Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Biestek, a former construction worker, applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental disabilities. To determine whether Biestek could successfully transition to less physically demanding work, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding the types of jobs Biestek could still perform and the number of such jobs that existed in the national economy. The statistics came from her own market surveys. The expert refused Biestek’s attorney's request to turn over the surveys. The ALJ denied Biestek benefits. An ALJ’s factual findings are “conclusive” if supported by “substantial evidence,” 42 U.S.C. 405(g). The Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court upheld the ALJ’s determination. A vocational expert’s refusal to provide private market-survey data upon the applicant’s request does not categorically preclude the testimony from counting as “substantial evidence.” In some cases, the refusal to disclose data, considered along with other shortcomings, will undercut an expert’s credibility and prevent a court from finding that “a reasonable mind” could accept the expert’s testimony; the refusal will sometimes interfere with effective cross-examination, which a reviewing court may consider in deciding how to credit an expert’s opinion. In other cases, even without supporting data, an applicant will be able to probe the expert’s testimony on cross-examination. The Court declined to establish a categorical rule, applying to every case in which a vocational expert refuses a request for underlying data. The inquiry remains case-by-case, taking into account all features of the expert’s testimony, with the rest of the record, and defers to the presiding ALJ. View "Biestek v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The State of Washington taxes “motor vehicle fuel importer[s]” who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by “ground transportation,” Wash. Code 82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Cougar, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, imports fuel over Washington’s public highways for sale to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the state assessed Cougar $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel. Cougar argued that the tax, as applied to its activities, is preempted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that reserves the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways,” 12 Stat. 953. The Washington Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The statute taxes the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel, so travel on public highways is directly at issue. In previous cases involving the treaty, the Court has stressed that its language should be understood as bearing the meaning that the Yakamas understood it to have in 1855; the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the treaty negotiations and the government’s representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. To impose a tax upon traveling with certain goods burdens that travel. View "Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc." on Justia Law

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After Dawson retired from the U.S. Marshals, his home state, West Virginia, taxed his federal pension benefits as it does all former federal employees. The pension benefits of certain former state and local law enforcement employees, however, are exempt from state taxation, W. Va. Code 11–21–12(c)(6). Dawson alleged that the state statute violates the intergovernmental tax immunity doctrine, 4 U.S.C. 111, under which the United States consents to state taxation of the pay or compensation of federal employees, only if the state tax does not discriminate on the basis of the source of the pay or compensation. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected Dawson’s argument. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed. A state violates section 111 when it treats retired state employees more favorably than retired federal employees and no significant differences between the two classes justify the differential treatment. West Virginia expressly affords state law enforcement retirees a tax benefit that federal retirees cannot receive. The state’s interest in adopting the discriminatory tax is irrelevant. The Court noted that the West Virginia statute does not draw lines involving job responsibilities and that the state courts agreed that there are no “significant differences” between Dawson’s former job responsibilities and those of the tax-exempt state law enforcement retirees. View "Dawson v. Steager" on Justia Law

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For representation in administrative proceedings, the Social Security Act provides that if a fee agreement exists, fees are capped at the lesser of 25% of past-due benefits or a set dollar amount—currently $6,000, 42 U.S.C. 406(a)(2)(A); absent an agreement, the agency may set any “reasonable” fee, section 406(a)(1). In either case, the agency is required to withhold up to 25% of past-due benefits for direct payment of fees. For representation in court proceedings, section 406(b) caps fees at 25% of past-due benefits; the agency may withhold benefits to pay these fees. Culbertson represented Wood in Social Security disability benefit proceedings before the agency and in court. The agency ultimately awarded Wood past-due benefits, withheld 25%, and awarded Culbertson fees under section 406(a) for representation before the agency. Culbertson sought a separate award under 406(b) for the court proceedings, requesting 25% of past-due benefits. The Eleventh Circuit held that 406(b)’s 25% limit applies to the total fees awarded under both sections. