Breaking News

Justices add computer fraud case to merits docket

This morning the Supreme Court issued orders from the justices’ private conference last week. The justices added one new case to their merits docket for next term, a case involving the interpretation of federal computer fraud laws.

In Van Buren v. United States, the justices agreed to decide whether it is a federal crime for someone with permission to access information on a computer to access that information for an improper purpose. The question comes to the court in a petition filed by Nathan Van Buren, a Georgia police officer who became the subject of an FBI sting operation after he asked a man named Andrew Albo (who had previously accused prostitutes of stealing money from him) for a loan.

At the FBI’s instruction, Albo asked Van Buren to run a computer search for a license plate number that supposedly belonged to a local exotic dancer. According to the story concocted by the FBI, Albo liked the dancer, but wanted to make sure that she wasn’t an undercover police officer. Van Buren agreed to do the search for Albo; Albo then gave him $6,000 in total.

Van Buren was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a federal crime to either access a computer without authorization or to exceed that user’s authorized access and obtain information. Van Buren was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Van Buren’s conviction, rejecting his argument that he could not have violated the CFAA because he had permission to access the databases.

Citing a division among the courts of appeals on the question presented by his case, Van Buren then went to the Supreme Court. He argued that if the lower court is correct, than any “trivial breach” of the conditions imposed by, for example, employers or the terms of service for a website – “from checking sports scores at work to inflating one’s height on a dating website” – would be a federal crime. Today the justices agreed to weigh in.

The justices turned down an appeal in a dispute between the city of St. Louis and the Rams football team. After the Rams moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, the city sued the team in state court in Missouri. Based on the contracts that the team and the city entered into when the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, the Rams asked the court to require the city to arbitrate the dispute. The trial court denied the request, and the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. It concluded that the contracts did not clearly and unmistakably assign the question of whether the team and the city had agreed to arbitrate their dispute to an arbitrator, rather than a court. The team came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to rule on what standard should be used to determine who should decide whether the parties to a contract had agreed to arbitrate any disputes. The justices considered the team’s petition for review at eight consecutive conferences but today denied it without comment.

The justices also denied review in the case of Anthony Robinson, a Maryland man who sued the Department of Education (as well as three credit-reporting agencies) for violating the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. Robinson contended that fraudulent student loans had been taken out in his name, and that the DOE had not properly investigated his claims. The district court dismissed Robinson’s lawsuit against the DOE, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld that dismissal. It ruled that provisions in the FCRA that allow consumers to sue any “person” who violates the FCRA did not clearly waive the federal government’s immunity from suit, even though the definition of “person” includes “any … government or governmental subdivision or agency.” Robinson appealed to the Supreme Court, which today denied his petition over a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas that was joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Thomas emphasized that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Robinson’s petition. Moreover, he added, the “question whether sovereign immunity has been waived is one of critical importance to any functioning government, but particularly to a democratic republic” – especially in cases under the FCRA, in which the government’s potential liability is “substantial.”

The justices did not act on the federal government’s petition asking the court to weigh in on (and ultimately invalidate) one of California’s so-called “sanctuary state” laws. Passed in 2017, Senate Bill 54 (known as the California Values Act) prohibits state and local law-enforcement officials from cooperating with federal immigration officials – for example, by providing information about individuals in custody, or transferring inmates in their custody to federal immigration authorities.

The justices are scheduled to hold another private conference on Friday, April 24. We expect orders from that conference on Monday, April 27, at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices add computer fraud case to merits docket, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 20, 2020, 4:31 PM),