Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions
Please enjoy the latest edition of Short Circuit, a weekly feature written by a bunch of people at the Institute for Justice.
In 2018, Mario Rosales was driving in Roswell, New Mexico, when he legally passed off-duty sheriff’s deputy David Bradshaw’s personal pickup truck. In a fit of road rage, Bradshaw followed Mario home, blocked him in the driveway, screamed at him, and ultimately pointed a gun at him. Bradshaw was fired and convicted of aggravated assault—but when Rosales sued him for violating his constitutional rights, a federal court granted Bradshaw qualified immunity. This week, IJ Attorney Marie Miller argued his case before the Tenth Circuit, and boy are we glad we weren’t the former deputy’s lawyers.
- Procedural persnickets, beware thine own petard! Two environmental groups complaining that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t prepare an environmental-impact statement before issuing a permit themselves failed to raise their objection properly. Which means, per the D.C. Circuit, that American Centrifuge is authorized to produce uranium enriched up to 20 percent. Politics aside, that’s just very cool as a matter of physics.
- Your editors don’t exactly hesitate to nerd out about the Constitution. We know “fire in a crowded theater” is claptrap, we worry about that loophole in the Vicinage Clause, and, heck, we even think the Fourteenth Amendment should better reflect the 1615 Ipswich Tailors’ Case. But even we had never seen a case about the Bankruptcy Clause’s “uniformity” requirement. (Relatedly, the Second Circuit holds that debtors who paid bankruptcy fees that were mandatory in their district but permissive in others are getting a partial refund.)
- Does the Second Amendment prevent disarmament of a person for an old nonviolent conviction? Third Circuit, conducting much historical analysis in the mode of Bruen: Not if it was the equivalent of a felony. So no hunting rifle for a man who was convicted of about $2,500 in welfare fraud in 1995.
- You’ve got to feel for the defendant LLC in this Fourth Circuit ruling. It was sued, counterclaimed, won, and was awarded damages and attorney’s fees only to have the whole thing vacated on appeal because one of 39 partners in the LP that owns the LP that owns the LLC that owns the defendant LLC lives in the same state as the plaintiff, destroying diversity of citizenship. But “[w]hether mutual contentment with the federal forum or genuine obliviousness brought the parties to this unfortunate juncture, this Court will not condone the exercise of jurisdiction where it did not truly exist.”
- After a pair of meth dealers entered into a federal cooperation agreement, they made quite a confession: They previously dumped the dead body of one of their customers into a bayou. The customer had skipped out of town after they bonded him out of jail—putting the bond money at risk—and they offered free drugs to anyone who could get him back. The incentive worked all too well, and the customer was killed in the ensuing retrieval effort. Fifth Circuit: While the cooperation agreement made promises of immunity, it did not apply to “crimes of violence.” Murder being a “crime of violence,” the district court appropriately considered this conduct at sentencing.
- Challengers to a Texas law criminalizing out-of-state abortions sought to subpoena testimony from Texas AG Ken Paxton, arguing it was necessary to reconcile his public statements threatening to enforce the law with his argument (in a pending motion to dismiss) that he lacked authority to take such enforcement action. The district court obliged, reasoning that “Paxton alone is capable of explaining his thoughts and statements.” Fifth Circuit: The district court had to decide the pending motion to dismiss before it could haul anyone in to testify, and, in any event, Paxton can’t be made to testify because the challengers could subpoena his subordinates instead. Mandamus granted.
- Voter-registration activists sue Tennessee over a law imposing a raft of new requirements. The trial court grants them a preliminary injunction, and they’re able to register new voters ahead of the 2020 election. Seven months later, the state repeals the enjoined provisions. State: So the victory was just temporary and we don’t have to pay plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. Sixth Circuit: The decision was final enough; pay up. Dissent: Plaintiffs won the battle but not the war—and only the war would entitle them to attorneys’ fees.
- Ohio man pleads guilty to illegally possessing a gun. But there’s no plea deal and nothing specifying the sentencing range—so the court isn’t bound by the parties’ calculations of the sentencing guidelines (21–27 months’ imprisonment per gov’t vs. the man’s attorney’s 12–18 months). Surprise! The court imposes a sentence of 57 months based on the Probation Office’s calculation of the guidelines. Sixth Circuit: The district court should’ve warned the man that it would decide his sentence irrespective of the parties’ calculations. Back down to the district court, which may resentence him to a max of 27 months or allow him to plead anew.
- Detainee at Cook County, Ill. jail files putative class action challenging lack of grab bars and other fixtures for disabled people. District court (September 2019): No class certification for you. Seventh Circuit (March 2020): This case seems like a pretty easy candidate for class certification. District court: Okay, class certified. But now decertified (September 2022) because some of the class members might not really be disabled. Seventh Circuit (November 2022) (and without requesting a response brief from
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