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Comcast Cable Communications, LLC v. FCC, et al, U.S. D.C. Cir. (5/28/13)

Communications Law

tennis-courtTennis Channel, a sports programming network and intervenor in this suit, filed a complaint against Comcast Cable, a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD), alleging that Comcast violated section 616 of the Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. 536(a)(3), and the Commission’s regulations by refusing to broadcast Tennis as widely as it did its own affiliated sports programming networks, Golf Channel and Versus. An ALJ ruled against Comcast, ordering that it provide Tennis carriage equal to what it afforded Golf and Versus, and the Commission affirmed. The court concluded that Comcast prevailed with its third set of arguments on appeal, that even under the Commission’s interpretation of section 616, the Commission had failed to identify adequate evidence of unlawful discrimination. The Commission had nothing to refute Comcast’s contention that its rejection of Tennis’s proposal was simply “a straight up financial analysis.” Accordingly, the court granted the petition.

Two opinions came down today from the United States Supreme Court. Read the summaries below and read the full text of the opinions at Justia’s U.S. Supreme Court Center.

McQuiggin v. Perkins, United States Supreme Court (5/28/13)

Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

Metrish v. Lancaster, United States Supreme Court (5/20/13)

Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

gavelIn 1993, Lancaster, a former police officer with a long history of severe mental-health problems, killed his girlfriend. At his jury trial in Michigan state court, Lancaster asserted a defense of diminished capacity. Under then-prevailing Michigan Court of Appeals precedent, the diminished-capacity defense permitted a legally sane defendant to present evidence of mental illness to negate the specific intent required to commit a particular crime. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Lancaster later obtained federal habeas relief. By the time of Lancaster’s retrial, the Michigan Supreme Court had rejected the diminished-capacity defense in its 2001 decision, Carpenter. The judge at his second trial applied Carpenter and disallowed renewal of his diminished-capacity defense. Lancaster was again convicted. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Lancaster’s argument that retroactive application of Carpenter violated due process. Lancaster reasserted his due process claim in a federal habeas petition. The district court denied the petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed.  A unanimous Supreme Court reversed, holding that Lancaster is not entitled to federal habeas relief.  The Michigan Court of Appeals’ rejection of Lancaster’s due process claim does not represent an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, 28 U. S. C.2254(d)(1). In Carpenter, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a diminished-capacity defense, reasonably finding the defense to have no origin in an on-point statute.  The Supreme Court has never found a due process violation where a state supreme court, squarely addressing a particular issue for the first time, rejected a consistent line of lower court decisions based on the supreme court’s reasonable interpretation of a controlling statute. Fair-minded jurists could conclude that a state supreme court decision of that order is not “unexpected and indefensible by reference to [existing] law.”

Bowman v. Monsanto, United States Supreme Court (5/13/13)

Agriculture Law, Patents

dnaMonsanto invented and patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds, which contain a genetic alteration that allows them to survive exposure to the herbicide glyphosate. It sells the seeds subject to a licensing agreement that permits farmers to plant the purchased seed in only one growing season. Growers may consume or sell the resulting crops, but may not save any of the harvested soybeans for replanting. Bowman purchased Roundup Ready soybean seed for his first crop of each growing season. To reduce costs for his riskier late-season planting, Bowman purchased soybeans intended for consumption; planted them; treated the plants with glyphosate, killing all plants without the Roundup Ready trait; harvested the resulting soybeans that contained that trait; and saved some of these harvested seeds to use in his late-season planting the next season. After discovering this practice, Monsanto sued for patent infringement. Bowman raised the defense of patent exhaustion, which gives the purchaser of a patented article, or any subsequent owner, the right to use or resell that article. The district court rejected Bowman’s defense; the Federal Circuit affirmed.  In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed. Patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without permission. Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, the initial authorized sale terminates all patent rights to the patented item and confers on the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, the right to use or sell the thing, but the doctrine restricts the patentee’s rights only as to the “particular article” sold.  It leaves untouched the patentee’s ability to prevent a buyer from making new copies. By planting and harvesting patented seeds, Bowman made additional copies of Monsanto’s patented invention, which falls outside the protections of patent exhaustion. If Bowman were granted an exception, patents on seeds would retain little value.

This year has seen some definitive advances in how certain states address the issue of insurance discrimination against transgender people. California, Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, have issued bulletins that clarify their state laws to prohibit discrimination against transgender people for health services deemed medically necessary. Some states, such as California, also outline an appeals process for individuals whose claims are denied. Here is the bulletin California recently issued:

[California law] prohibits health plans from discriminating against individuals because of the individua’s gender, including gender identity or gender expression …  If a health plan denies an individual’s request for services on the basis that the services are not medically necessary or that the services do not meet the health plan’s utilization management criteria, the health plan’s decision is subject to review through the Department’s Independent Medical Review (IMR) process …  The Department directs health plans to revise all current health plan documents to remove benefit and coverage exclusions and limitations related to gender transition services.

At present, the majority of private insurance plans include coverage exclusions specifically aimed at denying transgender people the ability to access treatment or procedures associated with transitioning, often referred to as sexual reassignment. In addition, insurance plans often exclude coverage of health care services for transgender individuals that would otherwise have been covered, had the person in question not been transgender. These services can include behavioral health, medical, and surgical procedures. Often, the exclusion is justified on the basis that the treatment is not medically necessary, but rather a cosmetic procedure, and the transgender person’s claim is consequently denied when it may otherwise have been covered for treatment not related to gender identity.

Coverage may also be denied in instances where a person’s gender marker on an insurance card doesn’t seem to match up with the treatment being sought. For example, an insurance plan may choose not to cover a yearly gynecological exam for someone who has legally changed their gender to male. The same goes for gender-specific preventative or treatment in instances of breast, ovarian, cervical, or prostate cancer. 

