Posts Tagged ‘Duncan’

A divided three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit held today that three of President Obama’s appointments to the NLRB were invalid because they did not take place during an intersession recess of the Senate. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote the opinion for the majority in NLRB v. Enterprise Leasing Co. SE, LLC (the lead case on the caption). Judge Duncan joined in full and wrote a separate concurrence. Judge Diaz dissented from the constitutional holding (but concurred in other matters).

Although Judge Hamilton and Judge Duncan were appointed by Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43, respectively, while Judge Diaz was appointed by President Obama, the best explanation for the differing outcomes tracks methodological rather than partisan political differences. The majority and dissenting opinions exhibit vastly different approaches to constitutional interpretation. The majority emphasizes text and history while the dissent is avowedly pragmatic and functional (indeed the most explicitly functionalist opinion by Judge Diaz that I can recall).

The Fourth Circuit’s decision bodes poorly for the Administration when the Supreme Court addresses these issues next Term in NLRB v. Noel Canning. This assessment is based not simply on the bottom-line conclusion reached by the Fourth Circuit, but on how the opinions were reasoned. On issues like these, the majority of the Supreme Court is methodologically closer to Judge Hamilton than Judge Diaz. It is difficult to see a majority of the Court hewing to the reasoning and conclusions reached by Judge Diaz in this case.

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The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Chesterfield County (VA) on free speech, free exercise, RLUIPA, and equal protection challenges brought by Patricia Moore-King. Ms. Moore-King, who practices spiritual counseling as Psychic Sophie, had challenged various Chesterfield County licensing and zoning restrictions that apply to her because she fits within the County Code’s definition of a “fortune-teller.” (For news coverage of the oral argument, see here.) Judge Duncan wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wilkinson joined.

From a doctrinal perspective, two noteworthy aspects of  Moore-King v. County of Chesterfield are its discussion of the professional speech doctrine and its analysis of the difference between “religion” and a “way of life.”

With respect to professional speech, Judge Duncan writes that “the relevant inquiry to determine whether to apply the professional speech doctrine is whether the speaker is providing personalized advice in a private setting to a paying client or instead engages in public discussion and commentary.”

With respect to the definition of religion, Judge Duncan distinguishes between “personal and philosophical choices consistent with a way of life,” on one hand, and “deep religious convictions shared by an organized group deserving of constitutional solicitude,” on the other hand. The court determined that Moore-King’s practices fit in the philosophical-not-religious category: “That a wide variety of sources–the New Age movement, the teachings of Jesus, natural healing, the study of metaphysics, etc.–inform and shape Moore-King’s ‘inner flow’ does not transform her personal philosophical beliefs into a religion any more than did Thoreau’s commitment to Transcendentalism and idealist philosophy render his views religious.”

From a practice perspective, it may be worth noting that Chesterfield County prevailed even though the court knocked down its lead defense to the free-speech claim. That defense rested on two premises, both of which the panel rejected: “(1) fortune telling is inherently deceptive; and (2) inherently deceptive speech warrants no protection under the First Amendment.”

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In Tobey v. Jones, the Fourth Circuit needed to decide whether Aaron Tobey’s First-Amendment-based Bivens claim for money damages against two TSA officers (Jones and Smith, their real last names) survived the federal government’s 12(b)(6) motion. These officers (TSOs) radioed for police assistance after Tobey, having been selected for “enhanced secondary screening” at a Richmond (VA) International Airport security screening checkpoint, stripped down to his running shorts and socks to reveal portions of the Fourth Amendment written on his bare chest. When the airport police arrived, they arrested Tobey. They then questioned him and ultimately released him after about an hour. Tobey boarded his plane without any further difficulty. A few months later he sued the TSOs (Jones and Smith), the airport police, the airport commission, and some higher-level officials at the commission, the Department of Homeland Security, and the TSA.

The district court (Judge Hudson, EDVA) dismissed all of the claims except for a First Amendment-based claim that Smith and Jones “caused [Tobey’s] seizure . . . because of the message conveyed by [his] silent, nonviolent expression of objection to the TSA’s screening policies . . . and thereby engaged in content and/or viewpoint discrimination.” The government appealed this denial.

A split panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Judge Gregory, joined by Judge Duncan, held that Tobey’s complaint “plausibly set forth a claim that the TSA agents violated his clearly established First Amendment rights.” Judge Wilkinson authored an empassioned dissent.

Eugene Volokh and most commenters at Volokh Conspiracy have expressed agreement with the panel majority’s analysis. Are they  wrong about what “sounds right”? I think so. Not because of disagreement with Volokh’s take on the First Amendment, but because he focuses on First Amendment principles apart from the appropriate pleading rules and the particular facts of the case.

