Main menu

The 2016-2017 U.S. Supreme Court Term in Review

This year’s term was not as dramatic as years past, but in typical Supreme Court fashion some of the more exciting rulings came toward the end. The final days of the Supreme Court’s term produced a ruling on the Trump Travel Ban, a key religious liberty case, and a cert. grant in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case out of Colorado, which is sure to be closely watched next year. But this term also produced some notable decisions for litigators and appellate advocates. We’ve reviewed commentary and opinions, listened to speakers and the latest reports, and have boiled it down to the top ten highlights of the 2016-2017 term that we think are of interest to our readers. Enjoy!

1. We Have a Full Court Once Again

While not a case update, the addition of Colorado’s own Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Court was definitely a highlight of the term. Now the Court has a full panoply of justices once again. Justice Gorsuch was confirmed late in this year’s term, and as such, has only participated in a handful of cases. Nevertheless, the junior justice’s mark on the Court is being recognized by commentators across the spectrum. Only time will tell just how far-reaching an impact Justice Gorsuch’s appointment will have on the High Court. But the Court is back to full strength once again, with a new voice added to the mix.

2. Trinity Lutheran: Free Exercise Rights Strengthened1

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the playground resurfacing case out of Missouri, is a religious liberties decision that most agree is one of the most important of this year’s term. That case held that the state of Missouri could not deny a church preschool a grant to resurface its playground, simply because it was a church, without violating the church’s First Amendment Free Exercise rights. It will be interesting to see how far-reaching this ruling ends up.

Read more about the case here.

3. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court: Specific Personal Jurisdiction Explained2

We previously reported on the Supreme Court’s latest personal jurisdiction case, Bristol-Myers Squibb. This case is representative of how the U.S. Supreme Court continues to limit where a defendant can be sued. Jurisdiction is an issue important to both plaintiffs and defendants alike, and this case gets specific on specific jurisdiction.

Read more about the case here.

4. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger: Discovery Abuse Sanctions3

This case looks at the discretion federal courts have to sanction parties who abuse the discovery process. In this case, Goodyear was found to have withheld crucial evidence in bad faith. As a sanction, the trial court awarded the other side its attorney fees for the entire case—not just those fees that could be linked to the discovery abuse. The Supreme Court reined in this discretion a bit. The Court held that when a federal court relies on its inherent authority to sanction a litigant for bad-faith conduct by ordering it to pay the other side’s attorney fees, the sanction must be limited to the fees incurred solely because of the misconduct.

In a way, the case was not remarkable, as it just affirms what had already been the law in many Circuits up to this point. But the Court’s guidance should be of interest to civil litigators, particularly those that practice in federal court and are confronted with an opposing party who seems to ignore the rules.

Look forward to our more in-depth discussion of this case in the next month.

5. Bank of America v. City of Miami: Prudential Standing and the Zone of Interests4

This case held that the City of Miami had standing to bring a Fair Housing Act claim against a mortgage lender for discriminatory practices. In doing so, the Court laid out the latest on how to determine whether a litigant is within the zone of interests protected by a particular statute. In addition to having Article III standing, when a statute is at issue, a litigant must also show itself to be within the zone of interests. Case law refers to this as prudential or statutory standing. The Court concluded that the City was within the zone of interests of the FHA. Yet the Court also noted that the City would have to demonstrate proximate cause in order to bring a successful claim. But it declined to address the issue in the first instance here. This latter requirement may end up deciding the case on remand.

This case is a helpful reminder about the prudential, or statutory, requirements of standing, for everyone who was anxious to figure that out.

6. Manrique v. United States: The Importance of Proper Notice(s) of Appeal5

Manrique may seem like an odd case to highlight in a “top-ten” type review, as it was not a watershed case. But it reminds us of the importance of a proper notice of appeal in appellate litigation, and we couldn’t resist including a good procedural “gotcha” case.

The case involved a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography. The defendant filed a single notice of appeal after his conviction, but before the Court had issued a sentence, including restitution. On appeal, the defendant tried to argue about the amount of restitution ordered. Not so fast, said the Supreme Court. The Court held that “a single notice of appeal, filed between the initial judgment and the amended judgment” was insufficient “to invoke appellate review of the later-determined restitution amount” at least where the Government had objected to the defendant’s failure to file a notice of appeal following the amended judgment.6

Though it deals with criminal appeals and is an unusual issue, Manrique is a good reminder to be sure, whenever you are appealing, that the notice of appeal properly encompasses the judgment being appealed. Sometimes, two notice of appeals are required in order to properly appeal all the issues in a matter—this case demonstrates what can happen when that concept is misunderstood.

7. Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado: The Secrecy of Jury Deliberations7

The decision in Pena-Rodriguez is a big one for criminal law practitioners (and it involved a Colorado case). A defendant was convicted of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. After the jury was discharged, jurors told defense counsel that one of the other jurors had expressed racial bias during deliberations. Defense counsel moved for a new trial, and tried to introduce the reporting jurors’ affidavits as evidence. But the Colorado Rules of Evidence generally prohibit evidence of jury deliberations to undercut the validity of the verdict. The question in this case was whether there was any constitutional exception. While the Colorado Supreme Court said no, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the right to an impartial jury required such an exception. Because of the important interest at stake, the Sixth Amendment required that jury deliberations no longer be the closed process they once were, at least in cases of clear racial animus.

The dissenting opinions highlighted the issues that might arise going forward, such as whether the prospect that the jury’s verdict will be impeached based on what is discussed in deliberations will inhibit jury participation and undercut confidence in our judicial system as a whole.

This case is a big one for criminal practice, and exactly how it may affect jury deliberations in future cases is sure to be closely watched.

8. Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates: Article III Standing of Intervenors8

Article III standing is a complicated concept, and this latest case addresses the requirements an intervenor must meet in order to establish the constitutional requirements. The Court held that a litigant must possess Article III standing in order to intervene under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) if the intervenor seeks relief not requested by the plaintiff. Before this case, there had been a circuit split over whether an intervenor also had to prove Article III standing in order to become involved in a federal court lawsuit.

The Court explained that for all relief sought in a federal case, there must be a litigant with standing. So, if an intervenor asks for relief that is different from the relief sought by a party with standing (for example, money damages for itself, rather than for the plaintiff), it must independently meet this Article III requirement. In other words, an intervenor cannot meet Article III’s standing requirements by piggy-backing off a party with standing if it wants different relief. If, on the other hand, however, the relief sought is identical, the Supreme Court acknowledged that, in that situation, Article III’s case or controversy requirement would be met.

In this case, it was unclear whether the intervenor was seeking different relief from the plaintiff in the case (whose standing was clear). So the Supreme Court sent it back down for resolution of that issue.

9. Pavan v. Smith: Summary Reversal in Light of Obergefell v. Hodges9

Pavan is an interesting case because it is one of the Court’s first post-Obergefell v. Hodges cases (the same-sex marriage decision), yet it had less impact, potentially because of how it was decided. The case involved Arkansas’s use of birth certificates treating opposite-sex married couples differently than same-sex married couples. The Arkansas Supreme Court had held that the State did not have to issue birth certificates including the female spouses of women who give birth in the State. In a per curiam opinion (which means no Justice claimed authorship), the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court, holding that the differential treatment was contrary to Obergefell.

Though the majority opinion is interesting in its own right, it is simply an application of Obergefell. Also interesting was the fact that three justices dissented, which is not typical in a summary reversal, per curiam opinion. Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justices Thomas and Alito) dissented, noting that a case of such importance should not be dealt with through a summary reversal. Summary reversals are typically reserved for cases that are clear and unambiguous—in Justice Gorsuch’s view, this case was not.

10. Masterpiece Cakeshop: A Look to Next Term

After weeks of waiting and waiting, at the end of term the Court granted the Masterpiece Cakeshop petition for certiorari. The Court granted cert. to review whether Colorado’s public accommodation law—which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation— when applied to the Colorado baker violates the First Amendment. This case is sure to be closely watched this next term, as its potential to impact our State’s public accommodation law and the nation’s First Amendment jurisprudence is widely recognized.


1Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___ (2017).
2Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Ct., 582 U.S. ___ (2017).
3Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 581 U.S. ___ (2017).
4Bank of Am. Corp. v. City of Miami, 581 U.S. ___ (2017).
5Manrique v. United States, 581 U.S. ___ (2017).
6See id. (slip. op. at 1).
7Pena-Rodriguez v. Colo., 580 U.S. ___ (2017).
8Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc., 581 U.S. ___ (2017).
9Pavan v. Smith, 582 U.S. ___ (2017).
Featured Image: ”Unnamed” by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash.
back to top

© Telios Law