Five SCOTUS Decisions Making Waves in the Lower Courts

The 2015/2016 Supreme Court Term had its fair share of significant cases. Some of these cases have effected and will effect large swaths of the population. The ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, for instance, sets guidelines for acceptable state regulations on abortion. Evenwel v. Abbott clarifies how states may draw legislative districts, thus affecting voter allocation. The rulings in many cases each Term go under the radar as well as they deal with less politically salient issues. Some of these cases, however, have the greatest downstream effects.

This post looks at five “sleeper cases” from this past Term that have made their major impact through the lower courts. The immediate significance of these decisions is in how they change or clarify rules and laws and consequently the trajectory of many lower court decisions. They are especially impactful in criminal cases as they tend to arise when dealing with rights of those accused or convicted of crimes.

The post ranks the cases based on the relative number of times they have been cited by a combination of federal and state lower courts (even though these decisions were made across several months of the Term, the number of times they were cited makes it unlikely that the variation in decision timing has a substantial effect on this list of cases).

5) Mathis v. United States, decided June 23, 2016 (75 lower court citations)

In Mathis the Court dealt with sentence enhancements under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) which has a minimum sentence of 15 years for those convicted. The minimum sentence is applied when a defendant is convicted for felonious possession of a firearm and already has three state and/or federal convictions for violent felonies. Although burglaries are covered as “violent felonies” under the ACCA, the Court held that a conviction under Iowa’s burglary law was not a predicate crime under the ACCA since it covers a wider terrain of criminal activity than the federal burglary law.

Based on this decision defendants in lower courts have challenged potential sentence enhancements under the ACCA arguing that their convictions were based on crimes similar to the Iowa law that did not meet the threshold for “violent felonies” under the ACCA.

This example from Second Circuit Judge Walker’s decision in United States v. Jones shows such an application of Mathis:

Because we hold that the district court plainly erred in sentencing Jones as a career offender based on its conclusion that a conviction for first-degree robbery is necessarily a conviction for a “crime of violence” within the Career Offender Guideline and remand for resentencing on that basis, we need not address Jones’s argument that his sentence was substantively unreasonable.

4) Ross v. Blake, decided June 6, 2016 (107 lower court citations)

The decision in Ross deals with exceptions to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA). In Ross, the 4th Circuit had an unwritten “special circumstances” exception to the PLRA, which allowed inmates to challenge prison conditions before exhausting all “available” administrative remedies. The Court held that this was inconsistent with the history and text of the PLRA.

In federal district court case from the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Washington-El v. Collins, magistrate judge Martin Carlson provided an application of Ross in a Report and Recommendation:

We are also enjoined by the Supreme Court to take a pragmatic approach to this issue of PLRA exhaustion and must consider exhaustion claims in light of “the real-world workings of prison grievance systems.” Id. Adopting this pragmatic view, and examining exhaustion claims through a real-world lens, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that administrative remedies are effectively unavailable “when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through . . . misrepresentation . . .” Ross v. Blake, 195 L. Ed. 2d 117, 2016 WL 3128839, at *8 (U.S. 2016).

Therefore, “[a]n administrative remedy is not ‘available,’ and therefore need not be exhausted, if prison officials erroneously inform an inmate that the remedy does not exist or inaccurately describe the steps he needs to take to pursue it. E.g., Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260, 268 (5th Cir.2010); Curtis v. Timberlake, 436 F.3d 709, 712 (7th Cir.2005); Brown v. Croak, 312 F.3d 109, 112-13 (3d Cir.2002).” Pavey v. Conley, 663 F.3d 899, 906 (7th Cir. 2011). By extending the idea of unavailability of administrative remedies to instances involving erroneous advice by correctional staff to inmates, we understand the courts to have concluded that even well-intentioned, but mistaken, guidance from correctional officials regarding administrative remedies may serve to make these remedies unavailable under the PLRA.

3)Mullenix v. Luna (per curiam), decided November 9, 2015 (213 lower court citations)

Mullenix deals with standards for police officers’ qualified immunity in suits. Specifically, the Court held that under the facts of the case, the officer may have acted reasonably (“not beyond debate”) by using acceptable rather than excessive force.

