Supreme Court considers whether ‘right to sue’ means only right to arbitration

The Supreme Court justices asked the question half a dozen ways: When Congress writes legislation that says, “You have a right to sue,” why doesn’t that mean that consumers have a right to file a lawsuit in court?

And the lawyer on the receiving end of the queries answered each time: Because your precedents say so.

The case was about whether customers who are unhappy about the allegedly hidden costs of the credit cards they received from CompuCredit can sue the company in court, or whether they must abide by the fine print in their contracts. It said that all disputes must be handled by arbitration.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California said the cardholders could sue after discovering their Aspire Visa cards, marketed to those with poor credit ratings, came with a $300 credit limit — and $257 in fees.

The court agreed with the cardholders that the Credit Repair Organizations Act explicitly says that consumers have the right to sue and that any attempt to waive that right “may not be enforced by any federal or state court or any other persons.”

But Michael W. McConnell, a Stanford University law professor representing CompuCredit, said that provided consumers only with a “cause of action,” which was satisfied by arbitration.

Congress has shown its preference for arbitration with the Federal Arbitration Act, McConnell said. “This court has consistently rejected the argument” that federal statutes that create a right to sue override that policy unless they contain a clear statement ruling out arbitration, he said.

That argument launched the justices into round after round of questioning on essentially the same point.

“The statute is meant to apply to ordinary people, and if an ordinary person not schooled in the law read ‘You have a right to sue,’ wouldn’t they understand that to mean: I have a right to sue in court?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. added: “If somebody, you know, hits your car and you jump out angrily and you say: ‘I’m going to sue you.’ You are not likely to say: ‘I’m going to bring a cause of action against you.’ ”

Scott L. Nelson, an attorney for Public Citizen who is representing cardholder Wanda Greenwood, agreed that Congress made its intentions clear. But Justice Elena Kagan said that McConnell was right about the court’s precedents and that Congress “knew it had to make especially clear that it wanted to void arbitration agreements.” But the statute does not mention arbitration.

The case is CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood .

The arguments came on a day when the court decided to hear another case about consumer rights and to pass on several other cases that had drawn national attention.

The court said it would hear Freeman v. Quicken Loans , in which a group of Louisiana home buyers said that Quicken Loans overcharged them at their mortgage closings. The case asks the court to clarify a provision in the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which forbids collecting money for services not performed.

The court rejected an appeal from a same-sex couple in New York who wanted the state of Louisiana to list both of their names on the birth certificate of the child they adopted from the southern state.

Louisiana said its policy reflects a state law that prohibits adoption by unmarried couples, regardless of their sexuality. An appeals court had agreed that the policy did not violate equal protection.

The court also declined to accept a petition from Philadelphia prosecutors in the nearly three-decade-old case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a police officer. A federal appeals court this year upheld the conviction of the former Black Panther and radio show host, but it ordered a new sentencing hearing.

If prosecutors choose not to pursue a hearing, Abu-Jamal will serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. He gave up law school plans for a life in newspapers after taking a journalism class in college. It did not occur to him, as it apparently did to others, that he could do both.
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