Breaking News

Court to rule on Congress’s power over courts

Taking on a new case that tests Congress’s power over the courts, but also gets into a sensitive question of U.S.-Iran dealings, the Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to review a legislative mandate on legal rights at issue in a case filed by victims of terrorism.

The case filed by Iran’s central bank, Bank Markazi v. Peterson, was one of thirteen new cases that the Justices accepted for review in the new Term that formally opens next Monday.  It is likely that the Court will hear oral arguments in the new cases in January and February.

Other newly accepted cases will deal with the duty of a state judge to stay out of a death penalty case after having pursued it previously as a prosecutor, a criminal case that tests the constitutional status of Puerto Rico (a U.S. commonwealth), and a return to an issue the Court has considered before: the power of U.S. courts to decide claims of business misconduct that occurred overseas.

The Iran case is a thoroughly modern dispute over paying for deaths and injuries caused by terrorists, but it will take the Court back to a precedent that dates from the Civil War era dealing with the question of disloyalty of Confederate sympathizers.  That 1872 ruling, in the case of United States v. Klein, laid down the principle that Congress acts unconstitutionally when it directs a federal court on how a pending case should be decided.

At the core of the Iran case are the claims of more than 1,300 Americans that they should be allowed access to about $1.75 billion in financial assets they say are owned by Iran’s central bank, to help cover prior court rulings they have won.  Those money awards, so far not collected by the victims, were based on claims that the Iranian government sponsored the terrorist acts that harmed those victims or their relatives.   The assets, held in a New York City bank, were frozen in 2012 at President Obama’s order as relations between the two countries deteriorated over terrorism in the Middle East.

The new case reached the Court just as the Obama administration is attempting to improve relations with the Iranian government, as part of dealings that included the new nuclear weapons deal that is designed to postpone when that government could develop such arms.

Bank Markazi claimed in its new appeal to the Supreme Court that Congress acted unconstitutionally in 2012 when, at the urging of the families involved in the case, it passed a new law essentially declaring that the victims were entitled to those frozen assets.  The central bank contended that this was, in essence, directing the outcome of the case in violation of the 1872 precedent, because the new law left very little for the federal courts to do to implement it.  The language of the law specifically cites the claims pending in court.   The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected the challenge, finding that Congress had left the courts with a sufficient task that the 2012 law did not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine.

When the case reached the Court last Term, the Justices in April asked the U.S. solicitor general to provide the government’s views on it.  Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., answered in August, urging the Court to deny review, arguing that there is no conflict among lower courts on the issues and that the decision had no significant ramifications for international relations.  After considering the dispute at its private Conference on Monday, the Court decided to review the case anyway.

The judicial disqualification case the Court will hear (Williams v. Pennsylvania) will give the Court a chance to clarify when the rights of an individual are violated when a member of a state supreme court joins in ruling on a case in which that judge has been accused of bias because of a former role in the case.

Four years ago, in its decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Court ruled that it violates constitutional due process when a member of the West Virginia Supreme Court cast the deciding vote in a case in which the judge had accepted large campaign donations from the mining company involved in the case.

One of the issues that the Court agreed to consider in the new Pennsylvania case is whether that precedent on judicial qualification also applies when the challenged judge did not cast a deciding vote.  The judge involved — then Pennsylvania’s chief justice, Ronald D. Castille (who has since retired) — joined in a unanimous ruling by the state supreme court that reinstated a death sentence for a Philadelphia man, Terrance Williams.

Williams, then eighteen years old, was convicted in 1986 of murder, robbery, and criminal conspiracy in the killing of Amos Norwood and was sentenced to death.  Williams contended that Norwood was a sexual predator who had preyed on underage boys, including Williams at the age of thirteen.

Later, when Williams case went before the state supreme court, his lawyers sought to have Chief Justice Castille disqualified, arguing that he had as a Philadelphia prosecutor authorized the decision to seek a death sentence for Williams, voiced strong support for the death penalty when running for a seat on the state supreme court and cited Williams’s case as an example of his “tough on crime” record.  The case before the state’s highest court involved a claim that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have aided in Williams’s defense.   The state court rejected that challenge.   The chief justice denied the recusal motion without explanation, and refused Williams’s request to refer it to the full court.

