Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia

Three Recently Accepted Cases Shed Light on the Supreme Court’s Process for Granting Review

Supreme Court at NightWhile many analysts this month are understandably focused on the blockbuster rulings that are due from the Supreme Court in June—the back end of the Supreme Court litigation process, if you will—in my column today I introduce and briefly analyze the front end of three cases on which the Court has granted review for the next Term, which begins this fall. Although the three disputes arrive at the Court from different kinds of lower courts and involve quite different kinds of questions on the merits, these cases taken together illustrate some nuances in the extremely important yet widely misunderstood principles that explain how the Court selects the 70-90 cases to review in full from among the thousands and thousands of requests for review each year. Quite often, the Supreme Court grants review because the lower court ruling in question (often from one of the U.S. Courts of Appeals) conflicts with other lower court rulings on precisely the same (and important) legal question, and the Court wants to provide guidance and uniformity. Indeed, one of the first things that incoming Supreme Court law clerks learn when they arrive at the Court is the fine art of differentiating true lower court conflicts from illusory ones. But the cases discussed below serve as helpful reminders that Supreme Court review involves much more than just resolving lower court conflicts.

The Boomerang of Zivotofsky v. Kerry and Respect for Congress

The first case is in the trio is one the Supreme Court has seen before. Zivotofsky v. Kerry involves an effort by Menachem Zivotofsky, a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem to U.S. parents, to have his U.S.-issued passport (and U.S.-issued Consular Report of Birth) indicate his place of birth as “Jerusalem, Israel.” For many years, U.S. Presidents and U.S. State Departments (who issue passports and consular records) have scrupulously avoided taking an official position on the contentious question whether Jerusalem is a part of Israel. Executive branch practice concerning the birth of U.S. citizens in Jerusalem follows this policy of neutrality, and consistently has been to record the place of birth of such citizens on U.S. documents simply as “Jerusalem,” without mention of any country.

In 2002, Congress passed a law that, among many other things, requires the Secretary of State, upon the request of a citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, to record the place of birth for citizens born in the city of Jerusalem “as Israel.” President Bush signed the entire statute into effect, but (as he did from time to time) issued a signing statement to disclaim the legal effect of this particular part of the statute, because (he said) forcing the State Department to record Jerusalem births as being in Israel would impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional power to formulate and speak on behalf of American foreign policy. The plaintiff in Zivotofsky seeks to force the executive branch to follow the terms of Congress’s 2002 statute, notwithstanding the President’s signing-statement disclaimer.

A few years back, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s efforts, but not on the ground that the Secretary of State was acting permissibly in declining to follow the statute. Instead, the D.C. Circuit held, the lawsuit presented a “political question” over which federal courts have no power to speak. In other words, the court purported not to be exercising jurisdiction to resolve the lawsuit on the merits at all, saying instead that regardless of who is right and who is wrong under the law, this kind of matter is not susceptible of judicial resolution.

The Supreme Court reversed this decision in 2012, holding that the political question doctrine does not bar review of this case. The key question whether the 2002 statute improperly invades the President’s foreign affairs power to decide which countries to recognize—and is thus not a permissible exercise of Congress’s power to regulate passports or any other congressional authority—is a legal one, not a political one. The Justices, rather than resolving the merits—which the Court had the power to do—then sent the case back to the D.C. Circuit to decide the merits, by “careful[ly] examin[ing] . . . the textual, structural, and historical evidence put forward by the parties regarding the nature of the statute and of the passport and recognition powers.”

That is precisely what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did on remand, after which it concluded that the statute was indeed an impermissible invasion of presidential authority that he enjoys under the Constitution. Although the D.C. Circuit found the text of the Constitution less than clear, it found a strong historical record over the last two hundred years of the President asserting—and Congress seeming to allow—exclusive executive power to recognize foreign nations, which weighed heavily against the validity of the statute. And although the court conceded that Congress does have meaningful power to regulate passports, that power is not exclusively congressional in the way that the recognition power is exclusively presidential. Since the statute might be said to interfere with the President’s foreign policy choice to remain neutral as to the legal authority over Jerusalem—indeed, challenging this neutrality policy was the reason Congress passed the provision—the statute conflicted with the President’s foreign policy autonomy and thus could not be enforced.

Zivotofsky again sought Supreme Court review at the end of last year, and about a month ago the Justices agreed to hear the case again. Why would the Court choose to grant review on the merits, given that it consciously chose not to reach the merits in 2012? Part of the answer is that the Court in 2012 didn’t have the benefit of full-fledged lower court analysis on the merits, and the Court’s general practice is not to reach the merits of a dispute (even if it has the power to do so) when the courts below haven’t. But that still doesn’t quite explain why Zivotofsky is worthy of one of the Court’s six- or seven-dozen precious slots for review in 2014-2015. After all, disputes over the validity of the statute are unlikely to recur very often, the D.C. Circuit opinion does not conflict with rulings from any other lower court, and there are no high financial stakes or life-death consequences of the ruling—the factors that most often account for a grant of review. On top of all that, the D.C. Circuit ruling was without a dissent, and appears to be carefully reasoned and likely (at least to many analysts) correct. Why grant, then?