Bailey v. Callaghan, US 6th Cir. (5/9/13)
Communications Law, Constitutional Law, Education Law, Labor & Employment Law

Michigan’s 2012 Public Act 53 provides: “A public school employer’s use of public school resources to assist a labor organization in collecting dues or service fees from wages of public school employees is a prohibited contribution to the administration of a labor organization,” so that unions must collect their own membership dues from public-school employees, rather than have the schools collect those dues via payroll deductions. The Act does not bar public employers other than schools from collecting membership dues for unions who represent their employees.  Unions and union members challenged the Act under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. The district court entered a preliminary injunction barring enforcement.  The Sixth Circuit reversed, quoting the Supreme Court: “The First Amendment prohibits government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech’; it does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression.” The court further reasoned that there is a legitimate interest in support of the Act’s classification; the legislature could have concluded that it is more important for the public schools to conserve their limited resources for their core mission than it is for other state and local employers.

Read More: Federal appeals court: Michigan can ban schools from collecting union dues

Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, US 9th Cir. (5/8/13)
Civil Rights, Constitutional  Law, Criminal Law, Government & Administrative Law

Plaintiff spent 24 years in prison after being convicted for murder based largely upon the perjured testimony of an unreliable jailhouse informant. Plaintiff filed this action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the District Attorney’s Office failed to create any system for the Deputy District Attorneys handling criminal cases to access information pertaining to the benefits provided to jailhouse informants and other impeachment information, and failed to train Deputy District Attorneys to disseminate this information. At issue on appeal was whether a district attorney acted as a local or a state official when establishing policy and training related to the use of jailhouse informants. The court concluded that the policies challenged by plaintiff were distinct from the acts the district attorney undertook on behalf of the state. Even taking into account the control and supervisory powers of the Attorney General, the District Attorney represented the county when establishing policy and training related to the use of jailhouse informants. Therefore, a cause of action could lie against the county under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the pleadings.

Read More: 9th Circuit allows wrongly convicted man to sue L.A. County

Gartner v. Iowa Dep’t of Pub. Health, Iowa Supreme Court (5/3/13)
Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Family Law

Melissa and Heather Gartner were a married lesbian couple. Heather conceived a child using an anonymous sperm donor. The child was born during the spouses’ marriage. The Gartners requested a birth certificate recognizing both Heather and Melissa as the child’s parents. The Department of Public Health refused to place the name of the nonbirthing spouse in a lesbian marriage on the birth certificate without the spouse first adopting the child. The district court ordered the Department to issue the Gartners a birth certificate listing both spouses as parents but did not require the Department to extend the same practice to other married lesbian couples. The Supreme Court affirmed as modified, holding (1) Iowa Code 144.13(2), Iowa’s presumption of parentage statute, violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution because it allows for only “the name of the husband” to appear on the birth certificate; and (2) accordingly, the Department must presumptively list on a child’s birth certificate the nonbirthing spouse in a lesbian marriage when the child was born to one of the spouses during their marriage.

Read More: Iowa Supreme Court ruling expands birth-certificate rights for lesbian couples

United States v. Tebeau, US 8th Cir. (4/30/12)
Criminal Law

Defendant owned more than 300 acres of land where he has held weekend music festivals at which drug use was widespread. Defendant invited various bands to perform at the festivals and he also performed with his own Grateful Dead tribute band. After law enforcement conducted an undercover investigation into the illegal drug sales at the festivals, defendant was indicted on one count of managing a drug involved premises in violation of 21 U.S.C. 856(a)(2). Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment. The court concluded that section 856(a)(2) did not require proof that defendant had the illegal purpose to use, manufacture, sell, or distribute controlled substances; it was sufficient that defendant intended to make his property available to others who had that purpose; section 856(a)(2) did not violate the Fifth Amendment due process clause or defendant’s First Amendment rights; and the indictment satisfied the requirements of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 7(c) by adequately stating the offense with which defendant was being charged. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment.

McBurney v. Young, US Supreme Court (4/29/13)
Constitutional Law, Government & Administrative Law

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act grants Virginia citizens access to all public records, but grants no such right to non-Virginians. Citizens of other states, including the owner of a business that obtains real estate tax records on behalf of clients, filed requests under the Act. After each was denied, they filed a 42 U. S. C. 1983 suit, alleging violations of the Privileges and Immunities Clause and the dormant Commerce Clause. The district court granted Virginia summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed. The Constitution does not guarantee the existence of FOIA laws. The Privileges and Immunities Clause protects only privileges and immunities that are “fundamental.” The Clause protects the right of citizens to “ply their trade, practice their occupation, or pursue a common calling,” only with respect to laws enacted for the protectionist purpose of burdening out-of-state citizens. Virginia’s FOIA exists to allow Virginia citizens to obtain an accounting from their public officials; noncitizens have no comparable need. The distinction between citizens and noncitizens recognizes that citizens pay fixed costs underlying record-keeping. The law does not prevent noncitizens from obtaining documents necessary to the transfer of property or deprive noncitizens of “reasonable and adequate” access to Commonwealth courts. It gives noncitizens access to non-privileged litigation documents, to judicial records, and to records pertaining directly to them.  Virginia’s FOIA does not violate the dormant Commerce Clause. It neither prohibits access to an interstate market nor imposes burdensome regulation on that market; if there is a “market” for Virginia’s public documents, it is a market for a product that the Commonwealth has created and of which the Commonwealth is the sole manufacturer.

Read More: Supreme Court says states may bar information requests from nonresidents