Supreme Court

Unanimous Decisions in First Amendment, IRS, and IP Cases: What They Mean

In 2014, the Court issued more unanimous decisions than it has in years.


The Supreme Court released three unanimous decisions on Thursday. The cases dealt with a First Amendment issue, the rights of citizens to question the IRS, and patent law, respectively.

In the First Amendment case, Lane v. Franks, a government employee sued his employers at an Alabama community college for firing him after he testified against the college in a criminal trial. The employee, Edward Lane, asserted that his testimony was protected by the First Amendment and it was improper for the college to fire him.

The extent of government employees' free speech protections is a muddled issue. Private citizens don't have a right to free speech in their place of employment, of course, but their speech is indeed protected from government interference. If the government is the employer, what happens?

The Supreme Court decided that Lane's testimony was indeed protected, since it fell outside of his normal work duties. As The Washington Post's Eugene Volokh explains:

The Court doesn't break any new ground here but mostly applies the existing tests, reaffirms them, and in the process says some things that are friendly to government employee speech rights. The law here remains as vague and complicated as it had been before — though at least it doesn't get any more so.

The IRS case, United States v. Clarke, concerned taxpayers who resisted a summons by the IRS because the agency's investigation into their company had grown onerous and they believed agents were acting in bad faith.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the taxpayers and held that an allegation of impropriety against the IRS should be enough to trigger an investigation. The Supreme Court unanimously vacated that decision, ruling that taxpayers do have a right to examine IRS requests when they believe there is wrongdoing, but the right is limited and must be based on evidence.

Bloomberg View's Noah Feldman wrote that that decision made sense, although it's not the best news for taxpayers who cower in fear of the predatory IRS:

Was the decision right? It's easy to see the court's institutional logic. If a bare allegation of impropriety triggers a full examination, that might lead everyone who receives a summons to make such an allegation. That would correspondingly make the job of the IRS more time-consuming and therefore more costly. In the end, the rest of the taxpayers would end up footing the bill.

Yet at the same time, it's hard to escape the feeling that the 11th Circuit was onto something, at least symbolically. Interacting with the IRS fills every taxpayer, no matter how small, with feelings of horror—because the bureaucracy is so large, its powers are so enormous—and it has very little incentive to care if it wastes your time and money even if it ends up losing. Such powers need supervision by the courts to keep them honest, and to keep us free. The Supreme Court's decision may well be right in the end. But somehow I feel a little less safe from the IRS as a result of it.

The third and highest profile case was Alice Corp. v. CTS Bank. Alice Corp., an Australian company, had received a patent in the 1990s for an "abstract idea," according to the Associated Press. Many companies, including Google and Facebook, had urged the Court to rescind the patent on grounds of the concept being too intangible for intellectual property protection.

A unanimous Court agreed that the patent should never have been granted. Ideas as abstract as Alice Corp.'s cannot be owned, wrote the Court.

The New York Times notes that the Court has been extremely hostile to overaggressive patenting in recent years:

In recent rulings, the Supreme Court has been skeptical of protecting discoveries and ideas even at that threshold stage if doing so would hamper innovation. In 2010, the court ruled that a method of hedging risk was not eligible to be patented. In 2012, it said the same thing about correlations between drug dosages and treatment.

Another noteworthy fact: In 2014, the Court issued more unanimous decisions than it has in years. According to The Washington Post's Jonathan Adler:

With today's three unanimous opinions, the Court has been unanimous in 41 of the 62 cases decided after argument this term.  This means the Court will have been unanimous in a clear majority of cases decided this term no matter what happens next week.  This will be the first time the Court has been unanimous in a majority of argued cases in quite some time. And even were the Court to split 5-4 in all of the remaining cases, this would account for only one-quarter of the Court's decisions from this term.