I think the primary reason is that a federal appellate court has struck down a duly enacted congressional statute, and one way the Court shows its respect for Congress (even as it disrespects Congress in other ways) is to grant review in a high percentage of such cases, even when there is no likelihood of a lower court split and even when the ruling below is arguably quite solid. This may be especially true in separation of powers disputes. If the federal judiciary is going to side with the President against Congress, the least it can do is offer its “Supreme” forum to demonstrate it takes seriously Congress’s interests and arguments and is not biased in favor of the President. The grant of review in this case may be as simple as that.

Comptroller v. Wynne: An Anomalous but Potentially Infectious Ruling

Comptroller v. Wynne comes to the Court not from a U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit, but from the Maryland state courts. They ruled that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives each taxpaying individual a constitutional right to reduce or eliminate the income tax he owes in his state of residence because of income taxes paid to other states on that same income. The Supreme Court granted review to take up this question a few weeks ago.

To understand why, let us begin by noting that the Supreme Court has already held that “a jurisdiction may tax all the income of its residents, even income earned outside the taxing jurisdiction.” The Court reasoned that residents enjoy the privileges and benefits of living in their state of residence, and thus it is permissible to make them pay in that state even if the income was earned elsewhere. The Supreme Court has also held that a state can tax income of non-residents earned within that state. There is thus the possibility for income to be taxed multiple times, once by the state of the taxpayer’s residence and again by the state(s) where the income was earned. The Supreme Court has intimated that this seeming unfairness is something states are free to redress by giving tax credits, but that the question is one of legislative grace rather than constitutional right.

In Wynne, the Maryland state courts (along with the taxpayers who were objecting to Maryland’s tax) observed that the Supreme Court’s consistent rulings upholding state tax regimes in this regard all involve challenges brought under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the Supreme Court has never spoken to whether the Commerce Clause of the Constitution permits multiple states to tax income multiple times in this way. Neither have the state supreme courts from states other than Maryland. For this reason, the ruling below in Wynne may not generate any clear conflict with other high appellate rulings. And yet the Supreme Court granted review. Again, the question is why. Part of the answer may be that the U.S. Solicitor General (SG)—invited by the Court to weigh in—urged the Justices to grant review. And why did the SG think review was warranted in spite of the absence of a clear split in lower court authority? Because the ruling below is most likely incorrect, because it introduces significant instability in at least one state’s (Maryland’s) tax regime, and because, if left unchecked, it has the potential to encourage a great deal of additional destabilizing litigation in other states. Once more, the absence of a clear lower court conflict does not make a case unworthy of review.

The Alabama Redistricting Disputes—Appeals Rather Than Petitions for Certiorari

The third case (or rather pair of cases) I will mention briefly arise out of the Alabama legislature’s redrawing of election district lines throughout the state after the 2010 Census. The cases, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, raise the question whether the State impermissibly considered race in the drawing of district lines by packing African American voters into districts so that these racial minorities would make up supermajorities in these voting districts. Such supermajorities would enable African American voters to elect candidates of their choice in those districts, but this would also would be the case with mere simple majorities. A second (and possibly intentional) effect of the redistricting is that it would reduce the influence African American voters have in other districts. The lower federal court (a so-called three-judge district court panel that Congress created to hear redistricting cases) upheld Alabama’s line-drawing, and the Supreme Court accepted review. The questions raised on the merits under the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act are quite complex and potentially important, but as with Zivotofsky and Wynne,the lower court rulings in the Alabama cases do not conflict with rulings from other lower courts. Why, then, was Supreme Court review indicated? Here the answer is easier, but also more technical. These cases are among the kinds of disputes for which Congress has conferred so-called “appeals” jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, rather than the “certiorari” jurisdiction that accounts for the lion’s share of the Court’s docket. Unlike certiorari jurisdiction, which is entirely at the Court’s discretion, appeals jurisdiction is mandatory. That is, persons who properly bring cases to the Court pursuant to an appeals route rather than via a petition for a writ of certiorari enjoy a “right” to have the Court to take their case and rule on the merits. Appeals cases today comprise a very small percentage of the Court’s workload, but they used to be a much bigger component. When appeals are brought to the Court under one of the few remaining appellate access statutes that Congress has not repealed (and challenges to statewide apportionments decided by three-judge District Court panels are among the kinds of cases still to benefit from appeals jurisdiction), the Court must rule on the merits one way or another, and cannot simply deny review and express no view of whether the lower court properly applied the law. So the full briefing and oral argument ordered by the Court in the Alabama cases tells us little about how the Justices might feel on the merits, other than that the cases are difficult enough not to be susceptible to summary affirmance.

All three of these cases illustrate how complicated and multi-faceted the question of getting the Supreme Court to hear your dispute can be.

Vikram David AmarVikram David Amar, a Justia columnist, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
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