Viewed through the lens of Twombly and Iqbal, Tobey needed to plead facts rendering it plausible that the TSOs called the police because of disagreement with his message rather than because he stripped off his shirt and pants in the screening area. He did no such thing. Indeed, according to the district court, Tobey’s counsel conceded at oral argument that his behavior was bizarre, “and that the TSOs were justified in summoning the RIC Police for further inquiry.” It seems to me that should be the end of it, for that is all the TSOs are alleged to have done–summon the police. When people act in a concededly “bizarre” fashion in an airport screening area, the TSOs should call the police and let them handle the bizarreness. Whether the police should have handcuffed and arrested Tobey is a separate question from whether the TSOs should have called the police to deal with Tobey. And it is only that latter question that was at issue in the Fourth Circuit appeal.

I should also add that Judge Wilkinson’s take on the effect of taking off one’s shirt and pants in an airport screening area seems better grounded in the reality of modern air travel than Judge Gregory’s. Judge Wilkinson wrote that “[o]utside a few limited contexts, such as public swimming pools, removing one’s shirt and pants will always attract other people’s attention and distract them from whatever they happen to be doing.” Judge Gregory responds that “[p]assengers routinely remove clothing at an airport screening station, and in fact are required to do so by TSA regulations.” But this misses the point. Passengers do not routinely go bare-chested, nor are they are required to do so by TSA regulations. Judge Wilkinson may have overstated the case slightly in asserting that “[i]t is sheer fancy to think that defendants had anything on their minds other than eliminating the distraction that Tobey’s state of dishabille was causing.” But if so, only slightly. And in any event it was Tobey’s burden to allege facts making the alternative retaliation-for-protest explanation plausible.

Judge Gregory’s appeal to “autonomy and the celebration of difference” seems misplaced at an airport screening point. And he surely overstates the case when he writes that “[f]or us to hold today that it is reasonable to cause an arrest due to bizarre behavior and nothing more would violate the most basic [tenets] of our Constitution.” For that redescribes what the TSOs were alleged to have done (call the police) with what followed from that call through the decisions and actions of the police (Tobey’s arrest). Judge Gregory writes that “[i]t is an undoubtedly natural consequence of reporting a person to the police that the person will be arrested; especially in the scenario we have here, where TSA and RIC police act in close concert.” Yes, here, an arrest was a consequence. But to call it an “undoubtedly natural consequence” is to let the adverb and the adjective do too much work, depriving the police of any independent agency. Or so it seems to me.


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The Supreme Court today unanimously overturned a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees in a civil rights case. The Court in Lefemine v. Wideman vacated a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of “prevailing party” attorney’s fees to a plaintiff who had secured declaratory and injunctive relief but no money damages.

Unanimous summary decisions like this one are a problem for any inferior court. Yet some courts deciding some issues seem more likely to result in such decisions (such as the Sixth Circuit operating under AEDPA or the Ninth Circuit examining qualified immunity). The Fourth Circuit has generally steered clear of this kind of unanimous overturning. What happened here?

It looks like the Fourth Circuit panel simply misapplied Supreme Court precedent, in large part because of an earlier circuit precedent (from 1993) that also (but without correction) misapplied Supreme Court precedent.


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The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a First Amendment challenge to Arlington, Virginia’s prohibition of a doggy daycare’s mural near the Shirlington Dog Park. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion for the Court in Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, which was joined in by Judge Duncan and Judge Keenan. The challenger was represented by the Institute for Justice, which has a case page with background and more information, together with a response to today’s decision.

My preliminary reaction is that the opinion’s First Amendment analysis is overly deferential to the government. In assessing whether the challenged sign ordinance is content-based or content-neutral, the opinion follows the regrettable path of focusing almost exclusively on whether the ordinance was enacted because of disagreement with the message conveyed. The most underdeveloped part of the opinion, however, is its application of intermediate scrutiny, particularly the narrow tailoring prong. The county asserted that its ordinance serves two interests: promoting traffic safety and enhancing the County’s aesthetics. The county’s enforcement of its ordinance with respect to the challenged mural raises serious questions about how the ordinance is “narrowly tailored” to serve these interests, questions that the opinion simply does not address. The county told Wag More Dogs that the mural would not run afoul of the ordinance if (1) it depicted anything other than pictures relating to the doggy daycare business, or (2) it included the phrase “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area.” Given the conceded lawfulness of hypothetical alternative murals that comply with either (1) or (2), it is hard to see how the ordinance is tailored at all, much less narrowly tailored, to the promotion of traffic safety or the enhancement of the County’s aesthetics. Instead of examining this issue, however, the opinion conclusorily asserts that the ordinance’s sign and location restrictions do no more than eliminate the exact source of the evil it sought to remedy.

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By 11-3 vote, the en banc Fourth Circuit in Al Shimari v. CACI International has dismissed the consolidated appeals of military contractors who worked at Abu Ghraib and other locations in Iraq. The contractors had appealed from the denial of their motions to dismiss claims brought by Iraqi nationals. The defendants’ motions to dismiss were premised on various grounds related to their status as military contractors in a theatre of armed conflict.

Judge King wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Motz, Gregory, Duncan, Agee, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, Diaz, and Floyd joined.

