Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions
Please enjoy the latest edition of Short Circuit, a weekly feature from the Institute for Justice.
Wilmington, Del. outsources its impound program to private companies and “pays” them by giving them the power to keep and scrap people’s cars. To no one’s surprise, the system is rife with abuse. It’s also unconstitutional, which is why this week IJ launched a suit to end Wilmington’s tow-and-impound racket once and for all.
- Fed Courts nerds, get HYPED: On top of the usual writ of supervisory mandamus, there is, your editors have learned, an even rarer writ of advisory mandamus. Which means the First Circuit can review discovery orders over which it otherwise wouldn’t have jurisdiction. The upshot? A group of truckers alleging that Rhode Island’s former governor and other officials intended for a toll system to discriminate against interstate commerce will not be getting their depositions, thank you very much. Because who really cares what lawmakers intended?
- A photo of Good Day Philadelphia host Karen Hepp ends up on Facebook, without her consent, in an advertisement for a dating service. Not great for a well-known TV host (or honestly, anyone). But websites usually can’t be held liable for user-generated content. Can Hepp sue Facebook anyway? Third Circuit (2-1): Indeed she can. The protection for websites doesn’t extend to intellectual property, and that includes “right of publicity” claims. No personal jurisdiction over Imgur and Reddit, though, despite the “indecent user commentary” on the photo.
- “Though the Ex Post Facto Clause rarely appears in casebooks or civics classrooms, the Framers ranked it among the Constitution’s most fundamental guarantees.” So says the Third Circuit, holding that a murderer will get at least a chance to enforce the clause. Long after the man went to prison, New Jersey changed the rules to make it harder to get parole. If, says the court, those changes created a significant risk of prolonging the man’s incarceration, they’re unconstitutionally retroactive and can’t be applied to him.
- Fed up with a private citizen’s repeated open-records requests, Conyngham Township, Pa. officials turn the tables by serving him with an open-records request of their own, demanding his tax records and other personal files. Which, says the Third Circuit, is both super weird and perhaps grounds for a First Amendment retaliation claim.
- Not with a bang, but with a birthday: The Fourth Circuit vacates its earlier decision invalidating the federal restriction on buying guns when under 21 because the sole plaintiff in the case has now turned 21.
- A car illegally stopped in the dead of night, a pressure-washer, and an intransigent Libertarian candidate for president all add up to a grant of qualified immunity in this Fifth Circuit case. (Judge Willett, in dissent, would rather have a jury wrestle with this strange scenario.)
- Louisiana: A 30-year-old consent decree about one judicial district obviously immunizes us from any Voting Rights Act suits about our other judicial districts, right? Fifth Circuit: We’re honestly a little mad at you for even making us explain why that’s wrong.
- Sovereign citizen insists he is the rightful heir to and owner of an 1848 land grant currently used for mining and timber harvesting. Which, says the Fifth Circuit in a shocking twist, he is not.
- Can Scott County, Tenn. be held liable for being “recklessly,” “deliberately indifferent” to a pretrial detainee’s serious medical needs? Or must jail staff have subjectively known that they were acting with deliberate indifference? Sixth Circuit (over a dissent): Recklessness will suffice. So the case of a pretrial detainee who was denied medication, after which she suffered a slew of seizures and drank out of the toilet, goes back to a jury.
- Medina, Ohio restaurant sues its insurer, seeking coverage for business losses incurred because of the pandemic and associated shut-down order. Sixth Circuit: Insurance contracts may be mind-numbingly convoluted, but one thing is clear—this restaurant is out of luck.
- Kentucky prisoner gets in a scrap with his cellmate during which he ruptures his plantaris muscle. (He also has his eye gouged out, but don’t worry, he “shove[d] it back in with his palm.”) The rupture causes a hematoma, leading to a “painful, softball-size mass on his calf.” Prison doctors decline surgery, prescribe the tincture of time. He sues. Sixth Circuit: That’s actually the standard of care for this injury, which typically resolves on its ow
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