This Time, the Roberts Court Keeps the Courthouse Doors Open

The Roberts Court is notorious for too often seeking excuses to close the courthouse door and keep individuals from vindicating their rights. So yesterday’s unanimous opinions in Bond v. US and Smith v. Bayer were refreshing.

In Bond, the Court ruled that an individual has standing to challenge a federal criminal conviction that she claims violates the Tenth Amendment. That Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Cited by many Tea Partiers as part of their efforts to diminish federal authority, it goes to the federal structure of our country and the rights of states; it does not directly address the rights of individuals. However, that does not bar individuals from standing to argue that they have been harmed by a congressional act that violates the Tenth Amendment.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision completely and correctly bypassed the substantive issue and remanded it to the lower courts. But regardless of the merits of Bond’s argument, she has the right to make it as someone whose freedom or imprisonment rests on whether the law she is challenging is constitutional.

Smith v. Bayer was similarly a breath of fresh air. The case asked if a federal court that has denied class certification can prohibit a separate West Virginia state court lawsuit seeking class certification in a case that is brought by people who had not been part of the federal lawsuit, but who would have belonged to the federal class had it gone through. A federal law called the Anti-Injunction Act authorizes a federal court to shut down state litigation of a claim or issue that was already presented to and decided by the federal court.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously pointed out that the federal rules on when you can validly form a class are not necessarily the same as West Virginia’s rules. So the state court was addressing a new legal question, not the one that the federal court had already addressed. In addition, eight of the Justices (all but Justice Thomas) agreed that because the federal class status was denied, Smith was by definition not a party to the federal claim and cannot be bound by it.

While the Supreme Court kept the courthouse doors open in these two cases, there are still cases pending like Wal-Mart where the Corporate Court can do significant damage to people’s ability to hold corporations accountable.

PFAW