The Supreme Court announced on Friday morning that it would postpone oral argument in Department of Justice v. House Committee on the Judiciary, the dispute over access to secret materials from the Mueller investigation that had been scheduled for Dec. 2. The news came as part of the orders released from the justices’ private conference on Friday. The justices also added two more cases, both involving the scope of law enforcement officials’ authority to search, to their argument calendar for the term.
The decision to put off the oral argument in the Mueller case granted a request made three days ago by the House Judiciary Committee. In a filing on Tuesday, the committee told the justices that once a new Congress and President-elect Joe Biden take office in January, it “will have to determine whether it wishes to continue” its efforts to obtain the materials – the redacted portions of the report filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the secret grand jury transcripts and materials on which those portions are based.
In a one-paragraph response on Thursday, Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall indicated that the government did not object to the committee’s request. Wall wrote that the government was “ready to proceed with argument on December 2, 2020 as scheduled, but will proceed however the Court chooses in light of the Committee’s motion.”
The two new cases that the court agreed to review both involve disputes over police conduct. The Fourth Amendment normally requires police to obtain a warrant for searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has carved out several exceptions to this general rule, including one for when police are serving a “community caretaking” function – activities that don’t have anything to do with fighting crime, but instead are focused on providing help. In Caniglia v. Strom, the justices on Friday agreed to decide whether the exception applies to the home.
The case arose after police officers went to the Cranston, Rhode Island, home of 68-year-old Edward Caniglia, when his wife requested a wellness check. After a local firefighter persuaded Caniglia to go to the hospital, police officers – believing that “Caniglia and others could be in danger” – entered the home and took Caniglia’s guns. Caniglia sued the city and police officers in federal court, arguing (among other things) that the police officers’ entry into his home and seizure of the guns without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court ruled that the police officers’ actions were covered by the “community caretaking” exception, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld that decision.
Caniglia went to the Supreme Court in August, where he argued that the justices should take up his case because the lower courts are “deeply divided” on the question whether the “community caretaking” exception applies to the home. The lower court’s decision is also simply wrong, he added, because the Supreme Court intended the exception to apply only to cars.
The city and police officers countered that there is no conflict among the lower courts, which have looked at the “unique facts” of each case and “routinely” allow officers to enter homes without a warrant in “dire” circumstances. Moreover, they added, the Supreme Court did not limit the exception to cars, and the Fourth Amendment does not prevent the police from entering homes to defuse potentially dangerous situations.
In United States v. Cooley, the justices will decide whether a police officer for a Native American tribe can detain and search a non-tribe member on a road within a reservation for a possible violation of state or federal law. The question comes to the court in the case of Joshua James Cooley, who was parked in his pickup truck on the side of a road within the Crow Reservation in Montana when Officer James Saylor of the Crow Tribe approached him in the early hours of Feb. 26, 2016. Cooley was indicted on weapons and drug charges, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the guns and drugs could not be used as evidence against him. The federal government appealed to the Supreme Court, which on Friday agreed to weigh in.
The cases granted on Friday will likely be argued sometime early next year. We expect more orders from Friday’s conference on Monday, Nov. 23, at 9:30 a.m.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.