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SCOTUS Releases First Decision of Term, Hears December Arguments

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The first decision of the Supreme Court's October 2015 Term is out and it's unanimous. On Tuesday, the Court released its first opinion, on the first case it heard arguments from this term: OBB Personenverkehr AG v. Sachs -- we'll call it Sachs from now on, since Personenverkehr doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. It's a case involving the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the ability of U.S. citizens to sue foreign government entities.

The opinion kicked off a busy week for the Court, which also heard its first oral arguments of December. Here's what you need to know.

Starting Off on a Unanimous Foot With Sachs

Sachs is notable as the very first case the Supreme Court heard this term, the first decision it has issued since, and the Court's first unanimous opinion so far. It's also a fairly interesting decision, if you're into for sovereign immunity. Carol Sachs, a Californian, was vacationing in Europe, traveling the continent with her Eurail pass. In Austria, she jumped on the state-owned railway, OBB Personenverkehr AG and soon fell on the tracks, where her legs were crushed by an oncoming train.

When she sued, OBB argued that it was immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Sachs countered that the railroad was involved in "a commercial activity carried on in the United States," one of the FSIA's exceptions to sovereign immunity protections. Sachs had purchased her Eurail pass in the U.S., you see, so she argued that the FSIA didn't apply.

The Supreme Court, in a short opinion authored by Justice Roberts, disagreed. Her suit isn't "based upon" activities that happened in the U.S., as would be required for the FSIA exception to apply. That is, it's not her purchase of the Eurail pass that caused her injuries, it's her tumble in Innsbruck, Austria. Even though the railroad's commercial activities lead to her injury, they "were not the particular conduct upon which her suit was based."

Getting Started on December Oral Arguments: Menominee

The Court has also heard two of the first oral arguments of its December sitting on Tuesday. It started with Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. Wisconsin. In Menominee, the Court will examine whether the D.C. Circuit properly denied equitable tolling under the Indian Self-Determination Act. The D.C. Circuit denied to equitably toll the tribe's claim, though its neighbor down the street, the Federal Circuit, had allowed equitable tolling in similar circumstance. (The meat of the dispute is over federal payments to Indian tribes, but the case is a procedural one.)

Who was right? It doesn't seem like the Tribe, at least according to the Justices' tone. Ronald Mann described it as "unremittingly dubious," over at SCOTUSblog. Justice Sotomayor said that "minimal research" would have avoided the issue, while Justice Kagan called the tribe's reliance on a circuit court ruling "an extraordinary thing... A single district court has no controlling authority over anyone or anything other than that particular decision."

Justices Aren't Excited About Merrill Lynch's Jurisdiction Arguments

That sparring attitude carried over into the second argument session, for Merrill Lynch, et al. v. Manning. This one involves accusation that Merrill Lynch violated SEC regulations through manipulative short selling -- and which courts get to decide. The Supreme Court has been pretty hostile to securities class actions, leading plaintiffs lawyers to increasingly pursue cases in state court, as they did here. But Merrill Lynch argues, in this case, that the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction, even when a case, like this one, is based exclusively on state law claims.

At oral arguments, the Justices didn't seem like they were too excited by the prospect of removing state court jurisdiction. Chief Justice Roberts was openly skeptical of Merrill Lynch's position. Justice Sotomayor "just doesn't understand how" the Securities law could bar a state court from hearing a claim based on state law. Justice Scalia wondered just how one could obligate state courts to determine if claims "mirror a cause of action that happens to exist under federal law."

So things aren't looking too good for the Menominee Tribe or Merrill Lynch.

And with that, we begin the December sitting. Looks like it will be an interesting one!

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