Breaking News

Court grants two more cases

The Supreme Court on Friday added two more cases for decision in the coming Term, one involving attempts to block federal court review of a class action lawsuit, the other involving the power of a federal court to correct flaws in a state prosecution for burglary.  The cases are The Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles (11-1450) and Descamps v. United States (11-9540, grant limited to the first question raised).

It appears that these cases will be argued in the Court’s November-December sitting, which opens November 26.

The Standard Fire case tests the right of a company sued in state court in a class action to transfer the case for decision by a federal court.  Such a “removal” can occur only if the amount in controversy is more than $5 million.  The petition argued that some lawyers representing those who filed such a class action are attempting to keep their cases in state court by submitting a plea that less than $5 million is at stake.  The issue the Justices will be deciding is whether such a promise made by the lead party is binding on all members of the class, and thus deprives the federal court of jurisdiction to hear the case.   The Eighth Circuit Court, the petition said, has allowed such a “stipulation” to defeat federal jurisdiction.

The case is a sequel to the Court’s ruling last year in Smith v. Bayer Corp., finding that a person seeking to file a class action does not represent the interests of others in the potential class, unless a court formally creates such a class.   Standard Fire asserted that the Eighth Circuit has flouted that decision by allowing a named plaintiff to keep a case out of federal court merely by stipulating that the class is not seeking more than $5 million in recovery.   The specific lawsuit was filed in a state court in Miller County, Arkansas, based only on state law claims, but Standard sought to remove it to federal district court for decision.   There is no conflict among lower courts on the issue, the suing individual, Greg Knowles, argued in trying to persuade the Justices not to grant Standard’s petition.

The Court’s order granting review of the burglary case involves the use of a state burglary conviction as a basis for enhancing a sentence for a federal crime under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  The case involves a Colville, Wash., man, Matthew Robert Descamps, who was convicted of the federal crime of being a felon who had a gun illegally.  He was sentenced under that Act to 262 months in prison, based in part on a 1978 conviction — a guilty plea — for the burglary of a grocery store in California, treating that conviction as one for a “violent felony.”

In his petition, Descamps’s lawyers argued that the burglary conviction should not count in the sentencing calculation, because the California law at issue does not include the element of entering or remaining illegally at the site of the alleged crime.   That omission, the petition claimed, means that the crime does not fit the definition of “generic burglary.”   The Ninth Circuit, however, supplied that element, finding that burglary under the California law at issue in Deschamps’s case is broader than “generic burglary,” and thus counts under the ACCA.

The U.S. Solicitor General had urged the Court not to hear Descamps’s case, even though the government conceded that there is some disagreement among lower courts on when a federal court may supply a missing element of a crime, using what is technically called the “modified categorical approach.”   The Solicitor General said that conflict predates a definitive ruling on the issue by the Ninth Circuit, so Supreme Court review at this point would be premature.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court grants two more cases, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 31, 2012, 10:07 AM),