Judge Duncan authored a concurring opinion, in which Judge Agee joined, urging the district courts to “give due consideration to the appellants’ immunity and preemption arguments . . . which are far from lacking in force.”

Judge Wynn wrote a concurrence emphasizing that the court’s jurisdictional opinion “offers no guidance to the district court on the underlying merits of these matters.” (While this is true as a technical matter, the lawyers on both sides will undoubtedly parse the language very closely for future use in the litigation.)

Judge Wilkinson, Judge Niemeyer, and Judge Shedd dissented. Their grounds for dissent were set forth in dissenting opinions by Judge Niemeyer and Judge Wilkinson.

All told, the opinions take up 114 pages. It will take some time to digest them. In the normal case, the dismissal of appeals for lack of jurisdiction would mean the decisions go back down to the district court. But these consolidated cases are not normal cases, and they very well could end up in the Supreme Court next Term. If the contractors do seek Supreme Court review, that will place the Obama Administration in an awkward position given the “equivocal” nature of the position the federal government has thus far taken in the litigation (as observed by various Fourth Circuit judges at oral argument).

For some flavor of the passion aroused by this jurisdictional ruling, consider the following excerpts from the opening of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent:

The actions here are styled as traditional ones and wrapped in the venerable clothing of the common law. Even on common law terms, however, they are demonstrably incorrect, and the impact which tort doctrine will have on military operations and international relations magnifies the difficulties immeasurably. I dare say none of us have seen any litigation quite like this and we default if we accept uncritically or entertain indefinitely this novel a violation of the most basic and customary precepts of both common and constitutional law.

Sadly, the majority’s opinion does precisely this. After reading its decision, one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue before us is a simple jurisdictional question arising out of ordinary tort suits. But these are not routine appeals that can be quickly dismissed through some rote application of the collateral order doctrine. This case instead requires us to decide whether the contractors who assist our military on the battlefield will be held accountable through tort or contract, and that seemingly sleepy question of common law remedies goes to the heart of our constitutional separation of powers. Tort suits place the oversight of military operations in an unelected judiciary, contract law in a politically accountable executive. And in the absence of some contrary expression on the part of the Article I legislative branch, the basic principles of Article II require that contractual, not tort, remedies apply.

The majority emphatically decides this weighty question by pretending not to decide, as its dismissal of these appeals gives individual district courts the green light to subject military operations to the most serious drawbacks of tort litigation. But arrogating power to the Third Branch in a contest over military authority is the wrong call under our Constitution, and there is no garb for this decision so benign as to obscure the import of what the majority has done.

We tread this territory at our peril. This decision is contrary to decades of Supreme Court admonitions warning federal courts off interference with international relations. Of course military contractors should be held accountable, and it is important that a framework be set in place to accomplish this task. But instead of establishing that framework, the majority succumbs to mere drift and in so doing places courts in the most damaging and least defensible legal landscape possible. None of us have any idea where exactly all this is headed or whether the damage inflicted on military operations will be only marginal or truly severe. At a minimum, however, today’s decision breaches a line that was respected by our predecessors on courts high and low. I would not cross this boundary even if the collateral order doctrine could cloak my steps. With all respect for my fine colleagues, I would remand these actions to the district court with direction that they be dismissed.

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The Fourth Circuit’s decision today in Belk, Inc. v. Meyer Corp. provides a detailed primer–at one party’s expense, unfortunately–on the requirements of Rule 50(b) and various other issue-preservation matters. Judge Davis’s opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Duncan and Judge Keenan, affirms a jury verdict on federal trade dress infringement and North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act claims that resulted in an award of $1.26 million. Because so few business disputes actually make it to trial in federal court, and of those that do, so few result in published appellate opinions, the opinion is worth reading is a refresher for anyone interested in presenting issues so that they are properly preserved for appeal.

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The Fourth Circuit yesterday issued a decision in a messy dispute among plaintiffs’ lawyers, car dealers, and car purchasers over the use of South Carolina’s FOIA law to obtain personal information about car purchasers for use in litigation against car dealers. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court in Maracich v. Spears, in which Judge Duncan and Judge Wynn joined.

The court’s summary of its holding:

[W]e hold that the district court erred in ruling that the Lawyers did not engage in solicitation. Yet, the Lawyers indisputably made permissible use of the Buyers’ personal information protected by the DPPA, here, for use “in connection with [litigation],” including “investigation in anticipation of litigation.” 18 U.S.C. §2721(b)(4). Ultimately, the Buyers’ damages claims asserted under the DPPA fail as a matter of law, notwithstanding the fact that the Buyers can identify a distinct prohibited use (mass solicitation without consent) that might be supported by evidence in the record. In short, where, as a matter of settled state law and practice, as here, solicitation is an accepted and expected element of, and is inextricably intertwined with, conduct satisfying the litigation exception under the DPPA, such solicitation is not actionable by persons to whom the personal information pertains.

