Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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A Nevada jury convicted Rippo of first-degree murder and other offenses and sentenced him to death. During his trial, Rippo received information that the judge was the target of a federal bribery probe, and he surmised that the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, which was prosecuting him, was playing a role in that investigation. Rippo unsuccessfully moved for the judge’s disqualification. After that judge’s indictment on federal charges a different judge denied Rippo’s motion for a new trial. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed, reasoning that Rippo had not introduced evidence that state authorities were involved in the federal investigation. State courts denied post-conviction relief, reasoning that Rippo was not entitled to discovery or an evidentiary hearing because his allegations “d[id] not support the assertion that the trial judge was actually biased.” The Supreme Court vacated the Nevada Supreme Court’s judgment, stating that due process may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge “ ‘ha[s] no actual bias.’ Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision-maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” View "Rippo v. Baker" on Justia Law

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Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign edition textbooks in Thailand and resold them to students in the U.S. In 2013 the Supreme Court held that Kirtsaeng could invoke the Copyright Act’s “first-sale doctrine,” 17 U.S.C. 109(a), as a defense to the publisher's copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng then sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees from the publisher under the Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Second Circuit affirmed denial of Kirtsaeng’s application, reasoning that Wiley had taken reasonable positions during litigation. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. When deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, a court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position, while still taking into account all other relevant circumstances. Precedent has identified several non-exclusive​ factors for courts to consider, e.g., frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Putting substantial weight on the reasonableness of a losing party’s position is consistent with the objectives of the Copyright Act, but courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions. Because the district court “may not have understood the full scope of its discretion,” the Court remanded for consideration of other relevant factors. View "Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc." on Justia Law

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Williams was convicted of a 1984 murder and sentenced to death. Philadelphia District Attorney Castille approved a request to seek the death penalty. Williams’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. In 2012, Williams filed a successive petition under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), arguing that the prosecutor had obtained false testimony from his codefendant and suppressed exculpatory evidence. Finding that the prosecutor had committed Brady violations, the court stayed Williams’s execution. The Commonwealth asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose chief justice was former District Attorney Castille, to vacate the stay. Without explanation, Castille denied Williams’s motion for recusal and request for referral to the full court; Castille joined an opinion vacating PCRA relief and reinstating Williams’s death sentence. Two weeks later, Castille retired. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated, holding that Castille’s participation violated the Due Process Clause. There is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case. No attorney is more integral to the accusatory process than a prosecutor who participates in a major adversary decision; the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice. Neither the involvement of multiple actors nor the passage of time relieves the former prosecutor of the duty to withdraw. An unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error, “not amenable” to harmless-error review, regardless of whether the judge’s vote was dispositive. The Court noted that many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have statutes and professional codes that already require recusal under these circumstances. View "Williams v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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CRST trucking company requires its drivers to graduate from its training program before becoming certified drivers. In 2005, new driver Starke filed an EEOC charge, alleging that she was sexually harassed by male trainers during her training (42 U.S.C. 2000e–5(b)).The Commission ultimately informed CRST that it had found reasonable cause to believe that CRST subjected Starke and “a class of employees and prospective employees to sexual harassment.” In 2007, having determined that conciliation had failed, the Commission filed suit. During discovery, the Commission identified over 250 allegedly aggrieved women. The district court dismissed, held that CRST was a prevailing party, and awarded the company over $4 million in fees. The Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of two claims and vacated the award. On remand, the Commission settled Starke’s claim and withdrew the other. The district court again awarded more than $4 million, finding that CRST had prevailed on more than 150 claims because of the Commission’s failure to satisfy pre-suit requirements. The Eighth Circuit reversed, stating that dismissal was not a ruling on the merits. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. A favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate to find that a defendant is a prevailing party. A plaintiff seeks a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties; a defendant seeks to prevent that alteration, and that objective is fulfilled whenever the plaintiff ’s challenge is rebuffed, irrespective of the precise reason for the decision. Title VII’s fee-shifting statute allows prevailing defendants to recover whenever the plaintiff ’s “claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” Congress must have intended that a defendant could recover fees expended in such litigation when the case is resolved in the defendant’s favor, whether on the merits or not. View "CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n" on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits “abusive debt collection practices,” 15 U.S.C. 1692(a)–(d), barring “false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s].” The definition of “debt collectors,” excludes “any officer . . . of . . . any State to the extent that collecting . . . any debt is in the performance of his official duties.” Under Ohio law, overdue debts owed to state-owned agencies and instrumentalities are certified to the State’s Attorney General, who may appoint, as independent contractors, private attorneys, as “special counsel” to act on the Attorney General’s behalf. Special counsel must use the Attorney General’s letterhead in communicating with debtors. Attorneys appointed as special counsel, sent debt collection letters on the Attorney General’s letterhead to debtors, with signature blocks containing the name and address of the signatory as well as the designation “special” or “outside” counsel to the Attorney General. Each letter identified the sender as a debt collector seeking payment for debts to a state institution. Debtors filed a putative class action, alleging violation of FDCPA. The district court granted defendants summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit vacated, concluding that special counsel, as independent contractors, are not entitled to the FDCPA’s state-officer exemption. The Supreme Court reversed. Even if special counsel are not “state officers” under the Act, their use of the Attorney General’s letterhead does not violate Section 1692e. The letterhead identifies the principal—Ohio’s Attorney General—and the signature block names the agent—a private lawyer. A debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the Attorney General’s Office is “scarcely inaccurate.” View "Sheriff v. Gillie" on Justia Law

