Breaking News

Court grants four cases

After weeks of pondering what to do about a case with an unusual combination of criminal law and U.S. treaty obligations, the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to accept it for review — for a second time.  The case involves the appeal of a Pennsylvania woman prosecuted for trying to poison her husband’s lover.  She was prosecuted under a federal law that implemented a global chemical weapons treaty.  The case is Bond v. United States (12-158).  Friday’s grants came as the last round of selection of cases that have a chance of being heard in the current Term, ending in late June.  If any of the cases are going to be heard this Term, that would be in April.

The Court also said it would rule on the legal fallout from a major investment “Ponzi scheme,” on a case on the proof needed to show illegal retaliation under federal workplace discrimination law, and on a test of the power of state courts to abolish a defense that an individual accused of crime had previously had available.

In the “Ponzi scheme” case, the Court accepted for review questions raised in three separate petitions, all focusing on whether the Court will block securities fraud class-action lawsuits based on state law, when the fraud had misled investors about the alleged backing of the investment by quality securities traded on major exchanges.  The cases involve civil lawsuits arising in the wake of the activities of Texas and Antigua financier Allen Stanford.   It involved the sales of some $7 billion in certificates of deposit that had little or nothing behind them, although it had been claimed that they were backed by safe, liquid securities.   The cases before the Court are Chadbourne & Parke v. Troice (12-79), granted on Question 1; Willis of Colorado v. Troice (12-86), granted, and Proskauer Rose LLP v. Troice (12-88), granted on Question 1.   The cases, taken to the Court by two law firms and by insurance companies, will be heard together in one hour of oral argument.  (Allen Stanford has been convicted of concocting and carrying out the scheme, and is serving a 110-year prison sentence.)

The workplace bias case granted review is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (12-484).   It involves the availability of a “mixed motive” claim by a worker who complains of retaliation on the job for exercising workplace rights.  In a “mixed motive” case, the worker with a grievance under Title VII only has to show that bias was a “motivating factor” for an adverse employment action, not the only and decisive factor.  Lower courts are split on whether that kind of claim can be made when the worker is challenging alleged retaliation for exercising workplace rights.  The case involves a doctor at a state university medical center in Dallas.

The fourth new case is Metrish v. Lancaster (12-547), involving the constitutionality of Michigan’s retroactive withdrawal of a criminal suspect’s right to claim that the crime was the result of diminished mental capacity.  That defense was made famous by the so-called “Twinkie” claim — an insistence by an accused individual that his crime was the result of a form of depression that showed up in an inability to resist eating junk food. The “Twinkie defense,” now the popular label for a “diminished capacity” defense, originated in the 1979 trial of a San Francisco official who entered city hall and murdered the mayor and another city official.

In the new Michigan case, a mentally disturbed former Detroit police officer sought to use that defense when he was prosecuted for killing his girlfriend for lying to him.  When he committed the crime, in 1993, that defense was available to him.  By the time he went to trial (his second trial) on the murder charge, the state had withdrawn that defense. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled that the cancellation violated his due process rights.  (The individual in the case is named Burt Lancaster, but is no relation to the late Hollywood actor, who died in 1994.)

The Pennsylvania lovers’ triangle case, Bond v. United States, had been considered by the Justices at their private Conferences eight times since early November.  That kind of repeated appearance can mean that the Court has decided not to hear a case, but some Justices are writing in protest.  It does not have to mean that, though, and it did not this time.   Previously, the Court has granted cases after such prolonged consideration, but that is rare.

The case involves Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, who has been convicted of violating the federal law that carried out a global treaty seeking to ban the spread of chemical weapons.  The Court had ruled in her favor earlier in a preliminary case when the issue was whether Bond was entitled to pursue a constitutional challenge, based on states’ rights, to the poisoning prosecution under the weapons treaty.  The Court allowed her to go forward with that challenge, but then it failed in a lower federal appeals court.  Bond says she accepts criminal responsibility for trying to spread poison where her husband’s paramour would touch it, but protests that she faces much more severe punishment under the treaty-related law than if she were prosecuted under state law for poisoning cases.

In her new petition, her lawyers raised two issues: the first asked the Court to decide whether there are any constitutional limits on Congress’s authority to implement a valid treaty, at least where the enforcement law appears to go beyond the scope of the treaty itself and intrudes on state law enforcement.   The second question at issue urged the Court to interpret the law so that it would not apply to “ordinary poisoning cases,” which the petition argued states can handle.   The case may pose a test of the continuing validity of a major Supreme Court precedent on Congress and treaty enforcement laws: the 1920 decision in Missouri v. Holland.

(Carol Anne Bond is represented in the case by Washington attorney Paul D. Clement, who also represents the insurance companies that are among the appealing parties in the “Ponzi scheme” case.  The Court took no action on another petition filed by Clement that the Court had considered at its Conference earlier Friday: an appeal by a village government in a Chicago suburb challenging the legal basis of an $80 million class-action lawsuit over police disclosure of a driver’s personal information on a parking ticket put under the windshield of his over-parked car.  That case is Village of Palatine v. Senne, 12-573.)

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court grants four cases, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 18, 2013, 3:23 PM),