The opinion notes that its decision in favor of the lawyers largely tracks the approach of the Eleventh Circuit in Rine v. Imagitas, 590 F.3d 1215, 1226 (11th Cir. 2009). The buyers relied on the Third Circuit’s decision in Pichler v. UNITE, 542 F.3d 380 (3d Cir. 2008), but the court thought that decision to be “plainly distinguishable.”

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The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous opinion today in United States v. Castillo-Pena presents an interesting fact pattern for appreciating the line between questions of fact and questions of law.

The case was a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 911 for falsely claiming U.S. citizenship. An immigration agent who interviewed Castillo-Pena described his claim to have a valid Puerto Rican birth certificate. The agent further testified, “I told him, well, if you would like to make a statement that you are a U.S. citizen, we can do that, and he said yes, I would like to.” The agent then took out a piece of paper, and Castillo-Pena apparently changed his mind, stating that he didn’t want to sign anything without a lawyer present. When prosecuted for falsely claiming U.S. citizenship, Castillo-Pena asserted that “when [the immigration agent] asked him whether he would like to make a statement that he was a U.S. citizens, and he responded ‘yes, I would like to,’ this did not constitute a false representation of U.S. citizenship, but rather a statement of future intent to make a claim of citizenship.” The Fourth Circuit concluded that “whether Castillo-Pena’s answer constituted a present claim of citizenship . . . was a dispute appropriately evaluated by the jury as trier of fact.”

Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Duncan and Judge Agee joined.

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today affirmed the conviction of William White, the white supremacist “Commander” of the American National Socialist Workers’ Party, for threatening to injure or intimidate in violation of federal law. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion for the court in United States v. White. Judge Duncan joined in Judge Niemeyer’s opinion for the court and also authored a separate concurrence. Judge Floyd dissented.

The principal issue in the appeal is the appropriate mens rea for a “true threat” not entitled to First Amendment protection. White urged the Fourth Circuit to follow the Ninth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Cassel, 408 F.3d 622 (9th Cir. 2005), by adopting a specific-intent-to-threaten requirement. The Fourth Circuit held that prior circuit precedent foreclosed that approach, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), was not a superseding contrary decision that required reexamination of circuit precedent.

The opinions feature extensive First Amendment analysis and include citations not only Supreme Court and Circuit Court of Appeals decisions, but also a student law review note, an article by Eugene Volokh, and an article by Frederick Schauer, among other authorities.

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A Maryland jury awarded $2 million for lead poisoning of an infant girl at a property in Baltimore. The award was reduced to $850,000 under a Maryland law limiting non-economic damages. The plaintiff sought to collect the full $850,000 from Penn National, an insurance company that provided liability insurance to one of the property’s owners for a portion of the period of lead exposure. Penn National filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court seeking a declaration that it was responsible for paying only the pro rata portion of the damages award corresponding to the months during the exposure period that its policy covered the property.

In Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance v. Roberts, issued today, the Fourth Circuit unanimously held that the insurer was responsible only for a pro rata  portion of the damages awarded and that the district court had improperly expanded the number of months that the insurer’s coverage was effective. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Duncan and Judge Gergel (D.S.C., sitting by designation) joined.

Some excerpts:


At bottom, an insurance contract is an agreement to accept a premium in exchange for a contractually defined risk. If an insurance company cannot limit its risk to a defined period, it will be unable to determine the precise risks assumed under a contract, which in turn will prevent it from accurately pricing coverage. Not only will this hinder rational underwriting, but the higher premiums necessary to compensate for this rising uncertainty will be passed on to policyholders everywhere. Because we do not wish to force “insureds to bear the expense of increased premiums necessitated by the erroneous expansion of their insurers’ potential liabilities,” see Bao v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 532, 541 (D. Md. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), we refuse to adopt Roberts’s approach.

* * *

We recognize that Roberts unfortunately may not be able
to recover her entire judgment from either [of the property’s actual owners]. It is a dispiriting but inescapable fact that sometimes really bad things happen, and those responsible are either insolvent or inadequately insured. But that regrettable reality does not allow us to ignore Maryland law, to hold an insurance company to a contractual provision to which it never agreed, or to scramble together whole areas of law that are conceptually distinct. The district court was right to allocate Penn National’s liability using the pro-rata time on-the-risk approach.

* * *

The law may not be difficult here, but the human costs incurred are undeniably hard. It is sad that Roberts may recover only partially on her judgment. The jury obviously believed this child suffered significant brain damage from lead poisoning and that Attsgood and Gondrezick were liable. The condition of the property and the failure to procure appropriate insurance were the property owners’ responsibility. Roberts’s misfortune cannot be laid at Penn National’s feet, for that company has not disputed that it must pay that portion of the judgment to which its policy applied. To place the entire judgment on the insurer would be chaotic, rewarding those who decline to purchase adequate coverage and ultimately punishing those who do. This would lead in turn to more uncovered risks and lessened opportunities for the recompense of serious loss.

