On Thursday, SCOTUS announced opinions on only two of the 22 cases it has in front of it: POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola Co., which deals with whether a company can sue another one for unfair competition based on false or misleading product descriptions; and Clark v. Rameker, which weighs whether individual retirement account (IRA) inheritance can be exempted from Chapter 7 bankruptcy under the “retirement funds” exemption.
In the POM case, the court ruled that POM, maker of the popular pomegranate juices, had the right to sue Coca-Cola for falsely advertising one of its juices as being made mostly of pomegranate and blueberry juice when it was actually made of apple and grape juices. POM, which makes a special pomegranate-blueberry juice blend, claimed it lost sales as a result of Cola-Cola’s false labeling. The ruling reversed a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which essentially said POM lacked the legal standing to sue because of a conflict with state and federal Law.
In Clark v. Rameker, the court ruled that IRA inheritance funds do not meet the “retirement funds” exemption and must be included as part of the estate in the bankruptcy process. Because an IRA is intended for the retirement of the person who originally put the funds into the account, and an inherited IRA functions essentially as a fund that can be used at any time and not just for retirement, the exemption does not apply.
These cases are being closely watched because a ruling in either direction could have sweeping implications.
The most anticipated decision is the Hobby Lobby case. At issue is whether a for-profit company has to provide contraceptive care for its employees if the owner has a religious objection, even though the employees are entitled to it through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
The case was filed by two very religious families and their companies: the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and the Mardel Christian bookstore chain, and the Hahn family, which owns the Conestoga Wood Specialties cabinet company. The families have argued that being forced to provide contraception to their female employees is a violation of their religious liberty under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted by Congress after SCOTUS’s 1990 ruling that a person’s religious beliefs did not exempt him or her from having to follow laws that apply to everyone. In contrast, the ACA mandates that every company, with the exception of nonprofits and religious organizations such as churches, provide health care to all employees, including access to contraceptives.
The law prevents the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person's right to practice religion, unless the “burden” can be justified by a compelling government interest. If the court rules in favor of the families/companies, it would give companies a green light to challenge whatever they like because of religious objections. It would also be a significant expansion of the RFRA, which was never intended to apply to large for-profit companies. A ruling in favor of the government would force the companies to provide their employees with contraception should they require it.
McCullen v. Coakley
At the heart of this case is the First Amendment, and whether the right to free speech is violated by a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, which supporters say helps authorities police crowds and sets up a neutral area between the clinic and anti-abortion protesters.
The protesters have argued that the law infringes on their right to protest and impedes their efforts to peacefully counsel women and hand them literature as they approach the clinics.
Federal laws do provide some protections for women who are trying to access abortion clinics, but some states have also added their own laws to enhance that protection, putting more space between the women entering the clinic and the protesters.
This one will likely be a 5–4 split decision, hinging on the swing vote of Justice Antonin Scalia, who has already expressed his skepticism about the law. If the law is struck down, you can expect anti-abortion activists to file suits in other states to try and remove similar buffer zone laws. If it is upheld, states may seek to expand their own buffer zones.
This case should be of interest to anyone who watches TV over the Internet. The main issue comes down to copyright and retransmission fees. Aereo is a Web startup company that allows consumers to pay an $8 or $12 subscription fee to watch their local TV networks live on any Internet-connected device at any time, and store up to 60 hours of programming in the cloud on a virtual DVR. The service works by using thousands of little antennas that capture the networks’ free over-the-air signal and present that content to subscribers on demand.
The major broadcast companies (ABC, CBS, NBC) have argued that Aereo amounts to nothing more than a theft of their product — why should Aereo be allowed to rebroadcast their programming without paying for it when all the other cable outlets, satellite distributors and affiliates have to pay the networks a lucrative retransmission fee?
Aereo disputes this, saying it is not hosting a “public performance” of the content, but rather a private showing of each program because the service it offers is no different from an individual who uses a DVR and an antenna to record the programming and watch it at his leisure. The distinction is important, because under copyright law the purchaser of a copyrighted work has the right to a private performance — buying a DVD to watch at home, for example — but not a public one, such as putting the movie on the big screen and showing it at a movie theater for paying customers.
While the outcome of this case is uncertain, it has major implications for the cloud computing industry as a whole. During oral arguments, the justices expressed significant concern for how a ruling against Aereo would affect Web-based cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon and others. Essentially, the justices worry that if they rule in the broadcasters' favor, the impact on copyright law could significantly harm the pace of innovation — much like broadcasters’ 1994 case against Sony over the VCR, known as the “Betamax case.” Even though the VCR did allow someone to circumvent copyright by recording a program and watching it on her own, the potential for non-infringing uses was greater, causing the court to rule in favor of Sony.
