60-Second Circuit Summaries

A collection of significant and strange cases decided by the federal courts of appeals this week. Each summary delivered in a minute or less: five cases, five minutes. On the (shorter) docket this Thanksgiving week: SCOTUS reenacts There Will Be Blood; Plowshares; panhandling; and immigration papers.


1. U.S. Supreme Court sides with Tennessee in cross-state water rights dispute.

Fans (like me) of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood will enjoy this case! An aquifer collects groundwater that has percolated through layers of sediment and rock under the earth’s surface. The Middle Claiborne Aquifer runs beneath eight states, two of which are Mississippi and Tennessee. Water in the Aquifer flows naturally—and slowly—from Mississippi to Tennessee. This phenomenon is known as “drainage,” or as Daniel Day-Lewis’ character puts it in the aforementioned film, “DRAAAAAINAGE!” Every day Memphis pumps 120 million gallons of water from the Aquifer. Mississippi sued, contending that it has sovereign ownership of all groundwater under its borders, even if that water drains into another state. It also argued that Memphis’ pumping increases the Aquifer’s rate of flow away from Mississippi. Mississippi sought $615 million in damages from Tennessee. The Supreme Court’s response? Mississippi’s complaint is dismissed. The Aquifer is subject to equitable apportionment, so Mississippi does not have unfettered control over upstream waters of the Aquifer. In other words, Tennessee can drink Mississippi’s milkshake. (Unlike Daniel Plainview, Tennessee did not proceed to bludgeon Mississippi to death with a bowling pin.)

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for a unanimous Court.

2. Eleventh Circuit unmoved by religious group’s defense to trespassing, destroying property on U.S. naval base.

Isaiah 2:4 reads, “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (emphasis added). In the 1980s a group of Roman Catholics took this verse quite literally and formed the Plowshares Movement. Its mission is to stop nuclear proliferation and, as Isaiah 2:4 suggests, war in general. Even today these pious pacifists proselytize. But to some Plowsharers, pacifism is an issue not of kind but of degree. In April 2018 several members of the movement broke into the King’s Bay U.S. Navy base, at which port ballistic missile nuclear submarines and other vessels. The pacifists cut through fencing, damaged monuments, removed signs, hung up banners, spray painted and crime scene-taped buildings, and poured out bottles of their own blood. The members were indicted. They moved for dismissal on the ground that the charges burdened their religious exercise in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Eleventh Circuit panel: No. “RFRA is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.” It does not permit the trespassing on or destruction of U.S. government property, even if done in the name of Christ. (This blog would’ve liked a cite to, say, Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”)

3. Tenth Circuit invalidates Albuquerque anti-panhandling law.

In 2017 the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico passed an ordinance amending its city traffic laws. As relevant, the ordinance forbids pedestrians to (1) congregate within six feet of an interstate on- or off-ramp; (2) stand on certain medians; or (3) communicate in any way with occupants of a vehicle in a traffic lane. Critics rightly dubbed it an anti-panhandling law. But the ordinance also had the effect of prohibiting less divisive actions like donating and leafleting. Local residents sued to invalidate the ordinance. They argued the ordinance violates the Free Speech Clause because even if Albuquerque has a compelling interest in curbing panhandling, the law is not narrowly tailored. Tenth Circuit panel: The residents are correct—and here’s 110 pages explaining why.

4. Second Circuit says SCOTUS precedent on some immigration papers does not apply to other immigration papers.

It is possible for a noncitizen to stave off deportation from the United States if they maintain a continuous presence in the country for a certain length of time. There are several caveats. One is the stop-time rule, which was made law in 1996. If the federal government serves a noncitizen with notice of a deportation proceeding, this “stops” the noncitizen’s “time” of continuous residency; any time accrued after the notice does not count for the purpose of delaying deportation. Such notice involves paperwork. Among other things, the government must tell the noncitizen when and where the deportation proceedings will occur. This presents some problems. For example, must the government put the time and date of the proceeding on the same sheet of paper? Answer: Yes, according to the Supreme Court this past April. (Yes, this was an actual controversy.) This gave rise to another problem. Before the stop-time rule’s introduction in 1996, federal officials used a different notice form than the form they use today. So, does the single-sheet requirement apply to forms in use before 1996? Second Circuit panel: No. Supreme Court precedent is inapposite here. Plus, the noncitizen’s motion to dismiss in this case is untimely.

5. Eleventh Circuit ponders insanity defenses and Federal Rules of Evidence.

In this case a woman accused of producing and distributing child sexual abuse material wanted a psychologist to testify about her intellectual disability. The district court denied the motion for several reasons. The woman went to trial, lost, and was convicted. She appealed, arguing her constitutional right to a full and fair defense was violated. Eleventh Circuit panel: We disagree; judgment affirmed. Nor can the defendant rely on the Insanity Defense Reform Act (IDRA). Judge Jordan, concurring: Agreed, and we really need to tidy up our circuit’s IDRA precedents. For instance, we’ve unwittingly interpreted IDRA to run headlong into Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b). How are lower courts supposed to handle that?

Image Credits: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood (2007).

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