Breaking News

Court adds seven new cases to merits docket

The Supreme Court issued a preliminary set of orders from its conference today, adding seven new cases to its merits docket for the term. The new cases include a high-profile Maryland gerrymandering case, a dispute over federal sentencing laws and an effort to limit successive class actions.

In October, the justices heard oral argument in a challenge to the redistricting plan passed by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. Today they agreed to weigh in on Benisek v. Lamone, a challenge to another redistricting plan enacted in 2011, in which the plaintiffs allege that Democratic election officials in Maryland gerrymandered the state’s 6th congressional district in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ support for Republican candidates – specifically, Roscoe Bartlett, who represented them in Congress for two decades.

The plaintiffs told the justices that “the mapdrawers reshuffled fully half of the district’s 720,000 residents—far more than necessary to correct the mere 10,000-person imbalance in the district’s population following the 2010 census.” As a result, they explained, “registered Republicans’ share of the electorate fell from 47% to 33%,” and Bartlett lost his seat to a Democrat, John Delaney.

The issues before the court center on what plaintiffs in a First Amendment retaliation challenge to partisan gerrymandering must show for their case to go forward. According to the plaintiffs in this case, the district court would have required them to show that “each and every outcome is (and will continue to be) singularly attributable to gerrymandering.” But all they should have to show, the plaintiffs maintain, is that they have suffered some injury.

The case came to the Supreme Court in a slightly different procedural posture than the six cases in which the court granted certiorari today. Federal law channels redistricting cases to a three-judge district court, with an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court. In adding the case to its docket, the Supreme Court indicated that it would consider whether it has the authority to hear the case at the same time that it reviews the merits of the case.

A federal law allows a district judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence if the inmate was sentenced “based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the” U.S. Sentencing Commission. The United States argued that the inmate in Koons v. United States is not eligible for sentence reductions because his sentence was not based on a sentencing range that was later lowered. Rather, the government told the justices, he was sentenced below the statutory mandatory minimum because he helped the government. Another case granted today, Hughes v. United States, involves a similar question: Whether an inmate who enters into a plea bargain under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) – which specifies that an attorney for the government will agree that a specific sentence is appropriate – is eligible to have his sentence reduced later if the sentencing guidelines are changed.

Another case granted today, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren, arose out of a property dispute between the tribe and Ray and Sharline Lundgren, who owned property next door to property owned by the tribe in Washington state. The Lundgrens filed a “quiet title” action against the tribe, to establish that they – rather than the tribe – actually owned a strip of land along the boundary between the two properties.

The tribe responded that the Lundgrens’ lawsuit should be dismissed because the tribe cannot be sued: Indian tribes have sovereign immunity unless they have waived that immunity or Congress has limited it – neither of which had occurred in the Upper Skagit Tribe’s case.

The trial court denied the tribe’s motion to dismiss the case, and a divided Washington Supreme Court affirmed. The majority ruled that, although the tribe itself could not normally be sued, the Lundgrens’ suit could go forward because the trial court was exercising jurisdiction over the property, rather than the tribe. The tribe urged the justices to review the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling, telling them that, although the North Dakota Supreme Court has reached the same conclusion, that holding conflicts with the decisions of the New Mexico Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

In a group of cases beginning with American Pipe & Construction v. Utah, the Supreme Court ruled that, when would-be class actions are filed, the statute of limitations is tolled for purported members for that class who want to either file their own lawsuits or intervene as plaintiffs if class certification is denied. Today the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether that same rule also tolls the statute of limitations to allow previously absent class members to bring their own class actions.

The plaintiffs in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, who are defending the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s ruling, own shares in China Agritech and filed a would-be class action alleging that the company had committed securities fraud. Their lawsuit followed two would-be class actions that were nearly identical, but the trial courts denied class certification in those cases. The district court dismissed the class complaint in this case, reasoning that it came too late. But the 9th Circuit allowed their lawsuit to go forward. It reasoned that, under American Pipe, previously absent members can file new class actions because the limitations period is tolled while the earlier would-be class actions are pending.

Urging the justices to grant review, China Agritech told them that the 9th Circuit’s decision “will lead to obvious forum-shopping,” because it will prompt plaintiffs to “choose a circuit that permits state class actions.” The Chamber of Commerce, a business group that filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the company, put it even more starkly, telling the court that if the 9th Circuit’s decision is allowed to stand, plaintiffs will be able to bring successive class actions arising out of the same allegations, even after class certification is initially denied. “Nothing will stop such zombie claims from arising again and again,” the group said.

The other cases granted today are:

  • Sveen v. Melin – Whether a state law providing that the designation of a spouse as a beneficiary (for example, of a life insurance policy) is automatically revoked if the couple divorces violates the Constitution’s contracts clause – which bars states from enacting laws that impair contracts – when the state law is applied to a contract that was signed before the law was enacted.
  • United States v. Sanchez-Gomez – Whether the 9th Circuit should have reviewed a challenge by a group of individuals who were detained before trial to a policy of using full restraints for a variety of non-jury proceedings when the case was interlocutory and the court of appeals had recognized that the individuals’ own claims were moot.

The justices are expected to issue additional orders from today’s conference on Monday morning at 9:30 am.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Court adds seven new cases to merits docket, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 8, 2017, 7:16 PM),