Saturday, November 19, 2011

Roberts' Goat (Part 6: Civil Cases [cont'd.])

In the last post, we outlined the civil cases among the total of 15, criminal and civil, in which the Chief Justice authored his most recent dissenting opinions. We then looked a bit more closely at 3 of those civil cases. In this post we'll look a bit more closely at the remaining civil cases among that group.

Recall that in the 3 civil cases already discussed: Roberts dissented against an railroad worker being compensated for his injuries because, in Roberts' view, the railroad wasn't negligent enough. He dissented against a state agency created to protect the mentally disabled because, in his view, the agency should not be permitted to sue the offending state officials in federal court. And he dissented against a foreign national seeking asylum because, in his view, that individual was not sufficiently specific about the legal basis for his incompetent counsel claim.

Again, yes, Roberts had his reasons. But so did the majority that sided with the injured worker, with the state agency protecting the mentally disabled, and with the foreign national seeking asylum. In each case, however, Roberts chose the reasons that put him on the side opposing those interests. (See Roberts' Goat (Part 5: Civil Cases), Nov. 7, 2011.)

What about his dissents in the other civil cases? He dissented in favor of a bank that was sued by a consumer for violating credit card laws. He dissented in favor of a judge who presided over an appeal by a coal company that spent $3 million to get him elected. He dissented in favor of a state that failed to build an interstate radioactive waste facility that was agreed upon and funded by multi-state commission of which it was a member. And he dissented against a water district and power company that sought to participate in a bi-state dispute over river water in which they had significant interests. Hmmm.

Let's look closer.
In Vaden v. Discover Bank (2009), the bank sued a credit card holder for overdue charges. The bank did so in Maryland state court, under Maryland state law. When the cardholder counterclaimed that the bank had violated Maryland's laws governing credit, however, the bank went to federal court to get the case out of state court and to compel arbitration under federal law--i.e., the Federal Arbitration Act.
At the Supreme Court, the majority ruled that the case was not controlled by the federal arbitration law because it arose out of a claim based solely on state law. The cardholder was entitled to have his case decided by a court.
Roberts dissented, siding with the bank and arguing that the cardholder should be forced to arbitrate. According to Roberts, because the "controversy" involved a credit card account over which federal law does have jurisdiction, it makes no difference that bank's lawsuit was brought in state court to collect on a debt that was a matter of state law.
The ruling was 5-4. Justices Stevens, Breyer, and Alito joined Roberts.

In Caperton v. Massey (2009), a state jury awarded $50 million against a coal company for fraud, interference with contracts, and other torts. The coal company then spent $3 million in an election campaign to defeat the state's incumbent chief justice with another candidate. The coal company's favored candidate won.
When the $50 million verdict was appealed to the state's supreme court, the newly elected chief justice rejected claims of bias and insisted on presiding over the appeal. He then sided with the coal company and his vote was the deciding one in overturning the verdict against it.
The Supreme Court majority ruled that the risk of actual bias and prejudgment was so great that constitutional due process--i.e., basic fairness--required the chief justice's disqualification in this case.
Roberts dissented, siding with the state chief justice and the coal company, arguing that the Court's ruling will lead to groundless allegations of bias, that it will erode confidence in the judiciary, and that it provides little guidance as to when disqualification is required.
The vote was 5-4. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined Roberts.

In State of Alabama et al v. State of North Carolina (2010), several states had formed a commission to finance the building of an interstate radioactive waste facility in North Carolina. When North Carolina failed to follow through, the other member states and the commission commenced this suit directly in the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction. The Court assigned the case to a special master who, at the outset, refused to dismiss some of the claims against North Carolina.
The Court majority partially agreed with the special master in refusing to dismiss some claims. It also ruled that the commission, which had provided the funds to North Carolina, could be part of the suit at the Supreme Court as long as its claims were the same as those of the member states.
Roberts dissented, arguing that sovereign immunity protected North Carolina against suit by the commission. According to him, the Court's controlling precedent was wrongly decided, and the commission is a private entity which should not be permitted to piggyback on claims of its member states.
The vote was 6-3. Justices Thomas and Breyer joined Roberts.

In State of South Carolina v. State v. North Carolina (2010), another action brought directly before the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction, the 2 states were disputing the apportionment of the river water flowing between them. The Court assigned the case to a special master who then allowed a bi-state water district and a local power company to participate in the action as parties.
The Supreme Court upheld the Special Master's ruling. The majority reasoned that the bi-state water district and the power company had compelling interests in the litigation that would likely be directly and significantly affected, and that those interests would not otherwise be protected.
Roberts dissented, arguing that nonsovereigns, such as the water district and the power company, have never previously been allowed to intervene in this kind of case when it's before the Court as a matter of original jurisdiction.
The vote was 5-4. Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined Roberts.

So there they are. The rest of Roberts' dissenting opinions. The opinions in those cases where the Court's decisions bothered him enough to---well, you know by now--move him to expend the time, effort, resources, and collegial capital to author public statements disagreeing with the majority of the Court.

So what do those dissents tell us? The ones just discussed, as well as the rest of the 15, criminal and civil? Well, connect the dots! And that's exactly what we'll be doing in the next post to wrap up this series on what gets Roberts' goat.