Court Opinions: US Supreme Court Opinions for May 23

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Coinbase v. Suski

The dispute in this case involves a conflict between two contracts executed by Coinbase, Inc., operator of a cryptocurrency exchange platform, and respondents, who use Coinbase. The first contract — the Coinbase User Agreement respondents agreed to when they created their accounts — contains an arbitration provision with a delegation clause. Per this provision, an arbitrator must decide all disputes under the contract, including whether a given disagreement is arbitrable. The second contract — the Official Rules for a promotional sweepstakes respondents entered — contains a forum selection clause providing California courts “shall have sole jurisdiction of any controversies regarding the [sweepstakes] promotion.” 

Respondents ultimately filed a class action in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging the sweepstakes violated various California laws. Coinbase moved to compel arbitration based on the User Agreement’s delegation clause. The district court determined the Official Rules’ forum selection clause controlled the parties’ dispute and denied the motion. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court held where parties have agreed to two contracts — one sending arbitrability disputes to arbitration, and the other either explicitly or implicitly sending arbitrability disputes to the courts — a court must decide which contract governs.

The Federal Arbitration Act “reflects the fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract.” Given arbitration agreements are simply contracts, the high court determined the first question in any arbitration dispute must be: What have these parties agreed to? 

Parties can form multiple levels of agreements concerning arbitration and can have different kinds of disputes. At a basic level, parties can agree to send the merits of a dispute to an arbitrator. The merits of a dispute is a first-order disagreement, the court noted. The parties may also have a second-order dispute — “whether they agreed to arbitrate the merits ”— as well as a third-order dispute — “who should have the primary power to decide the second matter.” 

The high court noted this case involves a fourth kind of dispute: What happens if parties have multiple agreements that evidence a conflict over the answer to the third-order question of who decides arbitrability? That question can be answered as to these parties only by determining which contract applies, according to the Supreme Court. Homing in on the conflict between the delegation clause in the first contract and the forum selection clause in the second, the court found the question becomes whether the parties agreed to send the given dispute to arbitration. And that question must be answered by a court.

Coinbase asked the court to revisit the 9th Circuit’s bottom-line conclusion, but its arguments are unpersuasive, the Supreme Court found. First, Coinbase argued the 9th Circuit should have applied the so-called severability principle — under which “an arbitration [or delegation] provision is severable from the remainder of the contract,” — and considered only arguments specific to the User Agreement’s delegation provision.

But the court noted the severability rule doesn’t require a party to challenge only the arbitration or delegation provision. Rather, where a challenge applies “equally” to the whole contract and to an arbitration or delegation provision, a court must address that challenge. 

Coinbase next contended, as a matter of California state law, the 9th Circuit erroneously held the Official Rules’ forum selection clause superseded the User Agreement’s delegation provision. According to the opinion, that issue was outside the scope of the question presented, so the court didn’t address it.

Finally, the court noted it didn’t believe its ruling will invite chaos by facilitating challenges to delegation clauses. Regardless, where the parties have agreed to two contracts, a court must decide which contract governs. To hold otherwise would be to impermissibly elevate a delegation provision over other forms of contract. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered the opinion for a unanimous court. Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion.

In Gorsuch’s concurring opinion, he noted the decision recognizes and stresses arbitration is a matter of contract, and parties can agree by contract an arbitrator instead of a court will resolve threshold arbitrability questions as well as underlying merits disputes. He added, “the Court does not endorse the reasoning in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, let alone its state contract law analysis of the parties’ agreements.”

Brown v. United States

These cases concern the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act to state drug convictions that occurred before recent technical amendments to the federal drug schedules. ACCA imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on defendants who are convicted for the illegal possession of a firearm and who have a criminal history thought to demonstrate a propensity for violence. As relevant here, a defendant with “three previous convictions” for “a serious drug offense” qualifies for ACCA’s enhanced sentencing. For a state crime to qualify as a “serious drug offense,” it must carry a maximum sentence of at least 10 years’ imprisonment, and it must “involv[e] . . . a controlled substance . . . as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act.” 

Under the categorical approach, a state drug offense counts as an ACCA predicate only if the State’s definition of the drug in question “matche[s]” the definition under federal law. The question presented is whether a state crime constitutes a “serious drug offense” if it involved a drug that was on the federal schedules when the defendant possessed or trafficked in it but was later removed.

Petitioners Justin Rashaad Brown and Eugene Jackson were separately convicted of the federal crime of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. In both cases, an ACCA enhancement was recommended based on prior state felony drug convictions. Both defendants argued their prior convictions didn’t qualify as “serious drug offense[ s].”

Brown’s presentence report identified several Pennsylvania drug convictions, including four convictions for possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. At the time of Brown’s marijuana convictions, the federal and Pennsylvania law definitions of marijuana matched. But while Brown’s federal charge was pending, Congress modified the federal definition of marijuana. Because the federal and state definitions didn’t fully match when Brown was sentenced, Brown argued his marijuana convictions no longer qualified as “serious drug offense[s]” for purposes of the ACCA sentencing enhancement.

Jackson’s presentence report identified several prior Florida convictions, including convictions in 1998 and 2004 for possession and distribution of cocaine. In 2015, the Federal Government amended the federal definition of cocaine, so the federal and Florida definitions no longer matched when Jackson committed his offense. Like Brown, Jackson argued these prior convictions no longer qualified as “serious drug offense[s].” In both cases, the district courts disagreed and sentenced them to enhanced sentences, and the respective appellate courts affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court held a state drug conviction counts as an ACCA predicate if it involved a drug on the federal schedules at the time of that offense. 

