Lisa Soronen

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Merck v. Albrecht is a simple issue contained in a long story.

In 2009 in Wyeth v. Levine the Supreme Court held that federal law preempts state law failure to warn claims that a drug manufacturer failed to change a drug label if there is “clear evidence” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would not have approved the label change. In Merck v. Albrecht a unanimous Supreme Court held that a judge rather than a jury determines if the FDA would have approved the change.

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) provides no federal remedy for unsafe and ineffective drugs but state law may in the form of a failure to warn claim. The FDA allows manufacturers to change warnings on drug labels when newer drug safety information becomes available. The Supreme Court has held if the FDA would not have approved a drug label change, which a state failure to warn law would have required, the FDCA preempts the state law claim.

What will invariably get everyone’s attention about this case is it is the second 5-4 decision where Justice Gorsuch has joined the four more liberal Justices to rule in favor of a tribe. And a ruling in the Court’s most interesting tribal case of the term is yet to come. But none of this should distract from the holding of this case.    

The Supreme Court answered yes to the question in Herrera v. Wyoming of whether an old treaty allowing Native Americans to hunt on federal land is still valid. According to an amicus brief filed by the Crow Tribe “[a]t least nineteen tribes, in at least a dozen treaties, reserved for themselves the right to hunt on Federal lands away from their respective reservations.”

In 1868 the Crow Tribe ceded most of its territory in what is now Montana and Wyoming to the United States in exchange for an agreement the Crow could “hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United State.” Clayvin Herrera invoked this treaty to defend against a charge of violating state law by off-season hunting in Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

In a 5-4 opinion the Supreme Court held that the treaty’s hunting rights survived Wyoming’s statehood and that lands in the Bighorn National Forest aren’t categorically “occupied” because they are in a national reserve.

In County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund the Supreme Court will decide whether groundwater is subject to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an ...

Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt (Hyatt III) is a win for state sovereignty, albeit an obscure victory. In this case the Supreme Court overturned precedent to hold 5-4 that states are immune from private lawsuits brought in courts of other states.

Since 1993 Gilbert Hyatt and the Franchise Tax Board of California (FTB) have been involved in a dispute over Hyatt’s 1991 and 1992 tax returns. FTB claims that Hyatt owes California taxes from income he earned in California. Hyatt claims he lived in Nevada during the relevant time period. Hyatt sued FTB in Nevada claiming FTB committed a number of torts during the audit.

Predicting the outcome of a Supreme Court case based on oral argument is foolhardy. But unless the more liberal Justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) are able to pick up the vote of a more conservative Justice (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh) it seems likely the 2020 census will contain a question about citizenship.

In March 2018 Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross issued a memorandum stating he would add the question. He claimed the Department of Justice (DOJ) wanted the data to enforce the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition against diluting the voting power of minority groups.

After refusing to accept or reject petitions for months the Supreme Court has finally agreed to decide whether employers violate Title VII when they discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status. Among other things, Title VII prohibits discrimination “because of . . . sex.” 

Until 2017 all federal courts of appeals to consider the question had held Title VII does not protect employees on the basis of sexual orientation. This changed when the Seventh Circuit reversed itself in Hively v. Ivey Tech Community College concluding “discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.”

Timbs v. Indiana has received a lot of attention because it deals with a controversial subject—civil asset forfeitures. But as a practical matter this case is unlikely to have much of an impact. What this case now requires under the federal constitution has long since been required under state constitutions.

 

In Timbs the Supreme Court held unanimously that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause applies to states and local governments. This ruling is unsurprising given that the Supreme Court has “incorporated” almost all of the Bill of Rights against states and local governments since the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868.

 

The Supreme Court’s opinion explains why this case doesn’t change much. All 50 states constitutions have excessive fines clauses which apply to states and local governments—some for centuries. It is possible that some of these state constitutional provisions have been interpreted differently than the federal provision. But there is so little federal case law on what is an excessive fine that it is unlikely most interpretations of state constitutions contradict the scant federal case law.

The issue the Supreme Court will decide in McDonough v. Smith is whether the statute of limitations for a due process fabrication of evidence claim begins to run when the criminal proceedings terminate in the defendant’s favor, or when the defendant becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use. The States and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief argues for the latter standard.

Edward McDonough, former Democratic Commissioner of Rensselaer County Board of Elections, approved forged absentee ballot applications which he claims he didn’t know had been falsified. Youel Smith investigated and prosecuted McDonough. McDonough claims Smith “engaged in an elaborate scheme to frame McDonough for the crimes by, among other things, fabricating evidence.” After two trials, McDonough was ultimately acquitted.

In its amicus brief in Mitchell v. Wisconsin the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues that when police officers encounter an unconscious motorist they have probable cause to believe is impaired it should be permissible for the motorist’s blood to be drawn without a warrant. Wisconsin and 28 other states allow this practice. 

Most, if not all, states have adopted “implied consent” laws where drivers may be tested if police have probable cause to suspect they have been driving while intoxicated. Drivers may withdraw consent and refuse to take a test, subject to penalties. In Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) the Supreme Court held that generally police must obtain a warrant to require a blood test (versus a breath test) where officers have probable cause.

But what if a driver is unconscious and unable to withdraw consent to a blood test (and unable to take a breath test)? The question the Supreme Court will decide in Mitchell v. Wisconsin is whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

How often do you drive a vehicle not registered in your name? Every day? In Kansas v. Glover the Supreme Court will decide whether it is reasonable, under the Fourth Amendment, for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving it absent any information to the contrary.

Officer Mark Mehrer ran the license plate of a vehicle that was being driven lawfully. He discovered that the owner of the vehicle, Charles Glover, had a suspended license. He pulled the driver over and discovered he was in fact Charles Glover.

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