The Docket

The Prospect's legal affairs blog

The Latest Example of our Broken Patent System

Monsanto
About 15 years ago, the St. Louis-based Monsanto corporation developed "Roundup Ready," genetically modified soybean seeds that are resistant to herbicides also produced by the company. In other words, Monsanto made herbicides to kill weeds, then made soy-bean plants that are resistant to the herbicide. Its competitor, Pioneer Seeds, a Des Moines company owned by DuPont and Company, licensed the Roundup Ready formula but also attempted to create genetically modified seeds that could compete with it. Pioneer developed a seed called "Optimum GAT" that combined the Roundup Ready trait with another trait. Mosanto sued DuPont for violating the licensing agreement and for patent infringement, while DuPont claimed that the patent should be considered unenforceable. On July 1, a jury sided with Monsanto, and although Pioneer said in a statement that it "has never sold a single Optimum GAT seed and has no plans to do so in the future" a jury awarded Monsanto a whopping award of $1 billion...

Pro-Life Sentences

(Flickr/ClinicEscort)
Dissenting in Gonzales v. Carhart , the 2007 case that upheld a federal ban on "partial birth" abortion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg charged that the majority "refuses to take [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey ... seriously." This inclination, not surprisingly, has filtered down to the lower federal courts as well. Two recent cases conspicuously refuse to take a woman's reproductive rights seriously, and indeed one judge failed to apply Casey at all. The first recent decision , by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld a South Dakota statute that requires doctors to inform women seeking abortions that obtaining one will lead to an increased risk of depression and suicide. The law, which interferes with the doctor-patient relationship and forces doctors to lend the weight of their authority to assertions not supported by scientific evidence, should be considered an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose and hence invalid under Casey . As the dissenters point out, "In order to be...

Don't Fil-A the First Amendment

(Flickr/Alfonso Surroca)
As established by the traditions of Chicago politics, aldermen can assert their privilege to deny permits to businesses who want to do business in their wards. This week, Alderman Joe Moreno said that that he would invoke that privilege to deny a permit to the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, which is seeking to open a second franchise in the Windy City. According to Moreno , Chick-fil-A should be denied permission to operate in the neighborhood he represents because of the "bigoted, homophobic comments by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who recently came out against same-sex marriage." Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made vaguer threats about stopping the chain from doing business in Boston, although he has since backed off. Moreno is undoubtedly well-intentioned, and he's right that "[e]quality for LGBT people is the civil-rights issue of our generation." But denying Chick-fil-A a permit solely based on the political beliefs of the company's president violates the progressive principles...

Will the Supreme Court Strike Down Affirmative Action?

Adam Liptak and Allison Kopicki recently had an interesting analysis of public opinion on the Supreme Court. The public reaction to the health-care ruling, NFIB v. Sebelius, shows that the public is closely divided, with 46 percent supporting the decision. As expected, NFIB has made Democrats like the Court more and Republicans like the Court less. Putting the public reaction to NFIB in context, Liptak and Kopicki compare the public reaction to the case with other high profile cases. The data is somewhat sobering for advocates of civil rights and liberties. Before getting to the bad news, it's worth noting that despite the cottage industry of pundits dedicated to the idea that support for women's reproductive rights is undermining the Democratic Party, Roe v. Wade is an exception to the general rule of liberal civil-liberties decisions being unpopular. Roe was popular the day it was decided and its popularity has, if anything, increased over time . Conversely, Gonzales v. Carhart ,...

Sorry, Still Not Over Bush v. Gore

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Antonin Scalia was a guest on Piers Morgan's show last night, and he was relatively entertaining and at times even said things I agree with. For example, even in the wake of the Republican bait-and-switch on the DISCLOSE Act, Scalia held firm to his previously expressed view that it's permissible and desirable for people making large political donations to have these donations disclosed. This is a welcome contrast to the Sarah Palin/Mitch McConnell theory of the First Amendment, under which powerful actors trying to influence the political process have the right to be shielded from criticism or any other consequences. On the other hand, there is a self-congratulatory aspect to Scalia's pronouncements about jurisprudential theory that remain grating in light of his actual work on the Court. As always, he presents himself as "The Last Truly Principled Judge in America," adhering to the fundamental principles of the text of the Constitution while other judges preempt democracy by...

