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Disputes over church property and ACCA ambiguity

relist

The Relist Watch column examines cert petitions that the Supreme Court has “relisted” for its upcoming conference. A short explanation of relists is available here.

Even after nearly a month off since the last installment, this week’s round-up is going to be abbreviated because of the press of business. There are about 489 cases that have been scheduled for resolution at this Friday’s conference. Only four of those cases are new relists. They concern two basic issues.

The first three cases — All Saints’ Episcopal Church (Fort Worth) v. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, 20-534, The Episcopal Church v. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, 20-536, and Schulz v. Presbytery of Seattle, 20-261 — are all examples of something that the Supreme Court used to see a lot of, but seem like they’ve been in someone shorter supply recently: property disputes pitting a breakaway faction against a national church for control of property. These cases involve how to apply two lines of case law, both involving leading cases with “Jones” in the caption. Under one line of authority, exemplified by the landmark 1872 case Watson v. Jones, civil courts adjudicating church property disputes essentially defer to the highest church authorities about who owns the property. But under 1979’s Jones v. Wolf, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that courts could adjudicate such cases applying “neutral principles of law” to determine which party the property deeds, statutes, and church governing documents indicated the property belonged to.

The two cases brought by Episcopal entities involve a Fort Worth, Texas, sanctuary and rectory. The Texas Supreme Court held it belonged to the “withdrawing faction” rather than the national organization. The Presbyterian case involves church property in Seattle, Washington — apparently, the very last downtown Seattle property not occupied by a coffee shop or outdoor clothing store. The Washington Court of Appeals held that courts should defer to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s designee, who said the property belonged to the group still affiliated with the national organization. 

The national Episcopal Church and affiliated entities explicitly say that if the Texas decision is correct, Wolf should be overruled. The petitioners in the Seattle case, the trustees of a congregation that disaffiliated from the national Presbyterian church, clearly suggest that Watson is not good law. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court takes up an issue that has been percolating for almost a decade. [Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to SCOTUSblog in various capacities, is counsel on an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in the two cases involving the Episcopal Church.] 

That brings us to the second issue, which involves the Armed Career Criminal Act, a “three strikes”-type sentencing enhancement whose legendary ambiguity has spawned so much litigation that, as I’ve observed before, it can sometimes seem as if there are more Armed Career Criminal Act appeals than there are armed career criminals. The ACCA sentencing enhancement applies only if the defendant has three predicate convictions that were “committed on occasions different from one another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). The question in Wooden v. United States, 20-5279 is: When a criminal defendant commits a series of offenses sequentially — such as breaking into 10 different mini-storage units one after another (which is just what petitioner William Dale Wooden did one evening) — were the offenses “committed on occasions different from one another” for purposes of the ACCA enhancement? 

Some circuits say that offenses are automatically committed on different occasions if they are separated in time by even a short interval; thus the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said Wooden had 10 prior offenses committed on different occasions because he burgled (that’s right, I said burgled) 10 mini-storage units in a row, and he could not have been in more than one unit at the same time. Other circuits say that the offenses have to be treated as the same occasion unless they arose under different opportunities or circumstances — meaning the offenses were part of different criminal episodes.

The Wooden petition also presents a second question: whether officers who use deception to gain access to constitutionally protected areas have violated the Fourth Amendment. The police officer here asked if he could step inside Wooden’s home “to stay warm,” but his real goal was to track down a fugitive. Once inside, he found a gun that Wooden shouldn’t have possessed. The 6th Circuit held that was not a constitutional violation. That arguably splits from a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. [Disclosure: My law firm, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, is counsel to Wooden. I am not involved in the case.]

That’s all for this week. Stay safe (and warm) out there!

New relists

All Saints’ Episcopal Church (Fort Worth) v. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, 20-534
Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to SCOTUSblog in various capacities, is counsel on an amicus brief in support of petitioners in this case.
Issue: Whether the Texas Supreme Court’s decision awarding the sanctuary and rectory of the petitioner, All Saints’ Episcopal Church (Fort Worth), to a dissident faction in contravention of the will of petitioner’s parishioners and an express-trust provision is consistent with the free exercise and establishment clauses.
(relisted after the Jan. 22 conference)

The Episcopal Church v. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, 20-536
Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to SCOTUSblog in various capacities, is counsel on an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in this case.
Issues: (1) Whether the First Amendment requires courts to enforce express trusts in church governing documents (as some jurisdictions hold, in line with Jones v. Wolf’s first safeguard), or whether state law may render such trusts unenforceable (as others hold); (2) whether the First Amendment requires courts to defer to churches on questions of polity (as some jurisdictions hold, in line with Jones’ second safeguard), or whether courts may apply state law to determine the structure of a church (as others hold); and (3) whether the neutral-principles approach may constitutionally be applied — either prospectively or retroactively — to resolve church-property disputes.
(relisted after the Jan. 22 conference)

Schulz v. Presbytery of Seattle, 20-261
Issue: Whether, in a dispute between a local congregation and its former denomination over ownership of property to which the local congregation holds legal title, the First Amendment permits courts to apply a rule of absolute deference to assertions of ownership by the denomination.
(relisted after the Jan. 22 conference)

