Justia Writers’ Round Up – Supreme Court Opinions Issued June 20, 2013


American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, United States Supreme Court (6/20/13)
Antitrust & Trade Regulation, Arbitration & Mediation, Class Action

contractAn agreement between American Express and merchants who accept American Express cards, requires that all of their disputes be resolved by arbitration and provides that there “shall be no right or authority for any Claims to be arbitrated on a class action basis.” The merchants filed a class action, claiming that American Express violated section 1 of the Sherman Act and seeking treble damages under section 4 of the Clayton Act. The district court dismissed. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that the class action waiver was unenforceable and that arbitration could not proceed because of prohibitive costs. The Circuit upheld its reversal on remand in light of a Supreme Court holding that a party may not be compelled to submit to class arbitration absent an agreement to do so.

The Supreme Court reversed. The FAA reflects an overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract and does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery. Courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements even for claims alleging violation of a federal statute, unless the FAA mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command. No contrary congressional command requires rejection of this waiver. Federal antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim or indicate an intention to preclude waiver of class-action procedures. The fact that it is not worth the expense involved in proving a statutory remedy does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.

Read more: Arbitration Backed as Court Rules for American Express

Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., United States Supreme Court (6/20/13)
Communications Law, Constitutional Law, Government & Administrative Law, Non-profit Corporations

The U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, 22 U.S.C. 7601, authorizes appropriations to fund nongovernmental efforts to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide, with conditions that: no funds “may be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution” and no funds may be used by an organization “that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution” (the Policy Requirement). To enforce the Policy Requirement, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development require funding recipients to agree that they oppose prostitution. Funding recipients, wishing to remain neutral on prostitution, sought a declaratory judgment that the Policy Requirement violates their First Amendment rights. The district court issued a preliminary injunction, barring the government from cutting off funding during the litigation. The Second Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed.

The First Amendment “prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” The Spending Clause grants Congress broad discretion to fund private programs for the general welfare and to limit the use of funds to ensure they are used in the manner intended. There is a distinction between conditions that define the limits of the spending program and specify the activities Congress wants to subsidize and conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the federal program itself. The Act’s other condition, prohibiting use of funds “to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking,” ensures that federal funds will not be used for prohibited purposes. The Policy Requirement goes further and, by its very nature, affects protected conduct outside the scope of the federally funded program. The Requirement goes beyond preventing recipients from using private funds in a way that could undermine the federal program and requires them to pledge allegiance to government policy.

Read more: Supreme Court says law can’t dictate anti-AIDS groups’ speech

Descamps v. United States, United States Supreme Court (6/20/13)
Criminal Law

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) increases the sentences of federal defendants who have three prior convictions “for a violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion,” 18 U.S.C. 924(e). Under the “categorical approach” courts compare the statutory elements of a prior conviction with the elements of the “generic” crime, the offense as commonly understood. If the statutory elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense, a prior conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate. A “modified categorical approach” is employed when a prior conviction is for violating a “divisible statute” that sets out one or more elements in the alternative, such as burglary involving entry into a building or an automobile. That approach permits the court to consult certain documents, such as indictments and jury instructions, to determine which alternative element was the basis of the prior conviction. Descamps, convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, had three prior convictions, including one under a California statute, which provides that a “person who enters” certain locations “with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.” The district court concluded that the conviction could serve as an ACCA predicate. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. Instead of reviewing extra-statutory documents only to determine which alternative element was the basis for the conviction, the Ninth Circuit examined those materials to discover what the defendant actually did. Generic unlawful entry is not an element, or an alternative element of, the California law, so a conviction under that statute is never for generic burglary and ACCA enhancement was improper. The modified categorical approach does not apply to statutes that contain a single, indivisible set of elements. An elements-centric categorical approach is consistent with ACCA’s text and history, avoids Sixth Amendment concerns arising from sentencing courts’ making factual findings that properly belong to juries, and averts “the practical difficulties and potential unfairness of a factual approach.”