Supreme Court Non-Rulings More Important Than Cases It Actually Hears

While all the hot constitutional action of late, on issues ranging from Obamacare to gay marriage to immigration, has been in the lower courts — or even in Congress! — the Supreme Court still goes about its daily business.  After last year’s blockbuster term, however, this term is pretty low-profile aside from a spate of First Amendment cases (funeral protests, violent video games, school choice tax credits, public financing of election campaigns, etc.).  And so it was yesterday, when Supreme Court arguments over securities law and Western water rights were overshadowed by news of cases on which the Court decided not to rule:

  • Without comment, the Court denied an unusual request — a petition for a writ of mandamus — in the Gulf Coast global warming lawsuit, Comer v. Murphy Oil.  This is the case, you may recall, where the Fifth Circuit lost its quorum as it was about to hear the en banc (whole court) appeal of a panel ruling that allowed the suit to proceed, resulting in the odd situation of the appeal being dismissed altogether and the district court decision to dismiss the lawsuit being the law of the case.  Those complicated procedural twists would’ve made for an ungainly case, but the Supreme Court will hear a different global warming–related case, which I also previously discussed and in which Cato filed a brief
  • The Court declined to review the constitutionality of a federal ban on felons’ possession of body  armor (e.g., a bulletproof vest) — in a challenge arguing that these are issues properly left to the states, there being no interstate commerce connection.  In ruling for the government, the Ninth Circuit (always them!) had applied a precedent that antedated the seminal cases of Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000), where — as you know if you’ve been paying attention to the Obamacare lawsuits — the Court struck down the federal Gun-Free School Zones and Violence Against Women Acts, respectively, as beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.  Notably, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia in all but one footnote, filed a trenchant dissent from this cert denial (starts on page 33 here), saying that, ” Today the Court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence…. [The lower court’s] logic threatens the proper limits on Congress’ commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the States.”  Perhaps more notably, neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Alito joined Thomas’s dissent.  (H/T Josh Blackman)
  • The Court also declined to review the constitutionality of criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries — which are only allowed in Oregon (the place where this case originates) and Louisiana — denying a cert petition filed by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.  The interesting angle here is that it’s not at all clear whether (1) all the rights protected by the Bill of Rights — here the Sixth Amendment requirement that jury convictions be unanimous — are “incorporated” against the states and (2) whatever incorporation there is goes through the Due Process Clause or the Privileges or Immunities Clause (which is important for courts’ consideration of the scope of constitutional rights).  Recall that in McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states but could not agree on the jurisprudential methodology for doing so — yet still hinted that it would be open to revisiting these issues in a case relating to unanimous jury verdicts… but apparently not yet.
  • The Court took off its argument calendar a case regarding the sovereign immunity of Indian tribes, specifically whether that doctrine prevents the enforcement of property taxes against those legally peculiar entities.  This is a huge issue for federalism, state revenues, and a host of other policy matters — and is quite complex legally — but New York’s Oneida tribe, perhaps fearing what would have been an epic loss at the Supreme Court, here decided to waive its immunity claim and thus moot the case.

After all this “active non-action” — which may be how the government next tries to characterize the non-purchase of health insurance in its next attempt to somehow find constitutional authority for the individual mandate — the Court did release one opinion of note today.  The opinion itself, in a technical bankruptcy case regarding the compelling issue of whether a debtor can take a car-ownership deduction if she does not make loan or lease payments, is not particularly noteworthy, but the author — rookie Justice Elena Kagan — is.  And so, with 18 dry pages and over a lone dissent by Justice Scalia, the Kagan era has begun.