Court watching: Duke Law scholars comment on significant rulings from the 2014-2015 Supreme Court term

July 20, 2015Duke Law News

The Supreme Court ended its 2014-2015 term with significant rulings legalizing same-sex marriage and upholding federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Duke Law faculty engaged with those cases and others throughout the term through scholarship, friend-of-court briefs, and commentary.

Teva v. Sandoz: Interpreting the patent process

The Court cited an amicus brief co-authored by Professor Arti Rai in its ruling on Teva v. Sandoz, a case regarding the process by which patent claims are handled on appeal. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was wrong to independently review the facts of the case rather than rely on the district court’s findings. Breyer cited the amicus brief, written by Rai and two other intellectual property experts and filed in support of neither party, which showed that the federal circuit overturns district court claim construction at an unusually high rate.

Rai, the Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law, told Modern Healthcare that the ruling could have the effect of decreasing the number of patent appeals and spurring trial courts to engage in more extensive and time-consuming analysis when reviewing patent claims.

Rai, who served as administrator for the Office of External Affairs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2009 and2010, is co-director of Duke Law’s Center for Innovation Policy. The center hosted a roundtable on the patent trial and appeal process in June.

Obergefell v. Hodges: Finding a fundamental right to marry

Laurence Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick Sr. Professor of Law, joined with other scholars of international and comparative law in filing an amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges, urging the court to heed "an emerging global consensus among liberal democracies" by protecting same-sex marriage. 

"The U.S. Supreme Court should be guided by those nations, whatever their number, that invoke U.S. constitutional principles of equality, liberty and due process to recognize same-sex marriages," Helfer, who co-directs Duke’s Center for International and Comparative Law told The New York Times in April.

Professor Neil Siegel, a constitutional scholar who has written extensively about the constitutional framework for recognition of same-sex marriage, lauded the June 26 ruling upholding it as a right.

"The decision faithfully applies and persuasively extends the Court's many precedents that protect 'certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy,' as the Court put it," said Siegel, the David W. Ichel Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science. "The lawfulness of the decision is exceeded only by its decency.

"Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion explains how the Constitution's protections of liberty and equality can interact to protect human dignity including the 'equal dignity' of same-sex couples 'in the eyes of the law,'" said Siegel, who co-directs the Program in Public Law and directs the D.C. Summer Institute on Law and Policy

Analyzing the complexities of health care reform

Siegel also praised the Court's ruling in King v. Burwell, that tax credits are available to individuals in states that utilize federal health-insurance exchanges. Siegel, who has devoted considerable scholarship to about the ACA, told the Los Angeles Times that the June 25 opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, showed "good sense and fidelity to the law" at a time when political polarization threatens to spill over into the judiciary.

Professor Barak Richman also discussed the case in radio interviews after it was argued in court, and again after the opinion was issued.

Richman, the Edgar P. and Elizabeth C. Bartlett Professor of Law and Professor of Business Administration, has extensively researched and written about the complex issues involved in health care delivery, and testified about health care reform and competition before a House Judiciary Subcommittee in 2013.

Zivotofsky v. Kerry: Foreign relations and separation of powers

Curtis Bradley, the William Van Alstyne Professor of Law, called the Court’s decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry “noteworthy for its pragmatic, rather than formalistic, approach to the distribution of constitutional authority over foreign affairs,” in an analysis for SCOTUSblog. The case involved a boy born to American parents in Jerusalem in 2002, and their request that the State Department issue the child a passport listing his birth nation as Israel. The court’s opinion upheld the Obama administration’s claim that doing so would violate their position of neutrality over Jerusalem’s sovereignty, asserting the dominance of the executive branch’s foreign relations policy over Congressional authority, in this case manifested by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003, which authorized the State Department to comply with requests such as the Zivotofsky’s.

Bradley, a co-director for the Center for International and Comparative Law, also wrote an article for the American Society of International Law examining the Zivotofsky opinion, with a focus on “the Court’s reliance on the historic practices of Congress and the executive branch in support of the Court’s finding of an exclusive presidential recognition power.”

Parsing rulings on environmental regulation and policy

Clinical Professor Ryke Longest, who directs the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, wrote about the Court’s endorsement, in Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado, of the ability of court-appointed officials to mediate disputes over interstate waterways. “Warring states are thus well-advised to do their best to win their case before special masters,” he wrote in a commentary for SCOTUSblog.

Senior Lecturing Fellow Jonas Monast, whose expertise includes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing efforts to implement new emission controls via the Clean Air Act, discussed the Court’s June 29 decision in Michigan v. EPA with the Triangle Business Journal, which held holding that the EPA imposed unreasonable regulations on emissions from power plants. The short-term effect of the ruling is negligible in states like North Carolina, where many power plants have already taken steps to comply with the regulations, Monast said. He predicted, however, that the ruling will affect future regulatory efforts.

Inclusive Communities: Fair housing and race

Professor Guy-Uriel Charles, director of the Center on Law, Race and Politics, said that the Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project was an important recognition of discriminatory housing policies in an interview with National Public Radio. Charles, the Charles S. Rhyne Professor of Law, also spoke with NPR about the Court’s decision to send a challenge to the North Carolina legislature’s controversial 2011 legislative redistricting plan back to a trial court with instructions to apply a different standard to its deliberations. Whatever the outcome, the case is likely to end up back before the Supreme Court on appeal, Charles said.

Holt v. Hobbs: Upholding the religious freedom of inmates

Ernest Young, the Alston & Bird Professor of Law, predicted the outcome of Holt v. Hobbs during a November 2014 panel discussion on minority religious freedom held at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center. Young, a leading constitutional law scholar, said that the case, which involved a Muslim inmate’s claim that his faith required him to grow a beard that broke prison regulations, would likely be decided unanimously in favor of the inmate. In its January 20 opinion, the Court did exactly that, holding that the prison’s policy on beards violated the inmate’s religious freedom.

Reviewing the term

In multiple essays, Walter Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor Emeritus of Law, analyzed  the interaction of the justices and the tone of the majority opinions written by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as divisions among the Court’s conservative justices. Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general, also assessed Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s term, writing in Slate that, given the significant cases in which the government prevailed before the justices, it may be “the greatest Supreme Court term any solicitor general has ever had.”