Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions

Stay away from Martin Van Buren.


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

Friends, Season 2 of Bound By Oath, "No Right Without a Remedy," commenced this very week. It is a very excellent podcast. We know because we made it.

  • Martin Van Buren, an employee of D.C.'s Metro transit system, grows angry after a fellow employee helps a customer operate a fare card machine in Arlington, Va.—and thus beats his colleague so badly he required hospitalization. Yes, you read that right. D.C. Circuit: The injured employee must look to Virginia's workers compensation law for a remedy.
  • Fifteen-year-old gang member participates in the execution-style killing of four teenage members of a rival gang. The district court, departing downwards from federal sentencing guidelines, sentences the juvenile to 55 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Second Circuit: We assume, without deciding, that the lengthy sentence here (which technically falls short of a life sentence) requires consideration of the factors the Supreme Court has identified as relevant when sentencing juveniles to life without parole. We also note that allowing eligibility for parole would encourage rehabilitation and facilitate prison discipline. Still, given the brutality of the offense, the sentence is affirmed.
  • The Oneida Indian Nation once occupied over 6 million acres of land in an area that would later become New York State. The U.S. recognized 300k acres of that land as a reservation in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. A series of treaties further selling and dividing the land followed, leading to an ownership dispute over a nearly 20-acre parcel between the Nation and a member of the Nation who has attempted to create a separate tribe on several occasions. The Second Circuit rules for the Nation, featuring a debate between the majority and concurrence over whether tribal sovereign immunity affects a federal court's jurisdiction.
  • After being denied Social Security disability benefits, two disappointed applicants take their cases to federal court. Yowzer! While their cases are pending, the Supreme Court decides that all of the Administrative Law Judges employed by the Securities Exchange Commission have been unconstitutionally appointed. Can the applicants raise the same argument against the ALJs at the Social Security Administration? Fourth Circuit: Indeed they can; no need to have raised it at the administrative level.
  • Allegation: Unarmed, mentally ill man flees from Gretna, La. police, curls up into a fetal position. They pin him down, making it impossible to comply with their commands. They tase him repeatedly and strike him in face, back, scrotum, and testes as he pleads for his mother. He dies. Fifth Circuit: No qualified immunity for two officers who administered the beating, but several other officers who failed to intervene are off the hook.
  • Following the release of secretly recorded videos showing abortion providers discussing making fetal tissue available to researchers, Texas deems several abortion providers "not qualified" to provide services, terminates them from participating in Medicaid. Overruling a 2017 panel decision, the en banc Fifth Circuit holds that people who received or sought services from the providers do not have standing to challenge the state's determination that the providers are not qualified.
  • Chicago man convicted of double murder receives a new trial, leading to his acquittal. He subsequently sues police and the city for fabricating evidence. After his first trial ends in a mistrial and his second ends with a verdict for $80k, he asks for and receives a third trial. The jury returns a verdict for $22 million. Seventh Circuit: Good for him. Dissent: There were no grounds for the third trial.
  • Allegation: Seeking to question guest at Blaine, Wash. bed-and-breakfast, CBP agent enters the driveway, ignores the owner's request that he leave, and then shoves the owner to the ground. (Turns out the guest is in the country legally.) When the owner complains to his superiors, the agent retaliates by, among other things, trying to get the IRS to investigate the owner. Ninth Circuit: It's well-established that you can sue federal officers for excessive force. And, though there's no precedent saying you can sue officers for retaliating as the agent did, there's no reason not to allow that claim to proceed either. Case un-dismissed.
  • Per court order, guards at Pelican Bay prison in California conduct welfare checks every half hour around the clock. Allegation: And create far more noise than necessary, depriving inmate of sleep at night. Ninth Circuit (over a dissent): It's clearly established that sleep deprivation via constant illumination is unconstitutional, but there's no precedent about excessive noise arising from compliance with court-ordered welfare checks. Nor do we establish it here.
  • San Francisco police officer spies a car with no plates parked at a gas pump. Unable to approach the driver's side, he walks up to the passenger's side, opens the door, and leans in to talk to the driver. Upon discovering that the driver has a suspended license, the officer arrests the driver, and an inventory search of the car turns up a handgun. The driver is convicted of being a felon in possession. Ninth Circuit: But opening the door and leaning into the car violated the Fourth Amendment, so the evidence is excluded. And although we would normally consider this argument forfeited, having been raised only in a footnote before the trial court, the gov't forfeited its forfeiture objection.
  • And in en banc news, the Ninth Circuit will not revisit its earlier conclusion that a California resident—who is now the husband of a U.S. citizen—can seek to overturn a 1998 deportation order on the ground that the conviction on which it was based (involving facts that occurred in 1988, when the gentleman was 14 years old) was expunged over twenty years ago. Twelve judges dissent from denial, arguing that the decision gives rise to an 8-1 circuit split and is contrary to the unambiguous text of the statute.

NEXT: Reflections on the Fall Semester of Online Classes, and Thoughts for the Future

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  1. “Martin Van Buren, an employee of D.C.’s Metro transit system, grows angry after a fellow employee helps a customer operate a fare card machine in Arlington, Va.—and thus beats his colleague so badly he required hospitalization. ”

    Was the Presidential pension not indexed to inflation back then? I feel bad that Old Kinderhook still has to work to make ends meet, but I guess it keeps him young.