In the First Circuit case of Stamps v. Town of Framingham, Judge Lynch applied the framework established in Mullenix:

In conducting this analysis, we are mindful of the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement on this issue in Mullenix…We believe that the state of the law was clear such that a reasonable officer in Duncan’s position would have understood that pointing his loaded assault rifle at the head of a prone, non-resistant, innocent person who presents no danger, with the safety off and a finger on the trigger, constituted excessive force in violation of that person’s Fourth Amendment rights. In concluding that this case must go to a jury for determination, we rely on Brower and on our prior circuit precedent, and we confirm our ruling by observing that clearly settled Fourth Amendment law as of the time of Stamps’s death fully cohered with commonly accepted precepts on appropriate use of firearms and appropriate police procedures.

Courts have also applied Mullenix in other unrelated (and seemingly unique) circumstances such as this application by Third Circuit Judge Rendell in Michtavi v. Scism,

 In Mullenix, the Supreme Court reiterated that courts are to look to the specific conduct at issue to determine whether such conduct is clearly established as violative of a plaintiff’s constitutional or statutory rights. Mullenix concerned the qualified immunity defense of a police officer who had shot and killed a suspect in a high-speed chase after that suspect had threatened to shoot the police officers pursuing him…

Here, the District Court defined the right at issue as either the Eighth Amendment right to treatment of serious medical needs or the fundamental right to procreate. We find both of these definitions of the right to be too broad, as neither focuses on the conduct at issue. That is, neither definition allowed the District Court to examine whether the “violative nature of [the] particular conduct” at issue in this case was clearly established. Cf. id. at 308 (emphasis in original). The particular conduct at issue in this case is the failure to treat retrograde ejaculation which could lead to impotence and infertility. A properly tailored definition of the right at issue here, thus, is whether the BOP is obligated to treat conditions resulting in impotence and/or infertility, such as retrograde ejaculation and erectile dysfunction.

2) Montgomery v. Louisiana, decided January 25, 2016 (373 lower court citations)

The Court in Montgomery ruled both that the Supreme Court may decide whether a state court properly refused to apply the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama (dealing with mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles), and that Miller created a new substantive rule of constitutional law that requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. This decision has for obvious reasons been predominately cited in state courts.

Justice Liu of the California Supreme Court applied the holding in Montgomery in the case, People v. Franklin:

The high court has made clear that “imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” (Miller, supra, 567 U.S. at p. ___ [132 S. Ct. at p. 2466].) “It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with this directive. (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 75.) The Legislature has devised such a means by enacting section 3051 and related statutes in Senate Bill No. 260. Those statutes have effectively reformed Franklin’s statutorily mandated sentence so that he will become eligible for parole, at a hearing that must give great weight to youth-related mitigating factors, during his 25th year of incarceration. By operation of law, Franklin’s sentence is not functionally equivalent to LWOP, and the record here does not include evidence that the Legislature’s mandate that youth offender parole hearings must provide for a meaningful opportunity to obtain release is unachievable in practice. We thus conclude that Franklin’s Eighth Amendment challenge to his original sentence has been rendered moot.

1) Welch v. United States, decided April 18, 2016 (765 lower court citations)

Like in Montgomery the Court in Welch ruled a prior decision created a new substantive rule of constitutional law that has a retroactive effect in cases on collateral review (for a critique on the Court’s decision in Welch see this piece by Steve Vladeck). The specific rule that the Court decided was retroactive in Welch was announced in the Court’s decision in Johnson v. United States where the Court decided that a sentence enhancement under the ACCA’s residual clause is violative of due process.

The 10th Circuit’s per curiam decision in In re Encinias applies the Court’s decision in Welch:

Encinias alleges that one or more of the predicate felony offenses relied on for designating him a career offender qualified for that purpose by virtue of the residual clause in the Guideline’s definition of “crime of violence,” which encompasses crimes that “involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2). He seeks to challenge his sentence on the basis of a new rule of constitutional law established in Johnson v. United States,     U.S.    , 135 S. Ct. 2551, 192 L. Ed. 2d 569 (2015). The Supreme Court recently made Johnson’s holding retroactive to cases on collateral review in Welch v. United States,     U.S.    , 136 S. Ct. 1257, 194 L. Ed. 2d 387, 2016 WL 1551144, at *8 (Apr. 18, 2016). Thus, Encinias is entitled to authorization for his challenge to the career-offender Guideline so long as it is properly deemed to be based on Johnson for purposes of § 2255(h)(2).

The graph below charts the lower court citations to each of these cases by circuit (district and appeals courts combined) as well as cumulatively to state courts:


Empirical SCOTUS updates can be found on Twitter @AdamSFeldman and on Facebook here.

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