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The Supreme Court, completing a list

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As regular readers will have noticed, I've been creating a multi-entry list of Supreme Court decisions, naming just one stand-out decision per year. Here is my final entry on that theme, bringing us up to date.

Supreme Court cases, 2010 to the present

2010: McDonald v. Chicago -- second amendment
2011: Snyder v. Phelps -- limit on tort liability for emotional distress (Westboro Baptists and the first amendment)
2012: NFIB v. Sebelius -- the big Obamacare decision
2013: Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics -- genes and patents
2014: Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund -- class certification and securities fraud
2015: Obergefell v. Hodges -- marriage equality
2016: Merrill Lynch v. Manning -- state courts have concurrent jurisdiction on certain securities fraud civil liability issues with the federal courts.

I've now listed a total of 47 SCOTUS decisions in this very subjective way. There should be some broader generalizations here as to which SCOTUS decisions catch my eye. Though perhaps that doesn't strike even my sympathetic readers as the world's most pressing question.

Still, on looking over the whole list, my first impression is that criminal procedure issues are very thoroughly represented. The first such case on this list is U.S. v. Nixon, which at its base is about the extent of a claimed evidentiary privilege. My death penalty case, Gregg, comes under this heading, as does Ybarra and several others.

Also, two of the clauses of the first amendment are well represented. There are at least four free speech cases on this list: Pacifica, Pruneyard, Liquormart, Snyder. One might also include Harper & Row, making the number five. The other clause from that amendment? the establishment clause. My list includes Edwards, Kiryas Joel, The Good News Club, and Zelma. For no good reason the other clauses of the same amendment, as represented for example by such landmarks within this period as Gertz v. Welch  (free press)  or Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (freedom of religion) didn't get onto my list.

One might of course chose to see the Pentagon Papers case, which did get onto this list, as a free press case. But if I understand it rightly it actually turned on the court's view of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, not on the first amendment's limits to the power of either and/or both of them.

Constitutional structure, especially the relations among the branches, is another recurring theme of this list.  The Pentagon Papers case starts off that theme, and of course we could double-count U.S. v. Nixon to include it here. That is also a factor in the inclusion of Chadha, Chevron, Morrison.

Fourteen, or roughly 30%, of these cases aren't constitutional, they are wholly or chiefly matters of statutory interpretation. This includes three antitrust law cases, three on securities fraud, and four on intellectual property issues.

But enough! you cry, so I comply.


  1. Christopher, I am unfamiliar with the case you chose for 2013, but I wonder whether it is more significant than Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, leading Republican states to adopt new bans on African-American voting.

  2. Henry,

    Until MYRIAD GENETICS, the US Patent Office was accepting patent applications on isolated DNA sequences. This meant that the nature of human beings, and of other organisms too, was being privatized -- divided into various gene sequences and turned into property, lot by fenced-off lot.

    I think James Watson (who submitted an amicus brief to SCOTUS effectively defending his life's work) stated the issue well: "Life's instructions ought not to be controlled by legal monopolies created at the whim of Congress or the courts."

    You can find historical echoes of slavery in SHELBY, but you can find philosophical echoes of slavery in the (thankfully defeated) position of the respondent in MYRIAD GENETICS.

    I suppose the two cases together have a glass-half-empty-or-half-full quality to them. I'm enough of an optimist to have included the decision in which the side of human freedom prevailed.


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