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June 28, 2010
Supreme Court Ends Term With Four Opinions
The Supreme Court ended its 2009-2010 term today by issuing opinions in the last four argued cases left on the docket. The cases were controversial and highly anticipated.
The case that was likely anticipated the most is McDonald v. Chicago. The case involved gun restriction laws running counter to the Second Amendment. The Court decided two years ago in District of Columbia v. Heller that citizens could bear arms for purpose of self defense under the Amendment. The McDonald case extended the principle to state and municipal jurisdictions. The question for most of the case was the methodology to apply the Second Amendment to the states. The plurality judgment of the Court was §1 of the Fourteenth Amendment made the Second Amendment applicable to the states. Justice Thomas argued in favor of using the Privileges of Immunities Clause instead. The Court flatly rejected that approach. Justices Stevens and Breyer dissented, with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joinng the latter opinion. The case goes back to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Those in the academic law business were particularly interested in the case of Christian Legal Society Chapter of University of California, Hastings College of Law v. Martinez. That case considered whether a religious groups could be denied student group recognition and funding at a public school when its membership requirements clashed with university policies. Hastings required Registered Student Organizations to abide by the university's Nondiscrimination Policy, which barred discrimination for religion and sexual orientation. The Christian Legal Society wanted recognition, but sincere religious beliefs could not allow them to accept within the group individuals with whose sexual behavior or religious views they disagreed.
The Court considered whether a public institution's "all comers" policy, essentially that of Hastings, violated the Constitution. The Court ruled that it does not. The Court analyzed which line of cases it applied to the situation and chose the limited-forum decisions. As such, a government entity could impose reasonable restrictions on speech in certain places and circumstances in light of the purpose of the form and the restrictions were viewpoint neutral. Some arguments were not available to the Christian Legal Society due to stipulations made at the lower level proceedings. Some of these may arise on remand.
The ability to patent a business process was the issue in Bilski v. Kappos. The case was significant because it could have affected the subjects software patents. Bilski wanted to patent a business method that described how traders in the energy market could protect themselves against price changes. The patent described a series of steps and reduced them to a mathematical formula. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overruled its prior caselaw in denying the patentability of the subject. The mistake it made, however, was stating that the sole test for patentability was whether the invention or process could transform states or be tied to a machine.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that Bilski's process could not be patentable, but disagreed that the machine or transformation test was the sole standard. The net effect is that some business processes are patentable. Bilski did not qualify because his process identified abstract ideas which are not subject to patent. Later court challenges will have to define the contours of patentability for these kinds of concepts.
The last case of the term involved the Separation of Powers Doctrine. The case is Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. The petitioner is an entity regulated by the Board. One of the challenges to the authority of the Board is the way it was created and how its membership was populated. Congress created the Board when it passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The Board was placed under the Securities and Exchange Commission with members appointed by the SEC. The Constitution places the control of these boards ultimately in the Executive. The President could remove individuals such as board members of the various agencies for good cause. The PCAOB, however, was not accountable to the President. As such the provision in the Act for appointing the Board was declared unconstitutional. The Court allowed the Board to continue and said that the members could be removed by the SEC at will. This conforms appointment and removal policy to that of other departments, casting the Commission as a department head. [MG]