May 20, 2013 United States Supreme Court opinions

Sebelius v Cloer

Cloer filed a claim under the vaccine compensation program that was ultimately held to be untimely based on the Federal Circuit’s adoption of a first displayed symptom starting point. The Federal Circuit also held that her petition was eligible for an award of attorney fees under 42 USC 300aa-11. The Court unanimously affirmed (with justices Scalia and Thomas not joining the part of the opinion discussing legislative history). The Court held that the text of 300aa-11 and the surrounding sections contained no timeliness limitation on eligibility for attorney fees, had other timeliness requirements for other aspects of the program which demonstrated that timeliness was not a requirement for attorney fee wards and imposing a timeliness requirement would create different meanings of “filing” within the same section. Congressional intent as demonstrated by legislative history is also served by rejecting the timeliness requirement as it encourages good faith nonfrivolous claims. The court rejected as speculative government concern that claims will multiply or the special masters will be overburdened.

Metrish v Lancaster

Metrish raised a diminished capacity defense at his first murder trial. After he was granted habeas relief, he sought to raise the defense at his retrial. The state trail court denied his request as the Michigan Supreme Court had ruled the defense unavailable under governing statute. The Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief holding the abolition of the defense recognized by the state intermediate appeals court violated due process. The court unanimously reversed. It held that as the defense was rejected in a case of first impression and involved an issue which reasonable jurists could disagree on, the Michigan Supreme Court did not unreasonably fail to follow United States Supreme Court precedent and thus habeas relief was unavailable.

PPL Corp. v Commissioner of Internal Revenue

PPL sought to credit windfall taxes paid in the United Kingdom on its US taxes under treasury Regulation 1.901-2. The Third Circuit rejected the credit on the grounds that the government of the United Kingdom did not characterize the tax as an excess profits tax. The Court, resolving a circuit split, unanimously reversed. Emphasizing that the UK tax was based on actual past profits, it held the UK tax satisfied the regulations standard of “predominant character” as the economic reality of the tax was an additional tax on profits above a certain threshold which is the classic definition of excess profits tax. Justice Sotomayor added an concurrence observing that if all the companies subjected to the UK tax are included, the tax appears to be aimed at value not profits and thus not creditable. However, the government did not raise this issue, so, she joined the Court’s opinion.

City of Arlington, Texas v Federal Communication Commission

City challenged a Commission declaratory ruling setting time limits for the processing of telecommunication tower placement requests arguing the ruling was beyond the power of the commission. The Fifth Circuit rejected the challenge applying Chevron deference to the Commission’s determination of its authority. The Court, 6-3 with one justice concurring in part and in judgment, affirmed. The majority held that any attempt to divide jurisdictional from nonjurisdictional questions in the administrative context is specious as all such questions collapse to the issue of whether the agency has exceeded the boundaries of its statutory authority. The majority noted that the court has consistently held that agencies have the power to determine their own jurisdiction and the majority reaffirmed that courts must defer to agency decisions when the statutory text is ambiguous lest decision-making be transferred to the judiciary from the agencies where congress intended it to be. It rejected the dissent’s proposed de novo review as leading inevitably to chaos as various courts impose their view of policy on ambiguous statutes. Justice Breyer concurred in part and in judgment arguing that ultimately courts must independently assess whether Congress has left gaps in the statute and whether the agency should be the one to fill it. Looking at the totality of the circumstances here, he concluded deference was appropriate. The dissent argued that courts must determine n the first instance whether Congress has actually delegated rulemaking authority for the specific statutory ambiguity in question. Given the explosion of administrative agencies which exercise legislative, executive and judicial power, it is imperative for courts to perform their duty to keep the other branches within the boundaries the constitutional and Congress have set.

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