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 406(b)(1)(A)’s 25% cap applies only to fees for court representation, not to the aggregate fees awarded under 406(a) and (b). The subsections address different stages of the representation and use different methods for calculating fees. Applying 406(b)’s 25% cap on court-stage fees to 406(a) agency-stage fees, or the aggregate fees, would make little sense and would subject 406(a)(1)’s reasonableness limitation to 406(b)’s 25% cap—a limitation not included in the statute. The fact that the agency presently withholds a single pool of past-due benefits for payment of fees does not support an aggregate reading. The amount of past-due benefits that the agency can withhold for payment does not delimit the amount of fees that can be approved for representation before the agency or the court. View "Culbertson v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the dusky gopher frog as an endangered species, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), which required the Service to designate the frog's “critical habitat.” The Service proposed designating a site in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana (Unit 1). The frog had once lived in Unit 1, but the land had long been used as a commercial timber plantation; no frogs had been spotted there for decades. The Service concluded that Unit 1 met the statutory definition of unoccupied critical habitat because of its rare, high-quality breeding ponds and distance from existing frog populations. The Service commissioned a report, which found that designation might bar future development, depriving the owners of up to $33.9 million, but concluded that the potential costs were not disproportionate to the conservation benefits and designated Unit 1 as critical habitat. The owners sued, contending that the closed-canopy timber plantation on Unit 1 could not be critical habitat for the frog, which lives in open-canopy forests. The district court and Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated. The decision not to exclude an area from critical habitat is subject to judicial review. An area is eligible for designation as critical habitat only if it is habitat for the species. Section 1533(a)(3)(A)(i), the sole source of authority for critical-habit designations, states that when the Secretary lists a species as endangered he must also “designate any habitat of such species which is then considered to be critical habitat.” Whether the frog could survive in Unit 1; whether habitat can include areas where the species could not currently survive; and whether the assessment of the costs and benefits of designation and resulting decision were arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, must be addressed on remand. View "Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service" on Justia Law

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The river basin is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow south through Georgia and converge at Lake Seminole, just north of Florida, where the Apalachicola River begins and flows south into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida sued, seeking a decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction and appointed a Special Master. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to waive sovereign immunity. The Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint, concluding that Florida did not present clear and convincing evidence that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if the decree does not bind the Corps. The Supreme Court remanded, concluding that the Special Master applied too strict a standard. In interstate water disputes raising questions beyond the interpretation of an interstate compact's language, the doctrine of equitable apportionment applies. Equitable apportionment is flexible and requires consideration of physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses, and the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed. Extensive, specific factual findings are essential. Until the Master makes the findings necessary to determine the nature and scope of likely harm caused by the absence of water and the amount of additional water necessary to ameliorate that harm significantly, Florida should not have to prove the details of a workable decree by “clear and convincing” evidence but only that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation,” it is likely to prove possible to fashion such a decree. At this stage and in light of certain assumptions, Florida made a sufficient showing that the extra water that would result from its proposed consumption cap would lead to increased streamflow in Florida’s Apalachicola River and significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has alleged. The United States has indicated that the Corps will cooperate. View "Florida v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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The river basin is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow south through Georgia and converge at Lake Seminole, just north of Florida, where the Apalachicola River begins and flows south into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida sued, seeking a decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction and appointed a Special Master. