SCOTUS Roundup: Calm Monday Leaves Chaotic Work Ahead

Call it the calm before the storm. After another relatively quiet Monday, the Supreme Court adjourned for the week, leaving its most divisive work for another time. The Court did decide three cases, two of them by unanimous decision, and rejected others. More than two dozen cases remain over the Court’s final three weeks, setting the stage for a potentially explosive finish.

A unanimous, ten-page opinion was all Justice Kavanaugh needed to decide “an exceedingly narrow question,” related to the Armed Career Criminal Act. In Quarles v. United States, the Court was asked to consider whether the generic definition of burglary requires proof of intent to commit a crime at the exact moment of entry or remaining, or, as Michigan statute says, “at any time.” Quarles had argued the former. Kavanaugh found for the state, and rejected Quarles’ “esoteric” defense.

The Court also unanimously ruled against oil drilling platform workers Monday. In Parker Drilling v. Newton, workers argued they should be paid for time spent on “standby,” in which they were not working but nonetheless couldn’t leave the platform. California law would require such compensation, and the workers argued this should apply. Justice Thomas was not convinced. “Federal law is the only law” that applies, per the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and “there has never been any overlapping state and federal jurisdiction there.”

In the most contentious ruling of the day, the Court ruled the federal government is not a “person” capable of challenging patents. In Return Mail v. United States Postal Service, the USPS had attempted to do just this, challenging the patent for a machine designed to read barcodes with address information and speed up handling of undeliverable mail. Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Sotomayor dismissed the three arguments the Postal Service made “for displacing the presumption” that a statutory reference to a “person” does not include the government. In the line of the day, Sotomayor wrote, “None delivers.”

Justices also marked “return to sender” on at least three notable cases. One attempted to challenge the indefinite detention of terror suspects, held for almost two decades without charge at Guantanamo Bay. While not dissenting, Justice Breyer noted “it is past time to confront the difficult question left open” by the Court’s 2004 detention ruling. The Court was similarly uninterested in hearing a challenge to a federal law restricting gun silencers, and the Trump administration, looking in to further restrictions, urged the Court not to take the case. In the latest adventures of California atheist Michel Newdow, the Court rejected an attempt to remove “In God We Trust” from all coins and currency.

Of course, the real money cases, on partisan gerrymandering, the U.S. Census, and the First Amendment, remain. Mid to late-June means finals on many sporting calendars, and court watchers are eagerly awaiting which cases go the full seven games. Whether these cases and controversies will live up to the hype, and produce landmark decisions, whither away in narrowly-tailored rulings, or result in punts, is anyone’s guess. Sometimes the season ends with a whimper, and sometimes it goes out with a bang.

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Robert Martin (CN Staff)

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