With the Supreme Court closed tomorrow for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, the justices met today, one day early, for their private conference. One week after adding 16 new cases to their docket, today the justices granted review in two more – potentially filling out their merits docket for the term.
The first grant came in District of Columbia v. Wesby, a case that presents important questions regarding the assessment of probable cause by police officers and qualified immunity. The case arose when police officers in Washington responded to a noise complaint about a vacant house, where they found scantily clad women and the smell of marijuana. No one seemed to know who owned the house or precisely what the occasion was, but some of the partygoers told police that they had been invited by someone named “Peaches” or “Tasty” – who was not at the party, but who admitted that she did not have the owner’s permission to use the house.
The partygoers were arrested for trespassing, but no charges were ever brought against them. The partygoers then filed a lawsuit, in which they alleged that the police lacked probable cause to arrest them because they had told police officers that they had been invited to the house and therefore did not intend to trespass.
The federal trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the partygoers and further ruled that the police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. The court of appeals denied the city’s motion for rehearing en banc; in dissent from that denial, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote (among other things) that this “should be a fairly easy case for qualified immunity.”
The court had relisted Wesby a whopping eight times. Multiple relists can often signal either that the justices are considering a summary reversal – that is, without briefing or oral argument on the merits – of the lower court’s decision or that a justice is writing a dissent from the denial of certiorari, but today the justices instead agreed to review the case on the merits.
The court also agreed to take on another case involving the scope of jurisdiction over companies that do business throughout the United States. Last week, it granted review in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, a case brought in Montana by two BNSF employees who contend that they were injured while working for the company outside Montana. Today’s grant comes in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, which began as a lawsuit alleging that the plaintiffs had suffered severe side effects from Plavix, a prescription drug manufactured by Bristol-Myers to prevent blood clots. Bristol-Myers urged the trial court to throw out claims by plaintiffs who do not live in California on the ground that the claims were unrelated to the company’s activities in California, but the lower courts allowed those claims (as well as claims by California residents, which are not at issue before the court) to go forward. Bristol-Myers asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the standard for determining when a lawsuit is sufficiently related to the defendant’s contacts with the state where the lawsuit is filed to give that state’s courts “specific jurisdiction” – that is, jurisdiction based on the defendant’s activities in the state that gave rise to the plaintiff’s claim.
Today’s cases could be scheduled for the court’s April sitting, which begins on April 17 and ends on April 26; the court’s new justice could be on the bench by then.