Should Liberals Be Mad at Kagan and Breyer?

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While the Supreme Court's decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act in NFIB v. Sebelius was generally good news, the decision did have one unfortunate side effect. The Court limited the use of federal spending power with respect to Medicaid, permitting Congress to withhold new grants but not existing Medicaid funds from states if they failed to adopt Obamacare. In other words, governors can reject new federal funds to implement the health-care law without losing the rest of their Medicaid money. Despite the consequences and dubious logic of this holding, however, it was joined by two of the Court's Democratic appointees: Clinton nominee Stephen Breyer and Obama nominee Elena Kagan. Given the escalating conservative outrage over Roberts's joining with the Court's more liberal faction on the other key elements of the case, several writers have wondered: Where's the liberal outrage against Breyer and Kagan? "In contrast to all the weeping and wailing that has accompanied what...

Mississippi's Threat to Roe v. Wade

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As Salon 's Irin Carmon reports , a Republican appointed district-court judge has prevented a new statute that would force the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi to close. (The new law was necessary because, despite the best efforts of past Mississippi legislatures, one lone clinic in Jackson has managed to heroically persevere through a maze of state restrictions.) The stay is temporary, and the issue will presumably have to be resolved by a higher appellate court, possibly ending with the Supreme Court of the United States. Should this case make it up the appellate chain, it will provide a crucial test for Planned Parenthood v. Casey , the 1992 case that currently controls reproductive-freedom cases. Under Casey , previability abortions cannot be banned, but regulations that do not constitute an "undue burden" are permissible. The implicit premise of the compromise that upheld Roe v. Wade was that while women seeking abortions could be inconvenienced, they could not be...

Roberts's Switch in Time

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Jan Crawford has a blockbuster story in which two sources confirm what many people inferred from the structure of the opinions—that Chief Justice John Roberts initially voted to strike down at least some parts of the Affordable Care Act before switching his vote. The story reveals some interesting things about Roberts and the Supreme Court, although we should also be careful about taking all the claims at face value given that they clearly reflect the positions of justices and/or clerks with an ax to grind. The most obvious takeaway from the Crawford piece is that there was a fairly substantial rift created on the Court by Roberts's eventual decision to uphold the bill. While some details about the internal deliberations of the Court generally leak out eventually—as clerks have less to fear in terms of reprisals or as court papers are released by retired justices—for these details to emerge less than a week after a decision is handed down is extraordinary. Clearly, some of the...

Judges Take On Climate Skeptics

(Flickr / freefotouk)
Three of the D.C. Court of Appeals’ judges delivered climate-regulation opponents what can only be termed a righteous smackdown last week. Their opinion on the Environmental Protection Agency’s work to regulate greenhouse gases is, as much as any legal opinion can be, a delight to read. From the barely tempered exasperation in the court’s opening salvo—“We begin with a brief primer on greenhouse gases”—to the impatience with the lines of reasoning called upon by industry and its allies in state government—“This argument is little more than a semantic trick”—this legal document is a salve for anyone sick of the protestations against taking any action, ever, to tackle the looming disaster that is climate change. The case at hand combined a mountain of complaints about almost every action the EPA has taken to regulate carbon. The agency began the process in 2007 in response to the Supreme Court’s requirement that it consider whether the Clean Air Act covered greenhouse-gas emissions. In...

Reading the Tea Leaves in the Supreme Court Opinions

Jaime Fuller
Two features of the scene in the courtroom at the Supreme Court Thursday flow together to spark curiosity. For one, the justices appeared unusually agitated. Justice Sonia Sotomayor looked as if she’d been up all night, for example, while (as Tony Mauro also noted) Justice Antonin Scalia was downcast and tight-lipped. Had something happened in the days or hours before the opinion to spark this emotional response? In his bench dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed that the act had been so mutilated by the Court’s decision that it should be struck down in its entirety. That struck me at the time as odd. The Medicaid expansion, as I explained yesterday, is an important part of the act. Even so, it’s not the heart of it—that was the individual mandate. The government had argued that, if the Court struck the mandate, it should also strike the provisions guaranteeing that the people with “preexisting conditions” can’t be turned down for insurance and barring insurers from discriminating...