Wooden v. United States, 20-5279
Disclosure: My law firm, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, is counsel to the petitioner. I am not involved in the case.
Issues: (1) Whether a police officer’s use of deception to gain entry to a constitutionally protected area violates the Fourth Amendment; and (2) whether offenses that were committed as part of a single criminal spree, but sequentially in time, were “committed on occasions different from one another” for purposes of a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
(relisted after the Jan. 22 conference)

Returning relists

Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute, 20-197
Issue: Whether the First Amendment deprives a government official of his right to control his personal Twitter account by blocking third-party accounts if he uses that personal account in part to announce official actions and policies.
(relisted after the Dec. 4, Dec. 11, Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Chipotle Mexican Grill v. Scott, 20-257
Issue: Whether a district court may consider factors other than the presence of a single material question of law or fact common to a group of employees when assessing whether the employees are “similarly situated” for purposes of the collective-action provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
(relisted after the Dec. 4, Dec. 11, Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences) [NB: the parties have reached an agreement in principle to settle]

United States v. Vaello-Madero20-303
Issue: Whether Congress violated the equal-protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment by establishing Supplemental Security Income — a program that provides benefits to needy aged, blind and disabled individuals — in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and in the Northern Mariana Islands pursuant to a negotiated covenant, but not extending it to Puerto Rico.
(relisted after the Dec. 11, Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Texas v. California, 220153
Issue: Whether California’s sanctions against Texas and Texans – prohibiting state-funded or state-sponsored travel to Texas because Texas protects the religious freedom of faith-based child welfare providers within its borders – are born of religious animus and violate the Constitution’s privileges and immunities clause, interstate commerce clause and guarantee of equal protection. CVSG: 12/4/2020.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 19-1392
Issues: (1) Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional; (2) whether the validity of a pre-viability law that protects women’s health, the dignity of unborn children and the integrity of the medical profession and society should be analyzed under Planned Parenthood v. Casey‘s “undue burden” standard or Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt‘s balancing of benefits and burdens; and (3) whether abortion providers have third-party standing to invalidate a law that protects women’s health from the dangers of late-term abortions.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross, 20-97
Issues: (1) Whether, in conflict with the holdings of the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 5th and 11th Circuits and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Antiquities Act applies to ocean areas beyond United States’ sovereignty where the federal government has only limited regulatory authority; and (2) whether the president can evade the Antiquities Act’s “smallest area” requirement, including designating ocean monuments larger than most states, by vaguely referencing “resources” or an “ecosystem” as the objects to be protected.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Harris v. Maryland, 20-101
Issue: Whether, when preindictment delay has caused actual prejudice to the accused’s ability to defend himself, the due process clause requires that the defendant prove that the delay was driven by an improper prosecutorial motive, or that courts balance the particular prejudice to the defendant against the particular reasons (or lack thereof) for the delay.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Johnson v. Precythe, 20-287
Issues: (1) Whether Bucklew v. Precythe established a categorical rule that a state may obtain dismissal of an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim by proffering a reason for rejecting the plaintiff’s opposed alternative method of execution that is legitimate in the abstract, regardless of whether the plaintiff has plausibly alleged that the state’s proffered reason is not legitimate or sufficient on the facts of the case; and (2) whether, in the alternative, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit’s refusal to permit Ernest Johnson, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bucklew was issued, to amend his complaint to propose a previously-used alternative method of execution warrants summary reversal.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

United States v. Tsarnaev, 20-443
Issues: (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit erred in concluding that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capital sentences must be vacated on the ground that the district court, during its 21-day voir dire, did not ask each prospective juror for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage that he or she had read, heard or seen about Tsarnaev’s case; and (2) whether the district court committed reversible error at the penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s trial by excluding evidence that Tsarnaev’s older brother was allegedly involved in different crimes two years before the offenses for which Tsarnaev was convicted.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Republican Party of Pennsylvania v. Boockvar, 20-542
Issues: (1) Whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court usurped the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s plenary authority to “direct [the] Manner” for appointing electors for president and vice president under Article II of the Constitution, as well as the assembly’s broad power to prescribe “[t]he Times, Places, and Manner” for congressional elections under Article I, when the court issued a ruling requiring the state to count absentee ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day as long as they are not clearly postmarked after Election Day; and (2) whether that decision is preempted by federal statutes that establish a uniform nationwide federal Election Day.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Corman v. Pennsylvania Democratic Party, 20-574
Issues: (1) Whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court usurped the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s plenary authority to “direct [the] Manner” for appointing electors for president and vice president under Article II of the Constitution, as well as the assembly’s broad power to prescribe “[t]he Times, Places, and Manner” for congressional elections under Article I, when the court issued a ruling requiring the state to count absentee ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day as long as they are not clearly postmarked after Election Day; and (2) whether that decision is preempted by federal statutes that establish a uniform nationwide federal Election Day.
(relisted after the Jan. 8, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