The Supreme Court affirmed. 

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Elena Kagan joined, and in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined as to Parts I, II and III. 

The dissenting justices argued the ACCA does definitively answer the question presented in these cases. They assert it establishes courts should apply the drug schedules in effect at the time of the federal firearms offense that triggers ACCA’s potential application. They disagree with the majority that precedent, statutory context and purpose requires sentencing courts to apply the drug schedules in effect at the time of a defendant’s prior state drug conviction when determining the applicability of the 15-year mandatory minimum in the act. 

Gorsuch diverged from the other dissenting justices for Part IV of the dissenting opinion which noted the majority’s “holding seems to reflect its own policy view that ‘Brown’s and Jackson’s multiple convictions’ pose a significant risk of future dangerousness ‘despite the technical changes to the federal drug schedules.’” The final part of the dissenting opinion asserted the choice of how to assess and address dangerousness belongs to Congress. 

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP

The Constitution entrusts state legislatures with the primary responsibility for drawing congressional districts, and the U.S. Supreme Court noted in its opinion that legislative redistricting is an inescapably political enterprise. Claims that a map is unconstitutional because it was drawn to achieve a partisan end aren’t justifiable in federal court. By contrast, if a legislature gives race a predominant role in redistricting decisions, the resulting map is subjected to strict scrutiny and may be held unconstitutional. These doctrinal lines collide when race and partisan preference are highly correlated.

The court noted it has endorsed two related propositions when navigating this tension. First, a party challenging a map’s constitutionality must disentangle race and politics to show that race was the legislature’s “predominant” motivating factor.

Second, the court starts with a presumption that the legislature acted in good faith. To disentangle race from other permissible considerations, plaintiffs may employ some combination of direct and circumstantial evidence. Where race and politics are highly correlated, a map that has been gerrymandered to achieve a partisan end can look very similar to a racially gerrymandered map. In Easley v. Cromartie, the high court held the plaintiffs failed to meet the high bar for a racial-gerrymandering claim when they failed to produce an alternative map showing that a rational legislature sincerely driven by its professed partisan goals would have drawn a different map with greater racial balance. 

Without an alternative map, the court also found it difficult for plaintiffs to defeat the starting presumption the legislature acted in good faith.

Following the 2020 Census, South Carolina was tasked with redrawing its congressional district maps because of population shifts in two of its seven districts — Districts 1 and 6. The state Senate subcommittee responsible for drawing the new map issued a statement explaining the process would be guided by traditional districting principles along with the goal of creating a stronger Republican tilt in District 1.

To draw the new maps, the Senate turned to Will Roberts, a nonpartisan staffer with experience in drawing reapportionment plans. Roberts’ plan, also referred to as the enacted plan, achieved the legislature’s political goal by increasing District 1’s projected Republican vote share by 1.36% to 54.39%. The plan also raised the Black voting-age population, or BVAP, from 16.56% to 16.72%. The legislature adopted the plan, and the governor signed it into law.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and District 1 voter Taiwan Scott challenged the plan, alleging it resulted in racial gerrymanders in certain districts and in the dilution of the electoral power of the state’s Black voters. The three-judge district court found the state drew District 1 with a 17% BVAP target in mind in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and that this putative use of race to draw District 1 unlawfully diluted the Black vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court held the district court’s finding that race predominated in the design of District I in the enacted plan was clearly erroneous. 

It reasoned that, because the state’s principal legal argument — that the district court didn’t properly disentangle race from politics — is an attack on the factual basis of the district court’s findings, this case can be disposed on clear-error grounds. It found the district court clearly erred because the challengers didn’t satisfy the demanding burden of showing that the “legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles . . . to racial considerations.” 

The high court asserted the challengers provided no direct evidence of a racial gerrymander, and stated their circumstantial evidence is very weak. Instead, the Supreme Court noted the challengers relied on deeply flawed expert reports. And the challengers also didn’t offer an alternative map to show the legislature’s partisan goal could be achieved while raising the BVAP in District 1.

The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded in part.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined, and in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined as to all but Part III. Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part. Justice Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined.

Thomas asserted the court correctly concluded the judgment below must be reversed under Supreme Court precedents. “Although I find the analysis in Part III–C persuasive, clear-error review is not an invitation for the Court to ‘sift through volumes of facts’ and ‘argue its interpretation of those facts,’” he wrote in his concurring opinion. 

He went on to note, “These questions do not ask for legal answers, only political compromises. Judicial resolution of racial gerrymandering claims thus requires precisely the kind of ‘inconsistent, illogical, and ad hoc’ decisionmaking that we have said is beyond the judicial power.” 

The dissenting justices wrote the parties agreed the South Carolina Legislature wanted to make District 1 more Republican. They also agreed in pursuit of that aim, the legislature moved nearly 200,000 people into or out of the district. But, the dissenting justices asserted, the parties disagreed about how the people expelled from the district were chosen. 

The dissenting justices asserted the majority can’t “justify its ruling on the facts without in two ways reworking the law — each to impede racial-gerrymandering cases generally.” 

“The proper response to this case is not to throw up novel roadblocks enabling South Carolina to continue dividing citizens along racial lines,” the dissenting justices wrote. “It is to respect the plausible — no, the more than plausible — findings of the District Court that the State engaged in race-based districting. And to tell the State that it must redraw District 1, this time without targeting African-American citizens.”

Editor’s note: this article was updated May 28 to incorporate a May 28 published revision to the court’s opinion in Brown v. United States.

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