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Under federal law, a court has discretion to “allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee” in a civil rights lawsuit filed under 42 U.S.C. 1983 or 42 U.S.C. 1988. The Supreme Court has interpreted section 1988 to permit a prevailing defendant to recover fees only if “the plaintiff ’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” The Idaho Supreme Court concluded that it was not bound by that interpretation and awarded attorney’s fees under section 1988 to a prevailing defendant without first determining that “the plaintiff ’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” The fee award rested solely on that court's interpretation of federal law; the court explicitly refused to award fees under state law. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1988 is a federal statute; once the Supreme Court has spoken, it is the duty of other courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule of law. If state courts were permitted to disregard the Court’s rulings on federal law, “the laws, the treaties, and the constitution of the United States would be different in different states, and might, perhaps, never have precisely the same construction, obligation, or efficacy, in any two states." View "James v. Boise" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, a bipartisan group of citizens, requested that a three-judge court be convened to consider their claim that Maryland’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan burdens their First Amendment right of political association. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that no relief could be granted. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Court held that 28 U.S.C. 2284 entitles petitioners to make their case before a three-judge court because, under section 2284(a), the present suit is indisputably an action challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts. The Court further held that the subsequent provision of section 2284(b)(1), that the district judge shall commence the process for appointment of a three-judge panel “unless he determines that three judges are not required,” should be read not as a grant of discretion to the district judge to ignore section 2284(a), but as a compatible administrative detail. The Court went on to say that this conclusion is bolstered by section 2284(b)(3)’s explicit command that “[a] single judge shall not . . . enter judgment on the merits.” Finally, the Court held that respondents' alternative argument, that the District Judge should have dismissed petitioners' claim as "constitutionally insubstantial" under Goosby v. Osser, is unpersuasive. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. View "Shapiro v. McManus" on Justia Law

