5-4 for SCOTUS Authority and a Clarified Removal Standard in Dart Cherokee Basin v. Owens

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, in which a company, Dart Cherokee, tried to remove their class suit to a federal court but failed to provide evidence to satisfy the requirements for removal in time. The case itself was almost a lock for Dart Cherokee because fact pleading ended more than seventy years ago but it was questionable whether the Court would reach the merits of the case thanks to an amicus brief by Public Citizen, who argued that Dart Cherokee wasn’t entitled to removal since the federal court could have just refused to hear the case for extraneous reasons (a valid excuse); after all, the federal court, as usual, didn’t give a reason for denying the case. The Justices were in a tough spot; it seemed clear that they had no jurisdiction over the case but the 10th District’s action was so flagrant that they couldn’t let it stand. In a 5-4 decision, the Court decided they reached the merits.

The Court easily found the 10th District Court’s action to be in violation of the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), which eased the process to remove to federal courts for defendants in class suits (CAFA, if you’ll recall, was passed by pro-business legislators who were worried about the significant anti-business bias in state courts).

The majority opinion of the Court, written by Justice Ginsburg (and joined by Justices Roberts, Alito, Breyer, and Sotomayor), stated first that Owens never challenged the scope of review of the Court. Second, letting the court of appeals decision stand would set a precedent for unlawful actions by other courts and thus the Supreme Court had the right to intervene.

Justice Scalia penned a dissent, joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan. He wrote that the majority opinion presumes that the court of appeals decision was flawed. He wrote that there was no evidence to believe this, so he believed the Court should decline to review this case because it was improvidently granted cert–they understood it incorrectly initially and that faulty understanding was the reason for the Court granting cert, not the newly discovered facts of the case. He quotes Justice Jackson in Massachusetts v. United States (which was, coincidentally or perhaps ironically, quoted by Justice Ginsburg in her dissent in last year’s Hobby Lobby decision): “I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday.”

Justice Thomas wrote a bit more, and described an even more limited view of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction (a point on which he and Scalia differed). Even if the court of appeals had released the reasoning for their decision and it was in fact that Dart Cherokee failed to provide evidence of the requirements, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

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