This morning the justices added an important new case to their docket for next fall, on the constitutionality of the administrative process available to challenge patents that have already been issued. The court also summarily reversed a lower court’s decision in favor of a Virginia inmate who was sentenced to life in prison for a rape that he committed as a 16-year-old. But the justices once again failed to act on some high-profile cases, including two in which they have been asked to rule on gun rights and whether a Colorado man’s religious objections allow him to decline to make a cake for a same-sex marriage.
The newest case on the justices’ merits docket for the fall is Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group, another addition to the court’s seemingly steady diet of patent cases. The case is a challenge to the constitutionality of an administrative process known as inter partes review, an administrative mechanism that can be used to contest the validity of patents that have already been issued. Oil States Energy Services argues that, because patent owners have a right to have the validity of their patents resolved in court, in front of a jury, the inter partes process violates the Constitution. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which conducts the inter partes review, counters that there is no conflict between the inter partes process and the Constitution, but today’s grant signals that – at a minimum – the justices believe this is an issue in need of clarification.
In a short, unsigned opinion, the justices ruled unanimously in favor of Virginia in the case of Dennis LeBlanc, who in 2003 was sentenced to life in prison for the rape of a 62-year-old woman. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that the Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles who are convicted of offenses other than murder. LeBlanc went back to state court, where he argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham rendered his life sentence unconstitutional. But the state court disagreed. It pointed to Angel v. Commonwealth, in which the Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that a state program allowing older inmates to ask the parole board for a release satisfies Graham’s requirement that a state provide juvenile offenders with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
When his state-court appeals were unsuccessful, LeBlanc went to federal court, where he had more luck – at least at first. A federal district court granted his request for relief, finding “no possibility that fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts” with Graham, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed.
Today the Supreme Court reversed the 4th Circuit’s ruling. It emphasized that under the laws governing efforts by state prisoners to seek relief in federal courts, inmates must meet a high bar: They must show that the state court’s ruling “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” LeBlanc could not make this showing, the court concluded, because Graham did not decide whether a “geriatric release” program like Virginia’s could pass constitutional muster. Moreover, the court added, “it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a non-homicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole.” At the same time, the court made clear that its decision in LeBlanc was limited – and, in particular, that it was not deciding whether the “geriatric release” program is consistent with Graham and the Constitution.
But as has been the case so often in recent months, most of the attention centered on what was not on today’s order list. The justices once again did not act on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which Jack Phillips – a Colorado man who describes himself as a “cake artist” – has asked the court to weigh in on whether the state’s public accommodations law violates the First Amendment by requiring him to create custom wedding cakes for same-sex weddings, in violation of his religious beliefs. Phillips filed his petition for review last July, but the justices did not consider it at a private conference until February 24 of this year. Since then, they have relisted the case 13 times – or, as Marianne Goodland of The Colorado Independent puts it, a “baker’s dozen.” And Peruta v. California, in which the justices have been asked to decide whether there is a Second Amendment right to carry handgun outside the home for self-defense, was relisted today for the sixth time. The justices will meet for another conference on Thursday, and we expect them to announce orders from that conference on June 19.