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The Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, heard oral arguments this morning in two cases asserting civil damages claims against military contractors for their activities at Abu Ghraib and other locations in the Iraq war zone. (A short write-up of the now-vacated panel decisions is available here, and more extensive  pre-argument discussions of various issues arising out of the panel opinions can be found at Lawfare here, here, here, and here.)

I attended the argument and came away with some (admittedly impressionistic) impressions that might be of interest to those following the cases who could not make it to Richmond for the argument:

– Almost all of the argument and questioning focused on whether the appellate court had jurisdiction. There was some discussion of the correctness (or not) of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Saleh v. Titan Corp., 580 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2009), dismissing similar claims under a form of “battlefield preemption.” But most of that discussion was about the proper characterization of the doctrine: Is preemption the right way to think about the doctrine, or is it closer to an immunity? And there was much discussion of whether the contractors had a substantial claim to derivative immunity.

– Given how the argument went, it would be surprising if the court were to conclude both (1) that it has jurisdiction, and (2) that the district court properly ruled in allowing the claims against the contractors to go forward. If the Fourth Circuit concludes that it has appellate jurisdiction, the merits of the ruling are likely to be in the contractors’ favor.

– BUT it is difficult to make any confident predictions given that several of the judges either did not ask any questions or asked only one or two, leaving little to observe about their case-specific inclinations.

– Judge Niemeyer and Judge Shedd, responsible for the panel opinions, mounted vigorous questioning designed to show that a remand for discovery was not only unnecessary but also would defeat the very interests to be protected by the immunity doctrine whose applicability they needed to decide, as well as undermining some of the federal interests protected by the preemption doctrine at issue. Judge Wilkinson’s questioning revealed him to be aligned with Judge Niemeyer and Judge King on these issues.

– Judge King, author of the panel dissents, led the questioning for the jurisdictional skeptics. At various times, questions by Judge Wynn, and to a lesser extent by Judge Gregory, Judge Motz, and Judge Davis, revealed likely alignment with Judge King on this point.

– Judge Duncan asked a couple of questions that appeared to be aimed at some sort of middle ground that would allow the Fourth Circuit to dismiss for lack of appellate jurisdiction but still provide guidance to the district court that, on remand, it needs to give more weight to the federal interests threatened by further litigation of these claims. But Judge Wilkinson asked a question suggesting that, if the Fourth Circuit dismisses for lack of jurisdiction, the Fourth Circuit risks taking itself out of involvement until after trial.

– Some of the judges appeared receptive to a remand for lack of jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine (the appellant’s theory of jurisdiction) with strong suggestions to the district court that it certify an interlocutory appeal under 1292(b). Judge Motz suggested that upholding jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine would create a circuit split. Earlier in the argument, Judge Motz observed that the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow expansion of the collateral order doctrine was analogous to its treatment of Bivens claims.

– The federal government had a rough day. At the court’s invitation, the federal government had filed an amicus brief. (See here for Steve Vladeck’s summary of the government’s brief.) Counsel for the government, Thomas Byron, had an excellent presence and remained poised and articulate throughout. But the court was clearly not enamored with the federal government’s seeming attempt to have things both ways. When counsel for the government began with a customary expression of pleasure at the opportunity to appear at the invitation of the court, Judge Motz noted that she was “surprised” to hear that given that the brief filed by the government was “equivocal” about the issues. Later on, Judge Wilkinson said that he agreed with Judge Motz, that he thought the government was offering the “most obscure, equivocal kind of presentation . . . .” Judge Motz then interjected that she didn’t say quite that, and Judge Shedd (I think) stated something along the lines of “it sure sounded like that over here.” (Note: It’s hard to convey a flavor of how this all went over in the courtroom, so it’s probably worthwhile for those interested to listen to the recording of oral argument when it is available next week.) Although Judge Motz dissociated herself from some of the more strongly negative characterizations of the government’s position offered by Judge Wilkinson, it seemed that even at the end of argument, Judge Motz was not completely satisfied with the government’s argument. This was apparent from a question she asked about the government’s understanding of Dow v. Johnson, 100 U.S. 158 (1879), which involves the non-susceptibility of military actors to answer in civil tribunals for actions in warfare. She asked government counsel, somewhat skeptically, to explain the following statement from the government’s brief: “Dow and the policies it reflects may well inform the ultimate disposition of these claims. But we are not prepared at this point to conclude that the contractor defendants have demonstrated a right to immediate review of their contentions based on Dow alone.”

– Notwithstanding the difficulties faced by the federal government, it is conceivable that something close to the federal government’s position with respect to jurisdiction could prevail, leading to another interlocutory appeal not too far down the road. As previously noted, however, it is difficult to make any confident predictions given the sheer number of judges (14) and the limited amount of information that can be gleaned from the contents of questions.

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The Fourth Circuit today unanimously affirmed the dismissal of a damages claim brought against several high-ranking government officials by Jose Padilla and his mother, Estela Lebron. Judge Wilkinson authored the opinion in Lebron v. Rumsfeld, in which Judge Motz and Judge Duncan joined.

