On Wednesday, April 19, the Court decided three cases that are interesting and instructive in following how the Justices, both nominal liberals and conservatives, attempt to apply textual methodology in assessing jurisdictional prerequisites, though not always reaching unanimous results.
Many watchers of the two most recent “conservative” appointees, Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, who are uncertain about exactly where they fit in philosophically on the Court’s continuum, will be interested in their joining with the Chief Justice and the three nominal “liberals” (Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson) in Reed v. Goertz, in an opinion written by Justice Kavanaugh holding that when a prisoner pursues state post-conviction DNA testing through the state-provided litigation process, the statute of limitations under 42 U.S.C. §1983, for a procedural due process claim, begins to run when the state litigation ends, in this case when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the petitioner’s motion for rehearing. Rejecting the arguments of the State of Texas for a stricter limitations commencement, the Court held that Rodney Reed had standing because of his allegation that he was injured in fact by having been denied access to requested evidence by the prosecutor, which evidence significantly increased the likelihood that he could obtain evidence that would lead to direct redress of his injury. The Court also rejected Texas’s claim of sovereign immunity, reaffirming Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123, 159–161 (1908), which allows suits like Reed’s for declaratory or injunctive relief against state officers in their official capacities. The Court also rejected the state’s claim that relief was barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine [see Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U. S. 413 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U. S. 462 (1983)]. That doctrine prohibits federal courts from adjudicating cases brought by state-court losing parties challenging state-court judgments. However, in Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U. S. 521, 532 (2011), the Court held that even though a “state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts,” a “statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action.” Thus, Reed, who did “not challenge the adverse” state-court decisions themselves, lawfully “targets as unconstitutional the Texas statute they authoritatively construed.”
In sum, the only question before the Court was whether Reed’s §1983 suit raising a procedural due process challenge to Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law was timely under the applicable two-year statute of limitations that begins to run when the plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action.” Reed successfully crossed that threshold, albeit over the dissenting jurisdictional views of Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch. A significant number of readers of this blog defend Section 1983 cases, and so should take notice of Reed v. Goertz and its holding with respect to timeliness and standing.
Justice Kavanaugh continued his majority authorial run with his opinion in Turkiye Halk Bankasi A.S., AKA Halkbank v. United States, in which he was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas, Sotomayor, Kagan, Barrett, and Jackson, with Justices Gorsuch and Alito concurring in part and dissenting in part.
Halkbank, a bank owned by the Republic of Turkey, was indicted for conspiring to evade U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. In moving to dismiss, Halkbank argued that, as an instrumentality of a foreign state, it was immune from criminal prosecution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA). Rejecting that argument, the Court held that the district court has jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. §3231, which grants original jurisdiction as to “all offenses against the laws of the United States.” Although it was conceded that the statute’s literal text encompasses the charged offenses, Halkbank instead argued that because §3231 does not mention foreign states or their instrumentalities, they are implicitly excluded. The Court refused to create an extra-textual limitation on the basis of scattered express references to foreign states and instrumentalities in unrelated statutory provisions.
In sum, the FSIA’s comprehensive scheme governing claims of immunity in civil actions against foreign states and their instrumentalities does not cover criminal cases. Rejecting various other procedural contentions, Halkbank ultimately argued that criminal prosecutions like this one might adversely affect national security and foreign policy. The Court responded that, if that were to prove the case, Congress and the President are able to respond. In the end, the case came down to the point, consistent with other opinions that we’ve discussed in recent months, that the Court must interpret statutes as they are written. Because the court of appeals (CA2) did not consider various common-law immunity claims, the Court remanded the case for their consideration.
Justice Gorsuch’s dissent takes issue with the holding that FSIA’s rules apply only in civil cases, consigning district judges to consult the common law. He and Justice Alito believe that all determinations as to sovereign immunity in both civil and criminal cases should be covered by the same statute.
The Court closed out its day with a unanimous opinion written by Justice Jackson in MOAC Mall Holdings LLC v. Transform Holdco LLC, which resolved the question of whether 11 U. S. C. §363(m) of the Bankruptcy Code is jurisdictional. It isn’t.
The case arose out of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Sears had sold most of its pre-bankruptcy assets to Transform Holdco LLC, including the right to designate to whom a lease between Sears and MOAC Mall Holdings LLC should be assigned. MOAC leases space to tenants at the Minnesota Mall of America. When, upon the exercise of that transferred right, Transform designated the Mall of America lease for assignment to its wholly owned subsidiary, MOAC filed an objection with the bankruptcy court, arguing that Sears had not shown “adequate assurance of future performance by the assignee,” as the Bankruptcy Code requires. If §363(m) were jurisdictional, the bankruptcy court would not have been empowered to resolve the dispute. In rejecting that alternative, Justice Jackson, a liberal, opines on the basis of text, not abstract policy or anything else, writing for the Court that “Section 363(m) is what matters, and Congress has not clearly stated that the provision is a limit on judicial power, rather than a mere restriction on the effects of a valid exercise of that power when a party successfully appeals a covered authorization.”
The Court continues its release of opinions in relative post-Dobbs harmony, with assertions of textual literalness prevailing across the Court. There will be clouds on the horizon before too long.