Justices grant review in four new cases
This afternoon the Supreme Court added four new cases to its docket, for a total of three hours of oral argument. The justices were not scheduled to meet for a conference this week, but each of the four cases in which the court granted review had been considered for the first time at the justices’ December 9 conference. The justices had already granted review in one case from that conference, Honeycutt v. United States, and on Monday they released a long list of additional orders from that conference. For roughly the last two years, the justices have generally granted review only after relisting a case at least once. Although there is no way to know for sure, the court may have used the four extra days since it granted review in Honeycutt to do additional due diligence on today’s grants before announcing that it would review them.
Two of the cases that the justices agreed to review today, Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States, arise out of the brutal 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller, a District of Columbia mother. The petitioners in the case are a group of D.C. men who were convicted of the crime, based in large part on testimony from alleged eyewitnesses. Decades later, a reporter learned that defense attorneys had not received a statement suggesting that someone else had committed the crime; additional discovery then revealed that prosecutors had failed to turn over other evidence that could have aided the defendants. The men sought to vacate their convictions, but were unsuccessful in the lower courts.
Today the Supreme Court agreed to review both cases. Overton had asked the court to weigh in on the standard that the lower court used to evaluate his claim that prosecutors had not complied with their obligations under Brady v. Maryland, which requires the government to turn over information that could exonerate the defendant. Turner and his co-defendants had asked the court to consider whether, when determining the significance of suppressed evidence, courts can consider information that comes to light after trial. But the court today announced that it would review a more straightforward question in both cases: whether the men’s convictions must be set aside under Brady.
With today’s grant in TC Heartland v. Kraft Food Brands Group, the justices added another case to their already sizeable patent and trademark docket. At issue in the case is the interpretation of the federal patent venue statute, which provides that lawsuits alleging that a patent has been infringed should be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1950s that, for corporations, the place where the defendant resides is its place of incorporation. The question is whether a change to the general federal statute governing venue for cases against corporations affects the venue rule in patent cases.
The petitioner in the case, TC Heartland, does business and is organized in Indiana, but was sued for patent infringement in Delaware. It argued that it could not be sued there because it did not “reside” there. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected that argument. It relied on a more expansive view of venue, based on a 1988 change to the federal corporate venue law that, in its view, allowed lawsuits to be brought wherever a federal court would have personal jurisdiction over the corporation. That interpretation, it maintained, was unaffected by a 2011 change to the general venue law. TC Heartland asked the court to take up the case, arguing that the Federal Circuit’s interpretation has “dramatically expanded venue in patent cases, producing a plague of forum shopping.”
In Lee v. United States, the justices return to a familiar topic: the case of a non-citizen who gets into trouble with the law and then receives poor legal advice, jeopardizing his stay in the United States. The petitioner in the case, Jae Lee, is a Tennessee man who came to the U.S. from South Korea in 1982 and eventually became a successful restauranteur. In 2009, he was charged with possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute. After seeing the evidence against Lee, Lee’s attorney recommended that Lee plead guilty, so that he would receive a shorter sentence. But, and despite Lee’s attorney’s assurances to the contrary, a guilty plea would result in Lee’s permanent and mandatory deportation.
Lee then sought to vacate his conviction, arguing that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to have adequate assistance from his attorney. The government agreed that Lee could satisfy the first prong of the test to determine whether an attorney’s representation violated the Constitution: The attorney had indeed provided deficient advice when he told Lee that a guilty plea would not expose him to deportation. But the lower courts ruled that Lee could not show, as required by the second prong of the test, that he was prejudiced by that bad advice, because the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that he would have been convicted and deported anyway. That is the question that the court agreed to review today.
Today’s cases will likely be argued in late winter or early spring. The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is January 6.