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Recent Court Opinions

Stern v. Marshall, 10-179

This highly anticipated ruling, covered by E! Online and Access Hollywood, has finally established that bankruptcy court judges are not federal judges in the Article III sense, and therefore may not hear certain claims (C.J. Roberts wrote the opinion; J. Scalia filed a concurring opinion; J. Breyer filed a dissent, joined by J. Ginsburg, J. Sotomayor, and J. Kagan). Pop culture pundits and celebrity watchers are buzzing over this ideological clash in a narrow technical debate of the judicial authority bestowed by the United States Constitution. Oh, and the Respondent is the estate of the woman better known as Anna Nicole Smith. The Wall Street Journal’s headline called it “The Posthumous Court Battle that Will Never Die.” Of course, the Bankruptcy Litigation Blog got distracted by the glitzy legal details. Typical.

PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 09-993; Actavis Elizabeth v. Mensing, 09-1039; Actavis, Inc. v. Demahy, 09-1501

Federal law says that generic drug manufacturers may only use labels that match the labels used by the name-brand manufacturer; if the generic manufacturer believes that the label inadequately warns consumers, it should ask the FDA to allow it to change the label. The Respondents in these consolidated cases sued under state tort theories claiming that the generic drugs they took did not adequately warn about certain side effects. The Court’s majority (J. Thomas wrote the opinion; J. Kennedy joined in part and in the result; J. Sotomayor filed a dissent, joined by J. Ginsburg, J. Breyer, and J. Kagan) held that the state tort actions are preempted by the federal labeling statute. The dissent argues that since the generic manufacturers did not even attempt to change the labels through the procedure provided under the federal law, they cannot claim that it is impossible to comply with both the federal and state laws. The Wall Street Journal covered the case, and the FDA Blog provided a detailed analysis.

Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 10-779

Certain data mining companies purchase prescription information from pharmacists, then drug companies use that information to target their marketing towards particular prescribing doctors. Vermont passed a law that forbids the sale of this data for drug marketing purposes. Writing for the majority (J. Breyer filed a dissent, joined by J. Ginsburg and J. Kagan), Justice Kennedy found that because the law targets a particular kind of speech and viewpoint–drug marketing–it is subject to heightened scrutiny. Kennedy then concluded that the law is unconstitutional because the statute does not directly advance a substantial governmental interest, nor is it narrowly drawn to achieve the interests articulated by Vermont. The Boston Globe examined the underlying policy considerations of Vermont’s law, as well as this decision’s implications for a similar Massachusetts bill. The Technology Liberation Front applauded the Court’s defense of free commercial speech.

Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 09-10876

At the Petitioner’s drunk driving trial, the state offered a lab test result through the testimony of a technician who was familiar with the equipment and the process used, but who had not actually performed the test. The Petitioner objected to the evidence because he did not have the opportunity to confront the individual who prepared the report. The Court (J. Ginsburg wrote the opinion; J. Thomas, J. Sotomayor, and J. Kagan joined in part and in the result; J. Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion; J. Kennedy filed a dissent, joined by C.J. Roberts, J. Breyer, and J. Alito) held that the Constitution guarantees the right to confront witnesses, even if the witness simply prepared a report based on the results of a machine test. Adam Liptak in the New York Times noted that this result disappointed many who had hoped that the two new justices might walk the court back from its 2009 Melendez-Diaz decision that struck down the practice of offering certified documentary evidence without in-person testimony. The Los Angeles Times declared that the opinion puts “an extra burden on crime labs.” Ann Murphy at EvidenceProf Blog provided a detailed review of the decision.

CSX Transportation v. McBride, 10-235

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act says that a railroad is liable for its worker’s injuries “resulting in whole or in part” from the railroad’s negligence. The trial court interpreted the statute and prior case law to require a jury instruction that is less stringent than the normal proximate cause instruction. The Court (J. Ginsburg wrote the opinion; J. Thomas joined in part and in the result; C.J. Roberts filed a dissent, joined by J. Scalia, J. Kennedy and J. Alito) held that the Act requires a relaxed jury instruction, notwithstanding the dissenters’ insistence that more definitive statutory language must be present in order to deviate from the traditional standard. Justice Watch reviewed the decision, and the United Transportation Union was pleased and relieved.

Freeman v. US, 09-10245

Federal law allows prisoners to seek a sentence reduction when the Guidelines are amended in a way that would have reduced their sentencing range. Facing crack possession and other charges, the Petitioner pled guilty under an agreement for a specific sentence based on a Guidelines calculation. After the Sentencing Commission reduced the Guidelines related to crack cocaine, the Petitioner applied for a reduction of his sentence. The trial court dismissed his application reasoning that since the Petitioner had agreed to a specific term of imprisonment, he was not eligible for a reduction. The Court (J. Kennedy wrote the opinion; J. Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; C.J. Roberts filed a dissent, joined by J. Scalia, J. Thomas, and J. Alito) found that since the plea agreement was based on the Guidelines, and since the judge’s order accepting the agreement must also reference the Guidelines, the Petitioner is entitled to apply for a reduction. The Louisville Courier-Journal covered this case.

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Articles posted in the Cockle Blog are for informational purposes only. Nothing in the Cockle Blog should be taken for legal advice. In fact, Cockle Blog articles are not a substitute for proper legal research conducted by licensed attorneys.

Cockle Blog will occasionally provide opinions on certain cases and Court procedures. These opinions should be viewed with the recognition that no one can predict with certainty how the Supreme Court will rule on particular cases. Any reliance on articles contained in Cockle Blog must be done at one's own risk.