In the Aereo case, the justices are also weighing the risk of damage to the local affiliate stations, which rely heavily on the networks for profits through the retransmission system. Several networks, including Fox, have indicated they may pull their free signal and go to cable if Aereo wins, which would leave the affiliates without any network content.
Either way, the stakes are high in this case and the outcome will almost certainly shape the future of how we all watch TV.
NLRB v. Noel Canning
This case has the potential to strip the presidency of its recess appointment powers, or at the very least greatly reduce them.
At issue are two key things: whether the president’s recess powers can be used only to fill vacancies that occur during a Senate recess or if the vacancy simply has to exist in the first place; and whether the president can make an appointment during any type of break in Senate business or if it must be a formal break between sessions.
In January 2012, President Barack Obama appointed three people to fill vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board. The Senate had been holding pro forma sessions to prevent the appointments, but the Obama administration pushed the appointments through just one day after the Senate began its mandated yearly session, formally ending the recess that began in December 2011.
With Obama’s appointments, the NLRB finally had enough members to conduct business, and it began doing so. The NLRB issued a ruling to settle a pay raise dispute for union workers that had been agreed to between the Noel Canning Co. and the Teamsters Local 760 union. The union accused Noel Canning of falling through on its end of the deal, and the NLRB issued a ruling saying the company must honor its agreement with the union.
Noel Canning then sued, alleging that because the Senate was holding pro forma sessions and was not in recess, Obama’s appointments were not constitutional and thus the ruling from the NLRB was not valid.
The administration is arguing that even though the Senate says it was in session, it was really under a recess because, per the constitution, there must be a break between sessions.
Opponents have suggested that because the Senate considered itself to still be in session, technically the appointments could not be considered "recess appointments" and are invalid.
The case may come down to whether the Senate was in recess. The justices have made it clear that they would defer to the Senate on the matter, with Justice Elena Kagan saying, “It is really the Senate’s job to determine whether” it is or isn’t in recess. A ruling in Canning’s favor would greatly reduce the power of the recess appointment and would set the NLRB back at least one year in all of its work, as every decision issued after the appointments would be invalidated.
Riley v. California, United States v. Wurie
The last major case is actually two cases, both about whether the police have to obtain a warrant to search an individual's cellphone when an arrest is made. In essence, this case will focus on the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
David Riley was arrested on Aug. 22, 2009, when a routine traffic stop uncovered that he had a loaded gun in his car.
The police officers arrested Riley, took his phone and searched through his messages, contacts, videos and pictures. Using information found in the phone, police charged him with a shooting that had transpired several weeks before the arrest. Riley argued that the search of his phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
In the Riley case, a lower court ruled that not only can police seize a suspect's cellphone after he has been arrested, they can also search the phone's contents without any warrant or probable cause.
The other case was brought by Brima Wurie, who was arrested after an illegal drug deal. Upon his arrival at the police station, Wurie’s cellphone received repeated calls from a number labeled "my house"; police opened the phone and traced the call to a local address in Boston. Police went to the home, smelled marijuana when a woman opened the door, obtained a warrant and recovered crack cocaine, a pistol, marijuana and other drug-related items.
Wurie was then indicted for felony possession of a firearm and ammunition, distributing crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, and possession with intent to distribute. Wurie argued that the search violated his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
In both cases, the government has argued it should be allowed to search cellphones whenever an arrest is made, saying that is akin to police searching someone’s wallet upon an arrest. But that argument has not sat well with many of the justices, notably Kagan, who pointed out that “people live their entire lives on cellphones,” and that if the court were to agree with the government, the police would be allowed to conduct a search if someone were stopped for not wearing a seatbelt. Scalia agreed with Kagan, and said it was “absurd” that police would be allowed to search someone’s cellphone after a minor offense.
But the justices also recognize the need for police to search phones because criminals often conduct their work on cellphones. The attorney arguing on behalf of the government also noted that there are new technologies that allow a cellphone to be completely erased remotely, or rendered inert with the click of a button, which could destroy vital evidence.
Still, the justices' concerns make it difficult to see how this one will shape up. There may be a middle-ground compromise, but what it will look like is uncertain.
Here's a schedule of expected verdicts, from SCOTUSBlog:
· Monday, June 16 — 5 rulings
· Thursday, June 19 — 3 rulings
· Monday, June 23 — 6 rulings
· Tuesday, June 24 — 3 rulings
· Wednesday, June 25 — 3 rulings
The court will likely save the biggest decisions for the last few days, but they could also come at any time.