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court said “no.”  Unless the police threatened to do, or actually did, something that violated the Fourth Amendment, the “exigent circumstances” rule still applies.  In reaching this decision, the Court pointed out that occupants of a home have other protections against warrantless searches – for example, telling the police that they cannot enter.  If they fail to take advantage of those protections, it is their own fault.  In a dissent, Justice Ginsburg disagreed.  In her view, an exigency like the one here (a fear that the occupants would destroy the drug evidence if the police waited to get a warrant) was not a real one; after all, she commented, there would be no reason for the occupants to destroy the drugs unless they had reason to believe the police were coming (a fact to which the knock by police officers alerted them).

As Orin notes, both the majority opinion and the dissent are interesting reads.  If you are a Plain English reader because you are not a lawyer but are interested in how the Court does its work, take a gander both at Orin’s post and at the opinions themselves.  The opinions, as Orin explains, go through the analysis step by step, try out different approaches to resolving the case, and settle on the one that seems most reasonable.   What’s more, the case is also helpful for those who want to understand the Court’s work.  That’s because the Court almost certainly granted cert. in the case due to a very typical issue: different states were treating police-created emergencies differently for purposes of the exigent circumstances rule.  That makes it a great example of a case in which everyone involved – the parties, the states, the amici, and the Court – want resolution and consistency, so that no matter where a person lives (or a police officer works) the rule is the same.

In keeping with the idea that the Court deals with a large spectrum of issues, let’s talk about the other two opinions from this week:  Schindler Elevator Corp v. Kirk and CIGNA Corp. v. Amara.  The first is about the intersection between two federal laws:  the False Claims Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  How do they intersect?  Well, as in this case, sometimes plaintiffs want to sue under the False Claims Act – and in the government’s name – using information or documents they have received from the government through a “FOIA” (pronounced FOY-a) request.    Here, Kirk sued an elevator company after it fired him, claiming that the company had submitted false claims for payment on its government contracts.  The problem, according to the Court’s opinion?  Some of the evidence that served as the basis for his claim that the company had submitted false claims came from FOIA requests that his wife made to the Department of Labor.  The Court (once again resolving a circuit split on the point) held that the information he obtained through the federal agency constituted a “report” that disclosed public information; therefore a provision in the False Claims Act barring lawsuits based on  such reports might apply.  The upshot? If his suit is based on “allegations or transactions” in the reports (an issue the Second Circuit will now decide on “remand,” or on the return of the case to that court), Mr. Kirk will not be able to bring his lawsuit, in part – a as Justice Thomas explained in the Court’s opinion –because his lawsuit was the kind of “opportunistic” case that the False Claims Act tries to discourage.

Finally, in CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, the Court delved into yet another area of law, ERISA law (a federal statute governing employee benefits).   Justice Breyer, writing for the Court, explained that, under ERISA, an employee whose employer gives her an incorrect explanation of her benefits must actually be harmed by that inconsistency before she can bring a claim.  Different federal courts of appeals had interpreted the statute differently, with a few requiring only that the explanation of benefits be inaccurate as to the actual plan benefits, and others requiring evidence of much greater harm.

Washington has been underwater this week, with a huge amount of rain and more in the forecast.  The law clerks might feel like they are underwater in a different way – the next four or five weeks are the last big opinion-writing push before the end of the Term.  But there’s very little doubt that the work will get done – we’ll almost certainly have opinions in the remaining argued cases by the last week in June.

Recommended Citation: Lisa Tucker, This week at the Court: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog (May. 19, 2011, 8:15 AM),