Court Stuff

June 17, 2014

It’s Court-time, that busy time in June when the U.S. Supreme Court gets ready for its summer vacation. (Is there any hope for getting away from the ag-based, nine-month school year, when one of our three governmental branches has the summer off?)

Here are a few cases recent cases that caught my attention.

In Clark v. Rameker, No. 13-299, the Court issued a unanimous opinion holding that an inherited IRA does not qualify as an exempt asset. Justice Sotomayor, in her opinion, looks at the characteristics of an inherited IRS—no money can be added, money must be withdrawn, and all money can be withdrawn at any time without penalties—and reached the conclusion that the assets belongs to creditors in a bankruptcy setting.

Retirement plans are protected from creditor claims in and out of bankruptcy. While this opinion only addresses inherited IRAs in the bankruptcy context, it’s relevance in the non-bankruptcy setting cannot be ignored. If your finances are edgy and you have/may have an inheritance in the not distant future, get professional advice.

The Court took a pass on Elmbrook School District v. Doe, No. 10-922. The case involves a school district that held graduation ceremonies in a “non-denominational, evangelical Christian church.” (Those are the words used by the majority opinion of the 7th Circuit, hearing the case en banc. In this instance that means 10 judges decided the case.) The trial court held that holding the graduation ceremony in the church does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (“Congress Shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion … .”). The 7th Circuit disagreed, 7-3, although all of the opinions—there are five, including the main opinion, a concurrence, and three dissents—seem to agree that the Court’s guidance in this area amounts to hash.

The Supreme Court takes cases for review if four justices vote aye on a certiorari petition. Here, there were less than four votes, and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented from the denial of review. So, no more clarity for this complex and emotionally charged portion of the First Amendment.

Here’s Abramski v. United States, No. 12-1493. Dueling opinions by Justices Kagan (for the five-justice majority) and Scalia (for the dissenters) address whether a man violates federal gun laws when he acts as a straw purchaser for someone who lawfully could have purchased the gun himself. Amy Howe’s Tuesday Roundup for SCOTUSblog provides links—first paragraph—to analysis, along with many more links regarding others recent cases.

And, finally, from last week there’s POM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca Cola Company, No. 12-761. A unanimous 8-0 opinion—Justice Kagan recused—grants corporations the right to enforce laws designed to require companies to properly brand food and drink products, and to avoid misleading claims. POM was not happy with Coca-Cola’s pomegranate-blueberry juice, basically comprised of apple and grape juice, with a touch of the labeled juices. A touch being less than 1%, by the way. Not an earth-shattering issue, but good facts can help, and with limited resources and governmental will to regulate, giving “regulatory” authority to private enterprises and the courts represents a “better than nothing” alternative.


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