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In 1985, a manager was shot to death during a robbery of his restaurant. In the following months, a second manager was murdered and another survived similar robberies. In each restaurant, the robber fired two .38 caliber bullets; all six bullets were recovered. The survivor, Smotherman, described his assailant and picked Hinton’s picture out of a photographic array. The police arrested Hinton and recovered from his house a .38 caliber revolver belonging to his mother, who shared the house. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the six bullets had all been fired from the Hinton revolver. Hinton was charged with two counts of murder. He was not charged with the Smotherman robbery. The prosecution strategy was to link Hinton to the Smotherman robbery by eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence about the bullets and to persuade the jury that, given the similarity of the crimes, Hinton must have committed the murders. Hinton presented witnesses in support of his alibi that he was at work at the time of the Smotherman robbery. The six bullets and the revolver were the only physical evidence. Hinton’s attorney obtained a grant of $1,000 to hire an expert to challenge that evidence and did not request more funding, nor correct the judge’s mistaken belief that a $1,000 limit applied. Under that mistaken belief, Hinton’s attorney found only one person who was willing to testify: Payne. Hinton’s attorney believed that Payne did not have the necessary expertise. The prosecutor discredited Payne. The jury convicted Hinton; the court imposed a death sentence. In state post-conviction proceedings, Hinton alleged ineffective assistance and produced three highly credible experts, who testified that they could not conclude that any of the bullets had been fired from the Hinton revolver. The state did not submit rebuttal evidence. Following a remand by the state’s highest court, the trial court held that Payne was qualified to testify as a firearms and toolmark expert under the then-applicable standard. The Alabama Supreme Court denied review. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that Hinton’s attorney rendered ineffective assistance under its “Strickland” test. It was unreasonable to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was limited. View "Hinton v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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Using FOIA requests directed to the South Carolina DMV, attorneys obtained names and addresses, then sent letters to more than 34,000 individuals, seeking clients for a lawsuit against car dealerships for violation of a state law. The letters were headed “ADVERTISING MATERIAL,” explained the lawsuit, and asked recipients to return an enclosed card to participate in the case. Recipients sued the attorneys, alleging violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA), 18 U.S.C. 2721(b)(4), by obtaining, disclosing, and using personal information from motor vehicle records for bulk solicitation without express consent. The district court dismissed, based on a DPPA exception permitting disclosure of personal information "for use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding," including "investigation in anticipation of litigation." The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. An attorney’s solicitation of clients is not a permissible purpose under the (b)(4) litigation exception. DPPA’s purpose of protecting privacy in motor vehicle records would be substantially undermined by application of the (b)(4) exception to the general ban on disclosure of personal information and ban on release of highly restricted personal information in cases there is any connection between protected information and a potential legal dispute. The Court noted examples of permissible litigation uses: service of process, investigation in anticipation of litigation, and execution or enforcement of judgments and orders. All involve an attorney’s conduct as an officer of the court, not a commercial actor, seeking a business transaction. A contrary reading of (b)(4) could affect interpretation of the (b)(6) exception, which allows an insurer and certain others to obtain DMV information for use in connection with underwriting, and the (b)(10) exception, which permits disclosure and use of personal information in connection with operation of private tollroads. View "Maracich v. Spears" on Justia Law

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In an infringement suit, the district court declared Minton’s patent invalid under the “on sale” bar since he had leased his interactive securities trading system to a brokerage more than one year before the patent application, 35 U. S. C. 102(b). Seeking reconsideration, Minton argued for the first time that the lease was part of testing and fell within the “experimental use” exception to the bar. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of the motion, concluding that the argument was waived. Minton sued for legal malpractice in Texas state court. His former attorneys argued that Minton’s claims would have failed even if the experimental-use argument had been timely raised. The trial court agreed. Minton then claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. 1338(a), which provides for exclusive federal jurisdiction over any case “arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents.” The Texas Court of Appeals rejected Minton’s argument and determined that Minton failed to establish experimental use. The state’s highest court reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Section 338(a) does not deprive state courts of subject matter jurisdiction over Minton’s malpractice claim. Federal law does not create that claim, so it can arise under federal patent law only if it necessarily raises a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which may be entertained without disturbing an approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. Resolution of a federal patent question is “necessary” to Minton’s case and the issue is “actually disputed,” but it does not carry the necessary significance. No matter the resolution of the hypothetical “case within a case,” the result of the prior patent litigation will not change. Nor will allowing state courts to resolve these cases undermine development of a uniform body of patent law. View "Gunn v. Minton" on Justia Law