Supreme Court issues three unanimous opinions in three low-profile cases

June 19

The Supreme Court issued three opinions today in three relatively low-profile cases.  All three decisions were unanimous.

In United States v. Clarke, the Court held that a taxpayer may conduct an examination of IRS officials in response to a summons for information and records if the taxpayer can point to facts or circumstances that could raise an inference of bad faith on the part of the IRS. [Ed. - Even the Supreme Court doesn't trust the IRS!] Justice Kagan wrote for the Court.

In Alice Corp. v. CTS Bank, the Court held that patents for a scheme to mitigate “settlement risk” were ineligible for patent protection as abstract ideas, and that generic computer implementation is insufficient to make otherwise patent-ineligible abstract ideas into patent-eligible inventions.  Justice Thomas wrote for the Court.  Justice Sotomayor also wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer.  Of note, the Court here affirmed an en banc decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  This is notable given the Federal Circuit’s string of reversals in recent cases.

In Lane v. Franks, the Court held that a state employee’s sworn testimony concerning alleged illegal activity within the agency at which he worked was outside the scope of his employment and thus constituted First Amendment protected speech.  Justice Sotomayor wrote for the Court.  Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.  This is a potentially significant First Amendment opinion.  I expect Eugene will have a post up on this case shortly. [UPDATE: Here's Eugene's post.]

Could all this agreement be the calm before the storm?  Perhaps, the Court has eleven cases left to decide, including decisions in Hobby Lobby (contraception mandate), UARG v. EPA (greenhouse gas regulation), Noel Canning (recess appointments), McCullen v. Coakley (protest-free zones around abortion clinics), Aereo (streaming broadcasts), Halliburton (securities class-action suits), and the two cellphone search cases. The Court will issue orders and opinions Monday, and is likely to issue opinions on at least one more day next week.

UPDATE: A quick addendum.  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.

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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