    1. The presidential pension began after Harry Truman, I think, who mismanaged his government (state and federal) pay so badly as to be a veritable pauper upon leaving the White House.

      1. He never had the makings of a varsity haberdasher.

  2. Wow, attempting to send the IRS after someone you don’t like. That’s some Obama Administration-style action.

    1. Obama was only following Nixon’s example. I don’t know where Nixon got the idea, possibly from Woodrow Wilson.

      1. The IRS was created in the late 1940s, A good couple of decades after Woodrow Wilson.

        1. There was still some federal agency managing the income tax. Since the income tax wasn’t implemented until 1913, Woodrow it is. You can quibble about the agency’s name all you want, but the effect is the same.

        2. 1940s? Where did you get that from. It dates to 1862. If nothing else, we’ve had the Income Tax since 1913. Woodrow Wilson was president for the modern income tax.

            1. Who cares what the damned agency is called! The income tax was first created in the Civil War and later declared unconstitutional; the 1913 amendment made it legal, and Woodrow Wilson was the first President to implement. No doubt at all that he abused it like every President afterwards.

              Go somewhere you won’t be recognized as a piss poor pedant.

      2. Whenever someone mentions Nixon I imagine them with a birthday cake with 100 candles on it. Not really fair, I know, because you’re probably not even 90 yet.

        Keep safe. Covid can be dangerous to guys like you.

        1. I mentioned Woodrow Wilson too. Here I will mention Caligula, since that seems more suited to you.

          1. I do occasionally wear sandals

      3. Technically, while Nixon tried to sic the IRS on an enemy, the IRS refused and then audited him, instead.

        It wasn’t until Clinton that such efforts were successful.

        1. Well, known to be successful, anyway. It’s possible earlier Presidents had done it with better deniability.

  3. “Martin Van Buren…beats his colleague so badly he required hospitalization”

    Let’s see the Little Magician escape from *this!*

  4. What makes the brutal murder of four human beings “execution style”?

    It sounds like the killings were carried out swiftly and without extensive appeals. Execution style would be the victims are still waiting around to be killed after 20 years or so.

    1. “Execution style” usual refers to forcing the victim to kneel, then shooting them in the back of the head.

      I don’t see how that applies here, since they were killed “using machetes, an ax, knives, and tree limbs.”
      Instead, I would have said that beating and cutting four teenagers to death over the course of an hour was a particularly brutal crime, even when compared to keeping someone on death row for 20 years with defense lawyer-induced delays.

  5. Liberals actually want to bring parole back to the federal system? Good grief.

    1. In fairness a lot of liberals think federal sentences are far longer than they should be, especially for non violent drug crimes. A lot of libertarians agree with us

      1. If you want to make the argument that sentencing ranges should be lower, make it. It tends to be a losing argument, because most people understand the link between putting criminals in prison and lowering crime.

        Parole is an attempt to avoid political accountability for unacceptably short sentences by fooling the public into thinking they won’t be imposed. It’s a cowardly dodge, and Congress’s decision to eliminate it was one of the better judgments its made in the last century or so.

        At least if liberals keep choosing examples like this one as their case studies, we can be pretty confident that it’s not going to get gem very far.

  6. “Ninth Circuit: But opening the door and leaning into the car violated the Fourth Amendment, so the evidence is excluded.”

    But since the officer didn’t see anything illegal while doing that, but only searched the car after finding the driver’s license was suspended, why would that be an illegal search?

    1. Yeah, I didn’t get that either. (But only skimmed the opinion, I must confess.)

      1. I found the answer at the end of pg 11 and on to pg 12. Short version, the Gov lawyer screwed up and didn’t raise that argument, or one of multiple others, which might have kept the evidence permissible. The only argument raise was:

        that we should not apply the exclusionary rule because the
        benefits of deterrence do not outweigh the social costs of

        So because the Gov lawyer was incompetent, he lost. The court did not try to come up with a legal reason themselves why the evidence should be retained.

    2. Fruit of the poisonous tree. Courts usually throw out everything that happens by reason of the illegal search. Even derivative evidence. The defendant claimed that but for the violation he wouldn’t have felt as intimidated and so could have pointed to the evidence that dispels the license plate violation (he had recently bought the car I believe and had the receipt). That would end the stop and nothing else discovered including his suspended license.

      The court was dubious of that claim but noted that the government, upon a determination of a constitutional violation, has the burden of proving it wasn’t the fruit of poisonous search and it didn’t present any evidence to do so.

      So I think the answer is incompetent lawyering by the government.

  7. Martin Van Buren, an employee of D.C.’s Metro transit system

    This is not correct. The Metro transit system is owned & controlled by DC, Maryland, AND Virginia. All three. It is not just DC’s, it’s a tri-jurisdiction system.

    1. It’s really more of an anarcho-syndicalist commune, with decisions made by a 2/3 vote needed on substantive matters and a simple majority needed on merely procedural matters.

    2. This is not correct. The USFG also shares in controlling the system.

  8. Those Van Buren boys can be rough.
    Just ask George Costanza.

  9. “The injured employee must look to Virginia’s workers compensation law for a remedy.”

    I’m rather surprised that workplace injuries due to felonious assault would be included. I’d have assumed it would be limited to normal workplace injuries of the sort that fall under OSHA jurisdiction, not criminal acts committed by one employee against another.

    I’m glad the guy at least got convicted of the assault.

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