McCoy v. Alamu, 20-31
Issues: (1) Whether a prison official is entitled to qualified immunity if he gratuitously assaults a prisoner but not every factor from Hudson v. McMillian for when the use of excessive physical force may constitute cruel and unusual punishment favors the plaintiff, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held here, or whether the plaintiff can nonetheless defeat qualified immunity, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th, 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have held; and (2) whether a prison official who assaults a prisoner without justification is entitled to qualified immunity if past precedent involved different mechanisms of force, as the 5th Circuit implicitly held here, or whether precedent concerning unprovoked assaults by one weapon can clearly establish the unconstitutionality of unprovoked assaults by other weapons, as the 4th and 9th Circuits have held.
(relisted after the Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

Bridge Aina Le’a, LLC v. Hawaii Land Use Commission, 20-54
Issues: (1) Whether, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s extensive, published ruling eliminates property owners’ ability to recover for temporary property takings under any theory, and that ruling conflicts with decisions of other courts, including the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court needs to clarify the rules for recovery for temporary regulatory takings; (2) whether, in light of the confusion in the lower courts as to the application of the factors from Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City — to the point where it has become almost impossible for property owners to prevail on this theory — the Supreme Court should reexamine and explain how Penn Central analysis is supposed to be done — or dispensed with; (3) whether, in light of the 9th Circuit’s holding that almost no value loss — no matter how great — can ever establish a temporary taking under either Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council or Penn Central, it is necessary for the Supreme Court to clarify the standards; and (4) whether, in light of Penn Central’s clear direction that cases like this are to be determined ad hoc, on their individual facts, and the Supreme Court’s approval in City of Monterey v. Del Monte Dunes, that takings liability be decided by a jury, appellate courts need to stay their hands (as mandated by the Seventh Amendment’s re-examination clause) when — as here — reviewing jury findings of fact-based takings issues, particularly when the trial judge confirmed those findings.
(relisted after the Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 conferences)

American Medical Association v. Azar, 20-429
Issues: (1) Whether the Department of Health and Human Services’ rule for the Title X family planning program — which prohibits and compels certain pregnancy-related speech between a Title X provider and her patient, proscribing abortion-related information but requiring information about non-abortion options — is arbitrary and capricious; (2) whether the rule violates the Title X appropriations act, which requires that “all pregnancy counseling” under Title X “shall be nondirective”; and (3) whether the rule violates Section 1554 of the Affordable Care Act, which requires that HHS “shall not promulgate any regulation” that harms patient care in any one of six ways, including by “interfer[ing] with communications” between a patient and her provider.
(relisted after the Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 conferences, but not relisted for the Jan. 15 conference)

Department of Homeland Security v. New York, 20-449
Issues: (1) Whether entities that are not subject to the public-charge ground of inadmissibility contained in Immigration and Nationality Act, and which seek to expand benefits usage by aliens who are potentially subject to that provision, are proper parties to challenge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s final rule interpreting the statutory term “public charge” and establishing a framework by which DHS personnel are to assess whether an alien is likely to become a public charge; and (2) whether the final rule is likely contrary to law or arbitrary and capricious.
(relisted after the Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 conferences, but not relisted for the Jan. 15 conference)

Mayorkas v. Cook County, Illinois, 20-450
Issues: (1) Whether entities that are not subject to the public-charge ground of inadmissibility contained in Immigration and Nationality Act, and which seek to expand benefits usage by aliens who are potentially subject to that provision, are proper parties to challenge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s final rule interpreting the statutory term “public charge” and establishing a framework by which DHS personnel are to assess whether an alien is likely to become a public charge; and (2) whether the final rule is likely contrary to law or arbitrary and capricious.
(relisted after the Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 conferences, but not relisted for the Jan. 15 conference)

Cochran v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 20-454
Issues: (1) Whether the Department of Health and Human Services’ rule, which prohibits Title X projects from providing referrals for abortion as a method of family planning, falls within the agency’s statutory authority; and (2) whether the rule is the product of reasoned decisionmaking.
(relisted after the Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 conferences, but not relisted for the Jan. 15 conference)

Oregon v. Cochran, 20-539
Issues: (1) Whether the Department of Health and Human Services’ final rule — which prohibits Title X providers from communicating certain abortion-related information to their patients and requires physical separation of Title X-funded care from healthcare facilities that provide abortion services or certain abortion-related information — violates appropriations statutes requiring that “all pregnancy counseling” in the Title X program “shall be nondirective”; (2) whether the final rule violates Section 1554 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits HHS from promulgating “any regulation” that creates “unreasonable barriers” to obtaining appropriate medical care, impedes “timely access” to such care, interferes with patient-provider communications “regarding a full range of treatment options,” restricts providers from disclosing “all relevant information to patients making health care decisions,” or violates providers’ ethical standards; and (3) whether the final rule is arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, including by failing to respond adequately to concerns that (a) the rule requires medical professionals to violate medical ethics and (b) the counseling restrictions and physical-separation requirement impose significant costs and impair access to care.
(relisted after the Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 conferences; directed to file but not relisted for the Jan. 15 conference)

Recommended Citation: John Elwood, Disputes over church property and ACCA ambiguity, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 18, 2021, 4:39 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2021/02/disputes-over-church-property-and-acca-ambiguity/