Ken Anderson of The Volokh Conspiracy has flagged some early critical commentary by Steve Vladeck has some early critical commentary at Lawfare, which will be the best one-stop destination for quick expert analyses of the decision. I have not yet read Judge Wilkinson’s opinion in full, but the outcome is entirely unsurprising under existing law. I assume that parts would have been written differently if Judge Motz or Judge Duncan had written the opinion, but the unanimity of that particular three-judge panel is a strong indicator that the proposed Bivens action never had a chance.

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The Fourth Circuit’s decision yesterday in United States v. Ramos-Cruz held that the government’s withholding from the defense of the actual names of two prosecution witnesses did not violate the Confrontation Clause in the Sixth Amendment. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Floyd concurred in the judgment, reasoning that the use of pseudonymous witnesses violated the Sixth Amendment, but that the constitutional violation was harmless error.

For criminal proceduralists, Judge Floyd’s dissent in this case looks like a must-read opinion. Some excerpts:

I do not take lightly the safety concerns accompanying the decisions made by Juan Diaz and Jose Perez—the two witnesses who testified using pseudonyms—to testify against Ramos-Cruz. As the record reflects, MS-13 has demonstrated its willingness to engage in violent reprisal against witnesses who testify against its members. There is no denying that by agreeing to testify against Ramos-Cruz, Diaz and Perez exposed themselves to danger. Most assuredly, requiring them to state their true names in open court would have made it easier for MS-13 to target them and their families. Safety concerns were thus real and valid.

We must recognize, however, that these concerns inhere in many prosecutions of defendants who are members of violent criminal organizations. The sad truth is that, in this respect, the situation presented in today’s case is not rare. Gangs often employ violence as a means of intimidating witnesses. Laura Perry, Note, What’s in a Name?, 46 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1563, 1580 (2009); Joan Comparet-Cassani, Balancing the Anonymity of Threatened Witnesses Versus a Defendant’s Right of Confrontation: The Waiver Doctrine After Alvarado, 39 San Diego L. Rev. 1165, 1194-96 (2002). Witness intimidation is a serious problem of an alarming magnitude, and it plagues many of our communities. See Alvarado, 5 P.3d at 222 & n.14; Comparet-Cassani, supra, at 1194-204. As a result, the prosecution of members of violent gangs—such as this prosecution of Ramos-Cruz—will often trigger safety concerns for many of the witnesses involved.

Nevertheless, in addressing these concerns, we cannot undermine our constitutional commitment to ensuring that criminal defendants, even those accused of belonging to violent criminal organizations, receive a fair trial. That means they must be allowed to rigorously test the government’s evidence, including all of its witnesses, in an adversarial proceeding before a jury. See Craig, 497 U.S. at 845; See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 685 (1984). I am unconvinced that they are able to do so if the government can completely withhold the true names of its witnesses throughout the trial.

Access to the true names of the government’s witnesses is critical to ensuring that a criminal defendant is able to rigorously test their testimony in an adversarial manner. As noted, effective cross-examination often entails challenging the witness’s credibility. Hence, the opportunity for effective cross-examination, which the Sixth Amendment guarantees, includes the opportunity to challenge the witness’s credibility. See Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. at 679-80. But without a government witness’s true name, the criminal defendant is unable to perform the type of investigation—whether in court or out of court—necessary to be able to challenge his credibility. See Smith, 390 U.S. at 131. The criminal defendant cannot explore the witness’s background and qualifications to discover any facts that might reflect poorly on his credibility. See Alvarado, 5 P.3d at 221. In effect, denying a criminal defendant knowledge of the true names of the government’s witnesses severely inhibits his ability to perform what is often the most potent aspect of effective cross-examination: impeachment. In my opinion, because completely forbidding a criminal defendant from learning a witness’s true name prevents the opportunity for effective cross-examination, it denies the defendant a fundamental aspect of a fair trial.

My concerns with completely denying criminal defendants access to the true names of the witnesses testifying against them extend beyond practical consequences. Allowing the use of anonymous witnesses also undermines the perception that our criminal trials are open and even contests. Instead, it creates the impression that our criminal trials contain clandestine aspects that operate to provide the government with an upper hand. It does so by suggesting that convictions can be “based on the charges of . . . unknown—and hence unchallengeable—individuals,” Lee, 476 U.S. at 540, even if they can be physically seen. Simply put, obtaining a conviction by using anonymous witnesses appears eerie and covert, and does not inspire confidence in the promise that our criminal trials are open and even endeavors.

Interestingly, the majority opinion does not directly address the bulk of Judge Floyd’s constitutional arguments on their merits, but largely defers to the court’s prior unpublished opinion in United States v. Zelaya addressing the propriety of these witnesses’ testimony in a different case. Although Judge Floyd ultimately concurred in the judgment because he held that the Sixth Amendment error was harmless, I would not be surprised to see the Fourth Circuit decide to consider this issue en banc.

