Is the Sixth Circuit still the new Ninth?

March 27

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has had a very tough run in the Supreme Court over the past several years.  Up until last year the circuit court, which covers Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, had been reversed in over twenty straight cases.  In 2010, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit in five separate habeas cases, and three of the decisions were unanimous.  That year set the tone, as the lion’s share of the Sixth Circuit’s reversals involve criminal procedure, habeas cases in particular.

Could things be changing?  Last year, the Sixth Circuit scored something of a victory as the Court narrowly agreed with the circuit’s conclusion that a district court had been wrong to reject a habeas petitioner’s claim of actual innocence made after the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations.  Yet this was not much of a victory, as the Court nonetheless vacated the decision and criticized the lower court’s rationale.

This week the Supreme Court decided three cases granted from the Sixth Circuit, and affirmed cleanly in one of the three.  On Tuesday, in Lexmark International v. Static Control Components a unanimous Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit’s conclusion that the respondent (Static Control) had prudential standing and adequately pleaded the elements of a Lanham Act cause of action for false advertising.

It’s not time to break out the champagne in Cincinnati, however, as the same day a unanimous court also reversed the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Quality Stores, concluding that severance payments may be taxable wages for FICA purposes.  And then yesterday, in United States v. Castleman, the Court uanimously reversed the Sixth Circuit again, concluding that a criminal defendant’s conviction for “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] bodily injury to” the mother of his child qualified as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” barring him from owning a firearm.  The Court also reversed the Sixth Circuit in Burt v. Titlowdecided last November, and there are a few more cases from the Sixth yet to be decided this term.

So while the Sixth Circuit’s losing streak is over, it’s too soon to conclude the court’s losing ways in the High Court is truly over.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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