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Supreme Court Starts 2021 Off With Some Big Cases (and Fiery Dissents)

US Supreme Court Building under dark, gloomy skies in Washington D.C.
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

Just a few weeks into the new year and there are already several big headlines coming out of the United States Supreme Court. From upcoming hearings to some strongly-worded dissents, these are some of the cases we're keeping an eye on:

Tribes Say Treasury Failed to Distribute COVID Relief

Congress allocated $8 billion to help Native populations during the pandemic. Then months went by without any of it being distributed. In late May, the Treasury sent out about $4.8 billion, and a bit more in June. But around $679 million is still unaccounted for. Plus, Alaska Native corporations, for-profit businesses that serve Alaska tribal areas, are also seeking a piece of the pie.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Alaska Native corporations petitioned the Supreme Court to determine which groups are eligible to receive CARES Act funds. The Court has granted them one hour for oral argument.

Technical Question Could Have Huge Impact on Climate Change Cases...Or Not

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in B.P. PLC v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, one of around 20 lawsuits currently circulating to hold fuel companies liable for damages related to climate change.

But the court won't be considering the merits of Baltimore's claims. At this point, the case is stuck on a procedural question: What level of jurisdiction does a federal court of appeals have when a case has been remanded to state court?

The case began at the state level. The fuel companies asked for it to be removed to federal court, likely hoping for a more favorable result. But, the federal district court remanded it back to state court. On appeal the Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding it only had jurisdiction to consider one of the district court's grounds for removal.

Vermont Law School professor and environmental law expert Patrick A. Parenteau told the New York Times the result "could be anything from a nothing burger to a blockbuster." Fuel companies want the Court to consider a much bigger question than the technical one before it, whether these cases should be governed by state or federal law. And while the justices are generally pretty scrupulous on sticking to the issues presented, it wouldn't be the first time they surprised us.

Breyer and Sotomayor Sound Off on Federal Death Penalty

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor slammed their colleagues for allowing an "expedited spree of executions" by the federal government in fierce dissents last week. The majority reversed a lower court order putting the execution of Dustin John Higgs, who was convicted in 2001 of kidnapping and murdering three women, on hold.

Although Higgs was convicted in Maryland, the government wished to have him put to death in Indiana where he was incarcerated, as Maryland outlawed the death penalty in 2013. There was also the issue of Higgs' health - he had sustained serious lung damage due to COVID-19 that the District Court held would "subject him to a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding" if he were executed by lethal injection.

Oral arguments were scheduled at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for January 27, 2021. But the government didn't want to wait that long, petitioning the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court's order without any regular arguments or briefings. The majority obliged, providing no rationale for their decision, and Higgs was dead just a few hours later.

"This is not justice," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the Government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this Court should have. It has not."

Justice Breyer agreed, reprising his arguments from last year that resuming federal executions "promises to provide examples that illustrate the difficulties of administering the death penalty consistent with the Constitution." The only sitting justice who believes the court should reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty, Justice Breyer argues the legal questions presented in Higgs' case and others are not frivolous. And that the current push to "hurry up, hurry up" is not a solution.

All this follows the Trump administration's reinstatement of the federal death penalty. Higgs was the thirteenth federal inmate put to death under former president Trump's policy, which led to three times as many executions in six months as in the previous sixty years. Justice Sotomayor condemned the Court's role in this slew of executions, saying:

"This Court has consistently rejected inmates' credible claims for relief. This court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring that these prisoner challenges would never receive a meaningful hearing."

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