The majority opinion also discusses the standard of review for allegedly erroneous jury instructions (including a detailed discussion of harmless error) and the elements of the federal witness-tampering statute. Read the whole thing.

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The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the denial of discovery on a selective prosecution claim related to Project Exile, a federal-state partnership that targets convicted felons in possession of firearms in the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan area. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion in United States v. Venable, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge King joined.

The opinion begins as follows:

Appellant James Venable was indicted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia (“United States Attorney’s Office”) on the charge of possessing a firearm while being a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Venable, an African American, moved to dismiss the indictment against him, claiming that the United States Attorney’s Office selected him for prosecution under a federal-state law enforcement initiative known as Project Exile because of his race, in violation of the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. As part of the motion, Venable sought discovery into the criteria and procedures used by the government in deciding to prosecute him in federal court while two other individuals, both white, who were also felons in possession of the same firearms as him, were not. The district court concluded that Venable had failed to satisfy his rigorous burden to obtain discovery on his selective prosecution claim. On appeal, Venable requests that we reverse the district court’s order denying his motion for discovery and remand this case for discovery and an evidentiary hearing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

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The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion yesterday that appears to cap long-running litigation over how the government should pay for brain damage caused to a child by government doctors. The specific issue on appeal was whether the government could obtain a reversionary interest in the $22,823,718 trust awarded for future care costs. The Fourth Circuit said yes. Judge Motz wrote the opinion in Cibula v. United States, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Duncan joined. (Note: This is the second time that this case has been to the Fourth Circuit. For background on the litigation, see Cibula v. United States, 551 F.3d 316 (4th Cir. 2009).)

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In the last two weeks of 2011, the Fourth Circuit issued five unpublished opinions after argument, two in criminal cases and three in civil cases, all unanimous. The court affirmed in three cases, reversed in one, and affirmed in part and vacated in part in the fifth case.

In United States v. Davis, the court affirmed denial of a motion to suppress notwithstanding the appellant’s argument that the officers extended the scope and duration of a traffic stop beyond the circumstances justifying it. A panel consisting of Judge Niemeyer, Judge Duncan, and Judge Floyd issued  a per curiam opinion.

In United States v. Buczkowski, a panel consisting of Chief Judge Traxler, Judge Agee, and Judge Diaz reduced twenty-seven counts of transporting child pornography down to one. The unpublished per curiam opinion begins as follows:

Daniel Buczkowski was convicted of one count of possessing  child pornography, see 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), and twenty-seven counts of transportation of child pornography in  interstate or foreign commerce, see 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(1).  Buczkowski appeals, challenging the convictions and sentences imposed on the transportation counts only. While we find the  government’s evidence sufficient to establish that Buczkowski transported child pornography, that evidence established only a  single act of transportation. Accordingly, we affirm the  conviction and sentence on the first transportation count,  vacate the remaining transportation convictions and sentences, and remand for resentencing.

In Miller v. Montgomery County, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a dismissal for lack of standing. Miller sought to challenge the denial of an application for an exemption from Montgomery County’s Conservation Law relating to certain trees that Miller intended to harvest, but the landowner rather than Miller signed the application. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Gregory joined.

In Young Again Products, Inc. v. Acord, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the imposition of sanctions and a civil contempt order. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Motz concurred.

In Trice, Geary & Myers, LLC v. CAMICO Mutual Insurance Company, a Fourth Circuit panel unanimously reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of an insurance company, holding that claims brought against a policyholder triggered a duty to defend. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Diaz joined.

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Judge Wilkinson wrote an opinion for a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit last week affirming the dismissal of an action brought by the owner of approximately 100,000 shares of Wachovia Corporation against the bank and four of its senior executives. Judge Motz and Judge Duncan joined in the opinion.

The opinion in Rivers v. Wachovia Corporation begins:

A former shareholder in Wachovia Corporation, appellant John M. Rivers, Jr. seeks to recover personally for the precipitous decline in value of his approximately 100,000 shares of Wachovia stock during the recent financial crisis. The district court, however, dismissed Rivers’s suit against Wachovia and four of its senior executives. The court concluded that Rivers’s complaint stated a claim derivative of injury to the corporation and that he was therefore barred from bringing a direct or individual cause of action against the defendants. Because Rivers’s varied attempts to recast his derivative claim as individual are unavailing, we shall affirm the judgment
The opinion ends:
In the end, Rivers has failed to articulate principled limits on the claims he seeks to press. Limiting individual suits to those who intended to sell is no limit at all; virtually every shareholder considers selling his shares at various points in time and every investor who suffers substantial monetary losses will be tempted to recall a prior intent to sell. Rivers claims his injury is unique but the number of people who may step forward with a similar tale of inducement not to sell is nigh infinite. Decisions to buy, sell, or hold shares inevitably involve a degree of risk and uncertainty. It is all too common to look back and wish one had invested differently. Investment presupposes risk—it is not the role of courts to reverse the consequences of infelicitous decisions after the fact or to allow one investor to recover losses at the expense of fellow shareholders. To the extent a shareholder wishes to litigate this sort of monetary loss due to the misrepresentations of corporate executives, his remedy lies within the framework of the derivative suit on behalf of the corporation. Because Rivers pursued a very different route, his suit was properly dismissed, and the judgment is affirmed.

