The Supreme Court has a new mixed drink: it’s five parts formalism to four parts functionalism, with a splash of Humphrey’s Executor. This new drink was on full display in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, in which five Justices concluded that Congress violated the separation of powers when it placed limits on the President’s power to fire the CFPB’s director. Those five Justices used what’s called the “formalist” approach, prevailing over the competing “functionalist” approach adopted by the four dissenting Justices. Throughout history, the Court has oscillated between formalism and functionalism, especially in cases involving the President’s power to remove public officials. For the latter half of the 20th century, functionalism appeared to be the dominant approach to removal-power cases—until two recent decisions from the Roberts court. Might formalism now be seeing a resurgence?
The Supreme Court’s term has now come to a close. The Court decided its last seven cases this week, capturing headlines and filling margins across the country. It handed President Trump an 0-1-1 record on his tax returns, ruling against him on the New York subpoena and sending the Congressional subpoena back to the lower court. It ruled that, for the purposes of the Major Crimes Act, the vast majority of eastern Oklahoma is Creek “Indian country” (yes, you read that right). It ruled against “faithless electors.” It rejected a procedural challenge to the Trump administration’s new religious exemptions to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. And it struck down an exception to the federal ban on robocalls. At the center of it all was Chief Justice John Roberts, now the Court’s anchor and swing Justice, who voted with the majority in 58 of the term’s 60 cases (a 97% clip). Here is your final weekly brief for O.T. 2019.
Faithless no more! said the Supreme Court in Chiafalo v. Washington on Monday. The Court unanimously held that the Constitution allows a state to force its members of the Electoral College to vote according to that state’s popular vote. The case arose during the 2016 presidential election when three of Washington’s electors voted “faithlessly.” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won Washington’s 12 electoral votes, and each of Washington’s 12 electors had pledged to cast their votes for Clinton. But when the time came, three of the twelve violated their pledges, casting their votes for Colin Powell. Washington promptly removed the three electors from their posts and find each $1,000. The electors challenged their fines, claiming that the Constitution allows them to vote however they please. The Court rejected that claim, giving us all a bit more faith in our constitutional republic.
The Supreme Court generated a bevy of headlines this week, all for very different reasons. The Court issued two unanimous decisions: In Kelly v. United States, it vacated the fraud convictions of two state officials in the 2013 Bridgegate scandal who caused a traffic fubar by shutting down two lanes of the George Washington Bridge for a few days. And in United States v. Sineneng-Smith, the Court rebuked the Ninth Circuit for abusing its judicial discretion after it wrested control of a criminal case from the parties involved. Meanwhile, the Court heard its first-ever telephonic oral arguments this week. Surprisingly, the project went down quite swimmingly—save for a few mic snafus and the distinctive sound of a toilet flush. Here’s your brief for the week of May 4.
Editor’s Note: In light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court remains closed to the public. The building is open for official business only. March oral arguments have been postponed indefinitely, and filing deadlines for petitions have been extended. The Justices are conducting their private conferences remotely. Orders and Opinions are still being issued as scheduled, but the Justices will not take the bench.
Another somber week followed the last. What was supposed to be the start of the March oral argument session was instead marked by empty gallery seats and closed doors. In response to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the Court postponed oral arguments, issued orders and opinions in private, and conducted its own weekly conference over the phone. As for its opinions, the Court released four of them. The opinions came in cases ranging from one that interestingly blends copyright infringement, state sovereign immunity, and a pirate ship (I reviewed the case for the blog here); to Kansas’ adoption of a specific kind of insanity defense (or lack thereof); to a race discrimination claim; to a jurisdictional question in immigration procedure. The Court also released a per curiam decision, and Justice Kavanaugh responded to a denial of cert. Here’s your brief for the week of March 23.
This past Monday, the Supreme Court in Allen v. Cooper struck down a 1990 Congressional statute that had allowed citizens to sue a state in federal court for copyright infringement. The case arose after a marine salvage company discovered the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s famous pirate ship, off the coast of North Carolina and recorded documentary footage of the discovery. When North Carolina published some of the footage in various media, the company sued the state for copyright infringement. The question before the Court was whether the Constitution gives Congress the power to rescind the states’ sovereign immunity from copyright infringement claims. Justice Kagan answered “no” with a 7:2 majority, leaving the company marooned. (For lovers of wordplay and maritime puns, this piece is for you.)