This week’s opinions in plain English
As many of you undoubtedly know, spring's an exciting time for SCOTUS watchers, and not just because the cherry blossoms are abloom in Washington, DC. For Chief Justice Roberts, a self-professed basketball fan, perhaps it's about March Madness, but for those of us more interested in the Court than in the court, it's because we're starting to reach that time of year when opinions come down fast and furious. It's been six months since the First Monday in October (which Congress has designated as the first day of the new SCOTUS Term), so the Court has had a chance to consider carefully a number of important cases that were argued early in the Term. From now until the end of June (the traditionally self-imposed end of the active SCOTUS Term, although each Term officially runs until the beginning of the next), we're bound to see lots of law being interpreted and made.
This week was certainly typical for early spring: The Court handed down opinions in five cases, several of them in fairly major cases heard several months ago. There's lots to discuss in plain English.
Let's start with Jones v. Harris Associates, in which a unanimous Court held that investment advisors cannot, under federal law, charge captive mutual fund shareholders fees that are so "disproportionately large" that they "bear no reasonable relationship to the services rendered." This standard comes from a thirty-year-old case called Gartenberg. The Court explained that the case had provided ample guidance in the past, and so no change in the standard was necessary. In short, the Court declined to set specific guidelines, but it indicated both that comparison-type evidence might be allowed and that courts will give great deference to the decisions of mutual fund boards.
In another closely watched case from the fall, Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Court held that a lawyer representing an alien client must tell the client about the potential consequences of a guilty plea: namely, whether he risks being deported when he pleads guilty. The case is important because, under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants have a right to competent assistance of counsel, and Padilla describes new responsibilities for criminal defense lawyers. Writing for the Court, Justice Stevens said that to be competent, lawyers must advise their clients about the risks of deportation as long as immigration law on the issue is clear. Otherwise, lawyers may tell clients that immigration risks may exist without being more specific. Two Justices "“ Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts "“ wrote separately to express concerns that criminal lawyers could not be expected to do it all, and they suggested that criminal defense lawyers' obligations ended with advice to clients to consult immigration attorneys.
The Court was also unanimous in Berghuis v. Smith, a case about the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. The Court has held in a number of cases that the right to trial by jury means not only any jury, but a jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community. In Berghuis, Mr. Smith "“ who is African American "“ was convicted by an all-white jury that was selected from a pool that contained a very small percentage of black people. However, the Court held that the underrepresentation of blacks in the jury pool was not serious enough to warrant relief and that there was not enough evidence of systematic exclusion of black jurors from the pool.
Interestingly, the Court did not establish a measuring test to decide whether representation was adequate. Instead, it stated that Mr. Smith had not established that blacks were systematically excluded "“ in other words, that the jury assignment system had served to exclude African Americans from the jury pool to Mr. Smith's extreme disadvantage.
The Court has decided a number of questions involving the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial over the last twenty-five years or so, and these cases garner a lot of attention, perhaps because most Americans serve on juries at one point or another. And many SCOTUS watchers might ask, "If the jury isn't fairly composed, shouldn't Mr. Smith get a new trial?" The answer isn't as simple as the question, though. While the jury pool might have been unfairly composed, the question the Court must answer is whether it was constitutionally unfair, or whether a constitutional right was violated. That's a pretty high standard, one the Court is reluctant to decide is satisfied in just any case.
In another opinion, Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. U.S. ex rel. Wilson, the Court's decision will not affect many cases going forward. Why? Because the case involves a federal law, the False Claims Act, that Congress has amended since the Court heard the case. The False Claims Act states that people who sue to recover misused federal funds get a percentage of those funds. However, according to the Court's opinion, claimants who discovered the misuse through reports or audits produced by state or local agencies may not recover "“ although they now may under the law as changed by Congress. How can Congress allow such suits if the Court has said they're prohibited? Well, because the law was passed by Congress. In interpreting federal law, the Court's role is to decide what the law means in a current incarnation. Congress is still free to change the law, though, which it often does if it doesn't like the way the Court has interpreted it (although that situation is not directly implicated here, as the law was amended before the Court's decision).
One more point about the False Claims Act issue: It's unclear from the amendment whether it will apply retroactively, or reach back in time to affect cases pending when the amendment was passed. To affect the ruling in Graham (a case pending when the amendment was passed), it would have to be retroactive. Because the case will now return to the Fourth Circuit, this issue will probably come up again.
Finally, in Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Company, the Court was quite split, with a concurrence by Justice Stevens apparently establishing new law about which federal rules apply to class-action lawsuits in federal court.