Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions

Beer innuendo, fishing in the mail, and the finality trap.


Please enjoy the latest edition of Short Circuit, a weekly feature from the Institute for Justice.

New on the Short Circuit podcast: Special guest Joseph Mead of ACLU Ohio and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law joins the panel to talk the right to a basic minimum education and the release of medically vulnerable inmates from a COVID-infested federal prison. Click here for Apple Podcasts.

  • The Air Tour Management Act of 2000 directed the FAA and the National Park Service to draft rules governing aerial tours over national parks and instructed them to "make every effort" to finish the job within two years. Twenty years later, there are still no rules. D.C. Circuit: Mandamused!
  • In 2011, New York City police officers arrested around 150 "Occupy Wall Street" protesters who refused to leave their encampment in Zuccotti Park. And the protestors' ensuing false arrest and malicious prosecution claims were rightly dismissed, says the Second Circuit. So were their retaliatory arrest and First Amendment-discrimination claims. And so were their due process claims.
  • From 1915 to 1963, successive owners of Jersey City, N.J. chromite processing plant dump toxic waste onsite. (The waste is also used nearby for road construction and wetland filling.) The site's owner (since 1954) says it has spent $367 mil to clean it up. Given how much control the gov't exerted over the industry during World War II, must the feds chip in and pay some of the cost? The Third Circuit says no.
  • One fun feature of federal civil procedure is the "finality trap," an interaction of rules that leads to undead cases—too final for the district court to change but not final enough to appeal. Will the Fifth Circuit finally drive a stake through the dark heart of this doctrine? Find out in an en banc opinion that's really, really complicated.
  • Allegation: Houston police shoot and kill motorist as he reaches for his wallet. An officer claims he thought the man was reaching for a gun, but no gun is found. After the man's family sues, the police produce a CD with body camera videos and internal files, but the court withholds the CD from the plaintiffs and dismisses the case. Fifth Circuit: Can't do that.
  • Allegation: Jackson, La. inmate blocks the surveillance camera in his cell; prison guards enter, spray him with a chemical agent, and restrain him. The guards then take him to the showers and lobby where they mace and beat him. Fifth Circuit: His excessive force claims for events in the cell are dismissed, but his claims for the shower and lobby beatings may proceed.
  • Responding to complaint that Cincinnati, Ohio man had recently threatened his neighbors, police officers approach man's house, open unlocked door leading to second-floor apartment, proceed unannounced to the second floor, encounter the man (armed with a rifle), and shoot him dead. Man's estate sues. And, says the Sixth Circuit, the officers enjoy no qualified immunity for their unlawful entry into the man's home. But the trial court rightly dismissed claims relating to deadly force and indifference to the man's medical needs.
  • After Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issues an executive order banning mass gatherings, police ticket attendees at a drive-in church service on Good Friday. Sixth Circuit (per curiam): Which likely violates Kentucky's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The state is enjoined from restricting drive-in services during the pendency of this litigation.
  • Bud Light (in advertising): Miller Lite is made with corn syrup. Miller Lite (in court): True, but since yeast converts it to alcohol, you're falsely implying that Miller Lite contains corn syrup. Seventh Circuit (in five pages): Bud Light can speak the truth. [Ed.: Our grammar fellow-in-residence insists that we note Judge Easterbrook's use of U.K. punctuation rules.]
  • The fight over nationwide injunctions continues, this time in a dispute over a presidential proclamation banning immigrants from entering the country unless they had certain types of specified health insurance. Two out of three judges on the Ninth Circuit refuse to stay a district court injunction of the proclamation, while the third considers it a "bad day" for separation of powers and the rule of law.
  • Postal inspector sees video footage of Las Vegan man "fishing" in postal boxes for mail. Using a panopticon-like database of billions of license plate photos taken automatically from cameras mounted on tow trucks and police cars, he tracks the fisherman to his apartment, gets a warrant, and arrests him. But was the warrantless search of the database an unconstitutional search? Ninth Circuit: No. The man's vehicle—a rental—was overdue, so he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Concurrence: Even if he had a reasonable expectation of privacy, it wasn't violated because the database didn't reveal the whole of his movements.
  • The Moodsters—2005 characters that were repeatedly pitched to Disney—are five color-coded anthropomorphic emotions: pink love, yellow happiness, blue sadness, red anger, and green fear. Which sounds an awful lot like the 2015 Disney/Pixar hit Inside Out, about an 11-year-old's color-coded anthropomorphic emotions: purple fear, yellow joy, blue sadness, red anger, and green disgust. But in the Ninth Circuit, that's not copyright infringement. Unlike James Bond (sophisticated, virile) or Godzilla (saurian, beam-breathing), the Moodster idea is too "lightly sketched" to be copyrightable.
  • In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting, President Trump directed DOJ to propose a rule that would prohibit "bump stocks," devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to be fired extremely rapidly. But is a rifle outfitted with a bump stock a prohibited machine gun? Or has DOJ exceeded its statutory authority? Tenth Circuit: The statutory phrase "single function of the trigger" is ambiguous enough to encompass multiple pulls of the trigger. Dissent: No it isn't; Congress may be able to ban bump stocks, but current law does not.
  • Extending one's middle finger in the general direction of a police officer (at about the distance of a football field) does not give the officer reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop, says the North Carolina Supreme Court.
  • In pandemic-related news, the Sixth Circuit declines to disturb a district court's preliminary injunction ordering the feds to remove certain at-risk inmates from a COVID-infested federal prison in Ohio. [Ed.: We discussed the case on the podcast this week.] Two-thirds of an Eleventh Circuit panel finds, however, that officials may be irreparably injured if a district court order to provide soap and disinfectant to detainees at a Miami jail is not stayed (because, among other things, it may force them to redirect supplies from other facilities where they may be needed more).

