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Case granted on venue issue

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether an agreement by business firms on the place where any legal dispute between them will be decided ordinarily must be put into effect by a federal court.  The case of Atlantic Marine Construction Co., Inc., v. J-Crew Management, Inc. (12-929) was the only one granted.  It will be heard and decided next Term

The Court sent back to lower courts, for a new look, a case on the right of a group of consumers to file a class-action lawsuit against a product manufacturer, when many in the group may not have experienced the same product flaw that led to the case.  The case of Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer (12-322) was returned to the Sixth Circuit Court to examine the impact of last Wednesday’s ruling in Comcast v. Behrend (11-864).  The lawsuit involves a foul odor emerging from front-end loading washing machines.

In a summary ruling that largely applies only to California, the Court overturned a Ninth Circuit Court ruling that an individual who has several times chosen to act as his or her own defense lawyer in a criminal case but then seeks a lawyer’s help after the trial generally must be allowed that legal aid.  The Court, in an unsigned opinion in Marshall v. Rodgers (12-382) did not further clarify the scope of the right of self-representation, but concluded that the Circuit Court had constructed a new legal assistance rule out of its own precedents, not Supreme Court precedents, and that was wrong.  No dissents were noted.

The Atlantic Marine case accepted for review will give the Justices an opportunity to sort out the meaning of two prior rulings that seem to run counter to each other on federal courts’ reaction to forum-selection causes in business contracts.

In the 1972 decision in M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore, the Court ruled that federal courts should operate on the premise that such a clause in a contract is valid, and should generally be enforced.  But in a 1988 ruling in Stewart Organization v. Ricoh Corp., the Court ruled that federal, not state, law can govern a motion to transfer a case between federal courts.  The Stewart opinion has been interpreted by some courts as indicating that private contractual agreement on the proper venue cannot trump a federal judge’s decision on that question.

The new case grows out of a dispute between a Virginia contractor and a Texas subcontractor over payments for work the subcontractor did on a project at Fort Hood, an Army post near Killeen, Texas.  Their contract specified that any dispute would have to be decided by a court in Virginia, but the subcontractor sued in a federal court in Texas, and the Fifth Circuit Court refused to transfer the case to Virginia.

A prominent feature of Monday’s list of orders was that the Court opted to pass up a number of significant cases.

Among those it denied was a plea by voters in Irving, Texas, to settle the long-standing issue of which population basis should be used in deciding whether a redistricting plan violates the one-person, one-vote mandate.  The dispute is between using an area’s total population in equalizing districts, or using only the total of eligible voters.   In a dispute over city elections in Irving, lower courts used total population, which meant that one district which had a larger number of non-citizen Hispanics would nevertheless have them included in its count.  The case was Lepak v. City of Irving (12-777).

The Court also turned down two cases involving important issues of federal regulation: a challenge to a 2010 federal order establishing a new air quality standard for nitrogen dioxide (American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, 12-760), and a challenge to a 2011 federal rule requiring commercial airlines to advertise most prominently the total price a passenger is to pay (Spirit Airlines v. Department of Transportation, 12-656).

The Court refused review, too, in a case testing whether a worker injured on the job may sue under the federal RICO law on the theory that denial of workers’ compensation was a loss of property.  The case was Cassens Transport Co. v. Brown (12-622).

The Court issued two orders on the division of time for the coming arguments this month in two cases.  In Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (12-398), a case over patenting of human genes, the Court ordered a sixty-five minute hearing to accommodate the U.S. Solicitor General as an amicus.  In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (12-399), a case over the rights of Indian parents to prevent a child’s adoption, the Court split up the one-hour argument four ways, to accommodate the Solicitor General and a lawyer for a guardian of the child, in addition to lawyers for the adoptive couple and for the father.

Once again, the Court took no action on a case testing the constitutionality of holding high school graduation ceremonies in a church.  The Court has considered the case of Elmbrook School District v. Doe (12-755) twice, without announcing any action on it.  It presumably will go on to the next Conference, on April 12.  (UPDATE: This case is now set for consideration at the April 12 Conference.)

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Case granted on venue issue, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 1, 2013, 9:41 AM),