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to waive sovereign immunity. The Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint, concluding that Florida did not present clear and convincing evidence that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if the decree does not bind the Corps. The Supreme Court remanded, concluding that the Special Master applied too strict a standard. In interstate water disputes raising questions beyond the interpretation of an interstate compact's language, the doctrine of equitable apportionment applies. Equitable apportionment is flexible and requires consideration of physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses, and the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed. Extensive, specific factual findings are essential. Until the Master makes the findings necessary to determine the nature and scope of likely harm caused by the absence of water and the amount of additional water necessary to ameliorate that harm significantly, Florida should not have to prove the details of a workable decree by “clear and convincing” evidence but only that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation,” it is likely to prove possible to fashion such a decree. At this stage and in light of certain assumptions, Florida made a sufficient showing that the extra water that would result from its proposed consumption cap would lead to increased streamflow in Florida’s Apalachicola River and significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has alleged. The United States has indicated that the Corps will cooperate. View "Florida v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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President Trump lawfully exercised the broad discretion granted to him under section 1182(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), to issue Proclamation No. 9645, suspending the entry of aliens into the United States, and the Proclamation does not violate the Establishment Clause. The Proclamation sought to improve vetting procedures for foreign nationals traveling to the United States by identifying ongoing deficiencies in the information needed to assess whether nationals of particular countries present a security threat,and placed entry restrictions on the nationals of foreign states whose systems for managing and sharing information about their nationals the President deemed inadequate. The Supreme Court held that section 1182(f) entrusts to the President the decisions whether and when to suspend entry, whose entry to suspend, for how long, and on what conditions; Trump fulfilled section 1182(f)'s sole prerequisite that the President find that the entry of the covered aliens would be detrimental to the interests of the United States; even assuming that some form of inquiry into the persuasiveness of the President's findings was appropriate, plaintiffs' attacks on the sufficiency of the findings could not be sustained; the Proclamation comports with the remaining textual limits in section 1182(f); plaintiffs failed to identify any conflict between the Proclamation and the immigration scheme reflected in the INA that would implicitly bar the President from addressing deficiencies in the Nation's vetting system; and plaintiffs' argument that the President's entry suspension violates section 1152(a)(1)(A) ignored the basic distinction between admissibility determinations and visa issuance that runs throughout the INA. Finally, the Court applied rational basis review and held that plaintiffs, although they have standing to challenge the exclusion of their relatives, have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the Proclamation violates the Establishment Clause where the Proclamation was expressly premised on legitimate purposes and said nothing about religion. The Court drew a distinction between whether it must consider not only the statements of a particular President, but also the authority of the Presidency itself. The Court concluded that the Government has set forth a sufficient national security justification to survive rational basis review. View "Trump v. Hawaii" on Justia Law

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The integrated “court-martial system” begins with the court-martial, which determines guilt or innocence and levies punishment. There are four appellate courts: the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) for the Army, Navy-Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard. They review decisions where the sentence is a punitive discharge, incarceration for more than one year, or death. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) sits atop the system and is a “court of record” composed of five civilian judges, 10 U.S.C. 941. Ortiz, an Airman First Class, was convicted by a court-martial of possessing and distributing child pornography. He was sentenced to imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge. An Air Force CCA panel, including Colonel Mitchell, affirmed. Judge Mitchell had recently been appointed to the Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR) by the Secretary of Defense under his authority (10 U.S.C. 950f(b)(2)) to “assign [officers] who are appellate military judges” to serve on that court. The President also appointed Judge Mitchell to the CMCR. The Supreme Court affirmed CCA's holding that Judge Mitchell’s simultaneous service on the CCA and the CMCR violated neither the Appointments Clause nor 10 U.S.C. 973(b)(2)(A), which provides that unless “otherwise authorized by law,” an active-duty military officer “may not hold, or exercise the functions of,” certain “civil office[s]” in the federal government. Even if a seat on CMCR is a covered “civil office” section 950f(b) “otherwise authorize[s]” Judge Mitchell’s service by providing for the assignment of military officers to the CMCR. The Appointments Clause distinguishes between principal officers and inferior officers but does not impose rules about dual service. Ortiz does not show how Judge Mitchell’s CMCR service would result in “undue influence” on his CCA colleagues. In holding that it had jurisdiction over the case, the Court stated that the military justice system’s essential character is judicial and the Court’s appellate jurisdiction covers more than decisions by Article III courts. View "Ortiz v. United States" on Justia Law