Court Stays Clear of Tinkering with the First Amendment

(Flickr / mr_mayer)
Xavier Alvarez got twin pieces of good news Thursday. First, thanks to the Court’s decision in the Health Care Cases, Medicaid in California may soon be funded to supply mental-health services to crazed compulsive liars like him. Second, and of more immediate interest to him, he won’t be doing a year in the federal slam for falsely claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor. United States v. Alvarez was second banana on the Supreme Court stage Thursday, blasted out of the headlines by the stunning decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. But the case had been closely watched in the First Amendment community. That’s because it represented an attempt by the government to find a brand-new, gaping hole in free-speech protection—a First Amendment exception for liars like Alvarez. Alvarez, as has been reported earlier , is a half-crazed poseur who likes to claim, among other things, to have played for the Red Wings, to be the ex-husband of a Mexican movie star—and to hold the...

Supreme Surprise

(AP Photo)
The verdict of the Supreme Court upholding nearly all of the Affordable Care Act is a victory to be savored in the full knowledge that it may be only temporary and includes potentially damaging changes in constitutional interpretation. It is a victory, first of all, for the millions of people excluded from health insurance who stand to gain protection despite their medical history or low incomes. It is a victory for the rule of law in the face of a group of partisan conservative justices who want to immobilize federal power in social policy. It is a victory for the millions of people who have struggled for decades to achieve equal access to health care. And, not least, it is a victory for President Barack Obama and the Democrats in a critical election year. In fact, the outcome of the election will determine the ultimate significance of the Court’s decision. If Mitt Romney and the Republicans win in November, not only will they repeal the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act;...

Sometimes a Loss Is Just a Loss

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Given the very strong likelihood that the centerpiece legislation of the Obama administration would be struck down in its entirety, yesterday's decision upholding the Affordable Care Act seems to most progressives like both a relief and a major political victory. But was it actually a legal victory when you examine the opinions closely? Tom Scocca says no : Roberts' genius was in pushing this health care decision through without attaching it to the coattails of an ugly, narrow partisan victory. Obama wins on policy, this time. And Roberts rewrites Congress' power to regulate, opening the door for countless future challenges. In the long term, supporters of curtailing the federal government should be glad to have made that trade. According to Scocca, Roberts engineered a big win for conservatives by fundamentally changing the law but doing so in a way that his opponents couldn't respond—a trick pioneered by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison . If Roberts planted a time...

Roberts's Solution to a Non-Problem

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On the fourth day of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Richard S. (“Bald Dick”) Ewell, riding behind the lines, was hit in the leg by a Union sniper’s bullet. Unfazed, the one-legged general remarked, “It don't hurt a bit to be shot in a wooden leg.” It may be that the federal government was shot in a wooden leg today. Overall, that’s true—the ACA survived, by one vote, a case that could have voided it in its entirety and wreaked havoc on federal power generally. But in particular, in the Court’s major new cutback on federal power—the limits on the use of Congress’s spending power to convince the states to sign on to an expanded Medicaid program—the federal government was wounded by being forbidden to do something it really never wanted to do. The federal government can’t coerce states by threatening to cut off existing program funding as a penalty for refusing to accept more money for new programs, the important opinion said. That means the ACA can go ahead as planned—because the...

A Tale of Two Justices

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John Roberts imagined himself as a consensus-builder after his confirmation to be the 17th chief justice of the Supreme Court, a justice in the mold of John Marshall charged with alleviating divisions on the Court by advocating judicial modesty. Some progressive observers took these claims very seriously. I was inclined to view them as essentially fraudulent. Well, score one for the optimists. Today, the Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in its entirety. While this outcome was not shocking, the vote lineup could be to many observers given that the final vote was 5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court's four liberal members to uphold the PPACA, while frequent swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy joined a remarkably radical dissent. The ultimate effects of NFIB v. Sebulius remain uncertain, but at the very least the case compels a re-evaluation of both Roberts and Kennedy. While Chief Justice Roberts deserves substantial praise for not striking...

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