In three weeks, the justices will meet for their “long conference,” at which they will consider the thousands of petitions for review that have accumulated since their last conference in late June. The justices will grant only a few of these petitions. This post is the fourth in a series taking a closer look at some of the petitions that have been distributed for the September 28 conference.
Nearly 60 years ago, the Supreme Court held in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors violate the Constitution when they do not turn over evidence that is favorable to the defendant and might affect the outcome of the case. In Blankenship v. United States, the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar coal company has asked the justices to decide how the Brady rule works in practice: Is a defendant required to show that he could not have obtained evidence that the prosecutors failed to turn over on his own?
The question comes to the court in the case of Donald Blankenship, who was the CEO of Massey Energy when a 2010 explosion at one of the company’s mines killed 29 people. Blankenship was charged with violating federal regulations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and with making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission; after a trial, a jury found him guilty of a misdemeanor charge, and he served a year in prison.
After Blankenship’s trial, officials in the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that two prosecutors in Blankenship’s case had “recklessly violated” their obligation to turn over evidence that might have cleared Blankenship. The government then provided Blankenship with over 1,000 pages of documents, including witness statements and memoranda describing interviews with high-ranking Massey employees that undercut the government’s theory that Blankenship had prioritized production over safety, leading to the 2010 explosion.
Blankenship returned to federal court, seeking to vacate his conviction. A federal magistrate judge recommended that Blankenship’s request be granted, but a federal district judge declined to do so. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger explained that because almost all of the witnesses whose statements had not been turned over had been on Blankenship’s own list of trial witnesses, Blankenship should have “looked” for their statements.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld Berger’s decision, Blankenship came to the Supreme Court in May, asking the justices to weigh in. Blankenship told the justices that the federal courts of appeals and state courts are divided on whether, to win on a Brady claim, a defendant must show that he could not have obtained the information that the government failed to turn over in some other way.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar urged the justices to deny review. Even if the lower courts are divided on the question that Blankenship has asked the court to take up, she wrote, it wouldn’t make a difference in this case because the lower courts found that Blankenship “undoubtedly” knew about the information that the government did not turn over. Moreover, she added, the court of appeals also concluded that Blankenship “elicited the substance of” the suppressed evidence at his trial.
In Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, the justices will consider a petition for review filed by Miguel Perez, a deaf student who says that a Michigan school district that failed for years to provide him with a qualified sign language, leaving him an “academic and social outcast.” Perez has asked the justices to decide whether and when federal education law required him to fully pursue his claims against the school district in administrative proceedings even when doing so would be pointless.
Perez, who is now 24, entered the Sturgis Public Schools when he was nine, after emigrating from Mexico. Perez never received a qualified sign language interpreter; instead, he was only assigned a classroom aide who lacked any training in working with deaf students. Just a few months before Perez – who consistently received grades that qualified him for the honor roll – expected to graduate in 2016, the school district told him for the first time that he would not receive a diploma.
Perez filed an administrative complaint against the school district. He alleged that the school district had violated both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires school districts to provide students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which (among other things) bars discrimination against children with disabilities in public schools. A hearing officer dismissed the ADA claim, on the ground that he lacked the power to hear it, and the school board eventually settled Perez’s IDEA claim by agreeing that he could attend the Michigan School of the Deaf.
Perez then brought his ADA claim in federal court, but the district court dismissed it because he had not fully pursued it in the state administrative proceedings after settling his IDEA claims. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld that ruling, Perez went to the Supreme Court, which in June asked the federal government to weigh in.
In a brief filed on August 24, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar urged the justices to take up the case. The 6th Circuit, Prelogar wrote, was wrong when it ruled that Perez was required to pursue his ADA claim in administrative proceedings even after he settled his IDEA claim. The IDEA, Prelogar stressed, allows claims to be brought in federal court under the IDEA without exhausting them when it would be futile to do so. The text of the IDEA makes clear, Prelogar continued, that its futility exception applies equally to claims that are not brought under the IDEA. The justices should also grant review, Prelogar added, to decide whether the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement even applies to non-IDEA claims, like Perez’s, that seek money damages, which are not available under the IDEA.
In Florida v. United States, the state has asked the justices to weigh in on whether the federal government can sue it for violating a part of the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.
The dispute began in July 2013, when the federal government filed a lawsuit against Florida under Title II of the ADA, which – among other things – specifies that “any person alleging discrimination” has the same “remedies, procedures, and rights” that are available under two other laws, the Rehabilitation Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by recipients of federal funds. The federal government contended that, as a result of Florida’s Medicaid policies, hundreds of children with complex medical needs in the state were being unnecessarily placed in nursing facilities.
A federal district court dismissed the DOJ’s complaint in 2016, holding that the federal government did not have the power to sue under Title II. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed three years later. After the full court of appeals declined to rehear the case, Florida came to the Supreme Court in April 2022, asking the justices to take up the dispute.
Cautioning that the federal government has “asserted sweeping authority to reshape all manner of state programs,” Florida urged the justices to grant review. Pointing to the text of Title II, the state argued that it makes clear that rights and remedies are only available to “a person” – a label that does not apply to the federal government.
The 11th Circuit’s ruling allowing the dispute to go forward also conflicts with three different lines of cases addressing the federal government’s power to sue, Florida contended. First, the state noted, the Supreme Court has held that the term “person” does not include the federal government. Second, the state added, the federal government and federal agencies do not have the right to sue unless Congress has specifically said so. And third, the state concluded, Congress must be clear if it intends for the federal government to “dramatically intrude” on functions that the state has traditionally carried out.
The federal government assured the justices that there is no reason for them to get involved. The state’s reliance on the idea that the federal government cannot bring this lawsuit because it is not a “person alleging discrimination” “misreads the decision below,” wrote U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar. The 11 th Circuit’s ruling does not rest on the idea that the United States is a “person,” Prelogar insisted. Rather, the court of appeals ruled that the federal government can bring its lawsuit under Title II because it gives “any person alleging discrimination” the same “remedies, procedures, and rights” provided in the Rehabilitation Act and the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, Prelogar added, even if the federal government did not have the right to file a lawsuit under Title II of the ADA, it could still bring a lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act, which contains “materially identical substantive provisions” and can also “be enforced through suits by the Attorney General.”