Mid-Term Roundup

With the Corporate Court halfway through its 2011-2012 term, we take this opportunity to look back at the opinions that it has issued so far. The Court’s less tendentious rulings tend to be released before the more closely divided ones, so it is unsurprising that all of these cases were decided 9-0 or 8-1. However, the Corporate Court’s unanimity aside, four of these holdings spell bad news for everyday Americans, while two go against corporate interests, and the implications of a final decision remain to be seen.

First, the bad news.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Court held 9-0 that a “ministerial exception” shields religious institutions from liability for discriminatory or retaliatory employment actions.  The Court applied a totality of the circumstances test to conclude that the employee in this case – a teacher of primarily secular subjects at a religious school – was a “minister,” and that therefore the ministerial exception applies and her suit is barred. This holding will make it difficult for teachers to speak out against misdeeds within religious institutions for fear of retaliation, and will allow religious institutions to discriminate with impunity.

In Minneci v. Pollard, the Court held 8-1 that employees of a private corporation operating a federal prison may not be held liable under federal law for committing constitutional violations. The plaintiff sued for damages under Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, claiming that his Eighth Amendment right not to be cruelly punished had been violated. The Corporate Court held that there is no reason to imply a Bivens remedy because Pollard has an adequate remedy in state tort law. Pollard would clearly have had a Bivens remedy if he were incarcerated in a prison run by the government. Yet because he was placed in a prison run by a private contractor, he is denied that remedy.

In National Meat Association v. Harris, the Corporate Court decided in favor of an industry trade group, holding 9-0 that a California state law designed to protect consumers from contaminated meat and to ensure humane treatment of animals is preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. As a result of the Court’s decision, it will be easier for potentially contaminated meat to get into California grocery stores, and more difficult for all states to protect public health and humane treatment of animals.

In Perry v. Perez, the Supreme Court rejected a district court’s attempts to draw interim electoral maps for the upcoming elections, ordering it to give greater deference to the legislature’s racially gerrymandered maps. With pending lawsuits challenging the maps, the San Antonio court designed interim maps to be used during the 2012 electoral season. The Supreme Court rejected the court-drawn maps for failing to defer adequately to the legislature’s choices, and remanded with the instruction to modify the legislature’s maps only where there are alleged legal problems that have a likelihood of success on the merits. The Court’s ruling will likely have the effect of diluting minority voting rights in the 2012 elections.

Now, the good news.

In Mims v. Arrow Financial Services, the Court held that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act allows a consumer claiming harassment to sue in federal court, reversing the lower courts’ holding that Congress intended to limit jurisdiction to state courts. By siding with Mims, the Supreme Court has provided consumers with the ability to hold companies accountable for unlawful telephone harassment in federal court, where they might receive greater relief than they would in the courts of states with weaker consumer protections.

In a case with narrower application, the Court held in Pacific Operations Offshore v. Valladolid that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act extends workers’ compensation coverage to workers who can show a “substantial nexus” between their injury and their work on the Outer Continental Shelf.  As a result, workers in the offshore extractive industries who are injured or killed while working onshore may still receive benefits under the OCSLA if they can show a “substantial nexus” between their injury and operations on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Finally, in the ambiguous category is United States v. Jones, in which the Court addressed the right of individuals to be free from warrantless government tracking of their vehicles’ locations through GPS technology. Although the Court technically ruled against the government, it delivered only a limited victory for privacy rights, holding that the installation and use of a GPS tracker on an automobile constitutes a “search.” Whether or not a warrant is required for such a search remains an open question, and one that will undoubtedly trouble privacy advocates.

The Court returns from its mid-term recess on Tuesday, February 21, when it will hear oral argument in Freeman v. Quicken Loans.