Marc N'Da, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States with $60 in his pocket, runs a home health agency that cares for 100 elderly and disabled clients in Nebraska. And though Marc is permitted to drive clients to the grocery store and on other errands, Nebraska officials have outlawed providing "non-emergency medical transportation," like trips to the pharmacy or to doctor's appointments, without a state permission slip that is essentially impossible to obtain without approval from a cartel of existing providers (who themselves offer abominably bad service, forcing patients to wait days to schedule trips and frequently not showing). "I can drive my patients to Walmart," says Marc, "but not the Walmart pharmacy. That makes no sense."  In April, Marc teamed up with IJ to challenge the law, which violates the Nebraska Constitution's guarantee of due process and its prohibition on granting special privileges or immunities. Click here to learn more.

NEXT: The Price of the First Amendment "Is That We Must Put Up With ... a Good Deal of Rubbish"

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  1. It may be legal, but if the US govt increased the volume of chromite waste by “encouraging” the more-wasteful one-pass method, which also produced a more toxic waste, ethically you’d think there’d be some liability for that. At least in theory, the US govt increased the cost of the cleanup.

    1. I refer you to asbestos in shipyards.

  2. Disney uber alles.

    “In 2007, Daniels and her team released a 30-minute pilot episode for a television series featuring The Moodsters, titled “The Amoodsment Mixup” (“pilot”). The pilot was later available on YouTube. ”

    Characters that were actually in a short film cannot be copyrighted. Disney having actual knowledge of the characters before they coinicidently come up with the same idea makes no difference.

    Legalized theft by Disney.

    1. I imagine if you asked a lot of people to assign emotions to those same colors, or to assign colors to those same emotions, you’d get more than a random subset with the same matchups. That alone makes me doubtful of how much was copied.

      1. Red for anger and blue for sadness, absolutely. I can see yellow for happiness/joy because it’s bright. They used green for fear in the Moodsters but for disgust in Inside Out. Because disgust was based on a broccoli. But green is usually envy. Fear was purple in Inside Out…but people often say someone is yellow if they’re a coward?