The commonwealth government of Puerto Rico gained Court review Thursday of its claim that, since Congress gave it self-governing powers in 1950, it has the power to pass its own laws as a sovereign government, like any state in the Union.  Thus, it argued, its legislature has full authority to pass criminal laws.  And, as is important in this case, it has the independent right to prosecute someone for a crime even if the federal government has already prosecuted that same crime.

That argument was rejected by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court, which concluded that Puerto Rico and the federal government were part of the same sovereignty — that of the United States.   Puerto Rico, it decided, gets its power to legislate from Congress.  Because the two governments are not separate sovereigns, the court declared, it would violate the Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy for a person to be tried by both Puerto Rico and federal prosecutors.

The case (Puerto Rico v. Valle),  although focused on the double jeopardy issue, will apparently required the Court to decide just what constitutional significance to assign to the 1950 law on which Puerto Rico based its claim of sovereign powers.

Another major case that the Justices granted on Thursday fits within a trend in which the Court has shown increasing skepticism about filing lawsuits in federal courts to challenge corporate or government misconduct that occurs outside the United States.  As a general rule, the Court has said, U.S. laws do not reach beyond the nation’s borders.  Only if Congress has said so explicitly, it has ruled, does a law reach abroad.

At issue in a new case is the reach of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the most important federal civil law that covers corporate misconduct.  If a corporation is found to have violated RICO, it must pay treble damages to the victim of its misconduct.  The new case (RJR Nabisco v. European Community) involves a RICO lawsuit by twenty-six of the European Union’s member states, claiming that the tobacco giant engaged in a series of money-laundering actions in the marketing of its tobacco products through smuggling operatives based in Colombia and Russia.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit cleared the case to go to trial, concluding that RICO does have extraterritorial reach, at least for some crimes that the RICO law itself lists as “predicate acts” for racketeering.  The tobacco company contends that RICO itself does not gain overseas reach merely because a company might be accused of one of those “predicate acts.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will not take part in the case, the Court indicated.  No reason was given, but she may have had some role in the case when she previously served on the Second Circuit.

In the other nine cases that the Court accepted for review, the questions are summarized as follows:

Utah v. Strieff — Whether, if police learn about an outstanding arrest warrant during a street or traffic stop that turns out to have been illegal, the Fourth Amendment bars the use of any evidence obtained as a result of a search at the time of the arrest.

Sturgeon v. Masica — Whether Congress barred the National Park Service from imposing regulations — such as a ban on hovercraft for hunting moose — that apply to lands that lie within a national park but are owned by a state government, an Indian tribe, or a private person or company.

Heffernan v. Paterson, N.J. — Whether the First Amendment bars a local government from demoting one of its employees because a supervisor believed that the worker supported a political candidate.

Americold Logistics v. Conagra Foods — How federal courts should determine that the parties in a state court case are from different states, so that the case can be transferred to federal court for a decision.

Nebraska v. Parker — Whether Congress in 1882 had reduced the size of a reservation for the Omaha Indian tribe in Nebraska, putting the town of Pender outside Indian property and thus not subject to a tribal tax on liquor sales.

MHN Government Services v. Zaborowski — Whether California violates federal arbitration law when it treats arbitration contracts differently from other contracts, in determining whether all or only part of an arbitration agreement is void under state law.

Duncan v. Owens — Whether it violates federal habeas law for a judge during a criminal trial to state a position on the accused person’s motive, based on evidence not introduced at the trial.

Taylor v. United States — Whether, in a case under the Hobbs Act, the government must prove that robbery of a drug dealer does actually affect interstate commerce.

Molina-Martinez v. United States — What effect should a federal appeals court give to a district court’s ruling applying the wrong Sentencing Guideline range to a convicted individual.









Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on Congress’s power over courts, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 1, 2015, 12:30 PM),