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The Supreme Court Handed Down Rulings in 3 Big Cases — Here’s What You Need to Know


The U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in several major cases Monday morning. Here’s a brief round-up of the facts and decisions reached in three important and influential opinions.

In Thole v. U.S. Bank, the justices ruled that workers cannot sue pension fund managers over mismanagement unless the pension fund is actually underfunded and causes an injury via reduced payments. A fairly typical 5-4 split, the court determined an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) lawsuit lacked standing.

The plaintiffs originally sued U.S. Bancorp and several of the company’s directors in 2013 over risky investments in 2007 and 2010 that wiped out some $750 million in pension plan value for workers. A year after the lawsuit was filed, however, the bank itself contributed $311 million to the plan–which was enough to partially fund obligations and pay out pensions uninterrupted.

The bank argued that because they had made the plaintiffs whole, they lacked standing to sue. The district court ruled in the bank’s favor–explaining that the issue was moot but rejecting the standing argument. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision but revived the bank’s position on standing. The plaintiffs appealed to the nation’s high court and were joined by the government–a rare instance of the White House taking the workers’ position–who argued that any fiduciary breach provides a plaintiff standing to sue.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh explained [emphasis in original]:

[James] Thole and [Sherry] Smith have received all of their monthly benefit payments so far, and the outcome of this suit would not affect their future benefit payments. If Thole and Smith were to lose this lawsuit, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits that they are already slated to receive, not a penny less. If Thole and Smith were to win this lawsuit, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits that they are already slated to receive, not a penny more. The plaintiffs therefore have no concrete stake in this lawsuit.

In Nasrallah v. Barr, immigration and human rights activists notched a relatively significant victory against the White House. The 7-2 opinion, also authored by Kavanaugh, found that courts can review an immigrant’s challenge to deportation proceedings under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). This ruling is an explicit rebuke against the executive branch’s power over immigration matters.

Nidal Khalid Nasrallah is a Lebanese national who entered the U.S. at the age of 17 on a tourist visa. In 2007, he obtained a permanent residency card. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to one day shy of a year in prison. The government, however, wanted a bit more from the man and began deportation proceedings under the relevant section of federal law that allows the state to boot people out of its borders for so-called crimes of moral turpitude.

Nasrallah applied for CAT relief, alleging that he had previously been tortured in Lebanon over his Druze religion and that were he sent back he would be tortured again. The initial judge overseeing his immigration case agreed–ordering Nasrallah removed while staying his own ruling under the United States’ CAT, effectively allowing Nasrallah to stay in the country. The government and Nasrallah both appealed the decision–the Obama administration appealed the stay of removal and Nasrallah appealed the initial finding that he was removable at all. On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) determined that CAT relief was inappropriate because Nasrallah was not likely to be tortured and ordered his removal. A federal court affirmed that decision by determining courts lack jurisdiction to review factual findings–here, the torture–underlying CAT claims.

Kavanaugh explained why the majority tossed that decision:

The relevant statutory text precludes judicial review of factual challenges to final orders of removal—and only to final orders of removal. In the deportation context, a final “order of removal” is a final order “concluding that the alien is deportable or ordering deportation.” §1101(a)(47)(A).4

A CAT order is not itself a final order of removal because it is not an order “concluding that the alien is deportable or ordering deportation.”

Notably, Kavanaugh’s opinion largely uses the term “noncitizen” in order to refer to Nasrallah–an added bonus victory for immigration advocates who have long worked to shift linguistic standards. He explains in a footnote: “This opinion uses the term ‘noncitizen’ as equivalent to the statutory term ‘alien.'”

In a case stylized as Banister v. Davis, seven justices gave a victory to a prisoner in Texas by ruling that a motion to alter or amend a judgment under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure does not qualify as a second or successive petition for habeas corpus–which are disallowed. This is important because the technical nature of such a motion increases the likelihood of post-conviction judicial review.

Gregory Dean Banister was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he hit and killed a bicyclist with his car nearly twenty years ago. Banister was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime and appealed to state and, later, federal courts–ultimately citing various constitutional violations including ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The federal district court disagreed and entered judgment.

Bannister then filed a Rule 59(e) motion pleading with the court to correct “manifest errors of law and fact.” The Fifth Circuit said that his motion was untimely–that is, late–and dismissed it because the court “construed [the motion] as a successive habeas petition” instead of a genuine 59(e) motion under the federal rules.

“Unlike a Rule 59(e) motion, the Court of Appeals noted, a successive habeas application does not postpone the time to file an appeal,” Justice Elena Kagan explains, “That meant the clock started ticking when the District Court denied Banister’s habeas application (rather than his subsequent motion)—and so Banister’s appeal was several weeks late.”

The justice also explained why the appeals court got it wrong:

Rule 59(e) motions are not second or successive petitions, but instead a part of a prisoner’s first habeas proceeding. In timing and substance, a Rule 59(e) motion hews closely to the initial application; and the habeas court’s disposition of the former fuses with its decision on the latter. Such a motion does not enable a prisoner to abuse the habeas process by stringing out his claims over the years. It instead gives the court a brief chance to fix mistakes before its (single) judgment on a (single) habeas application becomes final and thereby triggers the time for appeal. No surprise, then, that habeas courts historically entertained Rule 59(e) motions, rather than dismiss them as successive.

“[T]he 30-day appeals clock runs from the disposition of such a motion, rather than from the initial entry of judgment,” Kagan notes in conclusion. “And Banister filed his notice of appeal within that time. The Fifth Circuit reached a contrary conclusion because it thought that Banister’s motion was really a second or successive habeas application, and so did not reset the appeals clock. For all the reasons we have given, that understanding of a Rule 59(e) motion is wrong.”

[image via Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images]

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