      2. Would not the changing of some of the colors be prudent if one wants to hide the origin of the idea?

        1. Both of them are a ripoff of Herman’s Head.

          1. If anyone had watched Herman’s Head. I’m pretty sure you still have to prove that the alleged infringer had access to the infringed work.

            1. I watched a few episodes. The female lead was smoking hot. (At my age back then, that seemed to be my major criterion for TV-watching choices.)

    2. “Legalized theft by Disney.”

      Disney can afford really good lobbyists. See, e.g. the Steamboat Willie Copyright Extension Act.

  3. Good decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court, although it should not have made it that far at all. I don’t know about NC specifically, but like SCOTUS, the high courts in states with intermediate appellate systems don’t always take cases to do “error correction.” But they really should do that more often in criminal cases where a defendant will be prejudiced.


    I’ve been following those stats for 2 months. Of 59 prisons (with 100K inmates) included, 8 have a “lot” of cases, and 59 have none or a very small number.

    More significant, the stats for all 59 prisons have been nearly static for 6 weeks, but the site updated daily. That suggests that the in-prison lockdown is so effective that there have been zero or few *new* cases in 6 weeks. That’s much better than the stats of the general public.

    So the irony is that inmates in all 59 prisons appear to be safer in prison than they would be if released. Therefore, one could argue that release would be the inhumane choice.

    Not included in the stats is the mental health of inmates kept in their cells 24×7. That could be very serious and more injurious than a few virus deaths.

    1. “So the irony is that inmates in all 59 prisons appear to be safer in prison than they would be if released”

      I’ve wondered about that. I suspect that most released inmates aren’t heading to their house in the Hampdens for some serious hibernation. In prison, I suppose the primary route for the San Antonio virus to arrive is via the guards?

    2. “More significant, the stats for all 59 prisons have been nearly static for 6 weeks, but the site updated daily. That suggests that the in-prison lockdown is so effective that there have been zero or few *new* cases in 6 weeks.”

      No, what that suggests is that the prison population isn’t being tested for coronavirus.

      1. “No, what that suggests is that the prison population isn’t being tested for coronavirus.”

        Most aren’t being tested as the numbers show. 3-4 thousand tests for 100,000 inmates.

        But if the prisons were “COVID infested” as this Short Circuit post infers, the number of deaths would soar. Florida prison deaths are reported in that linked report. 9 so far, 7 last week. That is a rate of 90 per million, compared to 237 per million for the USA. So on the basis of deaths alone, those prisoners are safer than the public.

        “COVID infested” might apply to the Marion Correctional Institute in Ohio, where it was reported that 80% of the inmates were positive. But none of the 59 prisons in the linked report come even close to that Ohio case.

  5. I don’t know about anyone else, but flipping off a cop, even at great distance, is a spectacularly bad idea. Some things, you just don’t do.

    1. Why? Respect is earned, not enforced.

      1. And you won’t earn any respect by flipping them off, either

        1. The point is they(the cops) need to earn our respect.

          1. Do you generally go around flipping people off because they haven’t yet earned your respect?

      2. alephbet…From a practical standpoint, you don’t flip off a cop. That is just asking for trouble. It has nothing to do with respect. I would say this, though: I was reared to respect civil authority, and not flout it.

  6. “The statutory phrase “single function of the trigger” is ambiguous enough to encompass multiple pulls of the trigger.”

    I know judges are bad at math, but come on.

    1. Plenty of existing jurisprudence, even at the Supreme court level, is as bad, I’ll grant them that.

      But, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that only passes the laugh test because the result is anti-gun.

    2. The vast majority of lawyers are bad at math. When I was in law school, if the instructor asked a student what two plus two is, the student’s eyes would roll into the back of their heads, blood would trickle out of their ears, and they would start speaking in tongues.

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