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A panel of the Fourth Circuit held unanimously last week that the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (“MWPCL”) does not constitutional a fundamental public policy of Maryland sufficient to defeat a choice-of-law clause choosing the law of another state. Judge Gregory wrote the opinion in Kunda v. C.R. Bard, Inc., which was joined in by Judge Motz and Judge Duncan. Some key language:

[T]he MWPCL contains no express language of legislative intent that that law is a fundamental Maryland public policy. Furthermore, the MWPCL contains no language indicating that any contractual terms contrary to its provisions are void and unenforceable, or that any provision of the MWPCL may not be waived by agreement. Thus, we find that the MWPCL is not a fundamental Maryland public policy.

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Earlier this week, a split Fourth Circuit panel result two knotty jurisdictional questions. The first relates to appellate jurisdiction  in a case that has been transferred from a district court in one circuit to a district court in another circuit. The second relates to the commercial activities exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Judge Duncan wrote the majority opinion in Wye Oak Technology, Inc. v.  Republic of Iraq, in which Judge Osteen (M.D.N.C.) joined. Judge Shedd dissented.

Wye Oak sued the Republic of Iraq for breach of contract in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The underlying contract was between Wye Oak and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense. Iraq moved to dismiss for  lack of jurisdiction (both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction) and for improper venue. The subject-matter jurisdiction argument was based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Wye Oak  invoked the commercial activities exception. Iraq then argued that the commercial activities exception did not apply to the claim against Iraq, because the contract was entered into by Iraq’s Ministry of Defense–a separate legal person–rather than Iraq itself. The District Court held that the commercial activities exception did apply after determining that Iraq and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense should be “treated as one and the same” for purposes of the FSIA. The District Court also held, however,  that venue was improper, and immediately transferred the case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The transferee court stayed the case while the parties appealed the denial of the motion to dismiss to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that it possessed appellate jurisdiction notwithstanding the transfer, and that Iraq and Iraq’s Ministry of Defense were not separate legal purpose persons for purposes of the FSIA’s commercial activities exception.

Judge Shedd dissented from the holding regarding appellate jurisdiction over the now-transferred case.

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The Fourth Circuit issued an opinion today unanimously affirming the district court in United States v. McKenzie-Gude. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge King and Judge Duncan. The appeal focused on the legality of a search of a residence where the defendant, 18 years old at the time, allegedly possessed an AK-47 and explosive chemicals. The police obtained a warrant and ultimately seized from the defendant’s bedroom “several weapons, assorted gun parts, two bullet-proof vests, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, chemicals and other materials that could be used to make explosive devices, and instructions for making such devices.”

The problem with the search is that the affidavit in support of the warrant never linked the address of the residence to be searched (which was in the affidavit) with the defendant (who was linked in the affidavit with past possession of an AK-47 and explosive chemicals). The residence to be searched was the defendant’s residence, but the affidavit never said so. At the same time, uncontroverted information known to the police indicated that the defendant resided at the address to be searched.

The government conceded that the affidavit lacked the necessary connection between the defendant and the residence to be searched, but argued under Leon that the officers executing the warrant “harbored an objectively reasonable belief in the existence” of the link between the defendant’s alleged criminal activity and the residence to be searched. If the officers were entitled to rely not only on the affidavit but also additional evidence known to them, the answer to that question is obviously yes. According to the Fourth Circuit, then, “the question before us is whether, in determining an officer’s good faith, a court may properly look beyond the facts stated in the affidavit and consider uncontroverted facts known to the officers but inadvertently not disclosed to the magistrate.” The court answered that question in the affirmative, stating that “[w]e have consistently rejected the notion that reviewing courts may not look outside the four corners of a deficient affidavit when determining, in light of all the circumstances, whether an officer’s reliance on the issuing warrant was objectively reasonable.”

The court notes in a footnote that the Sixth Circuit and Ninth Circuit have held that Leon good faith reliance can be measured only by what is in an officer’s affidavit. By contrast, the Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have adopted the rule followed by the Fourth Circuit.

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The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous published opinion in F.C. Wheat Maritime Corp. v. United States, released today, provides insight into the valuation of yachts and the difference between “allision” and “collision.” In the opinion, the court of appeals affirms an award of lower damages than sought by the owner of a docked yacht that was smashed up by an Army Corps of Engineers vessel whose captain fell asleep at the helm. Judge Duncan wrote the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Osteen (MDNC, sitting by designation).

The first footnote of the opinion reads as follows:

“An allision is a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary object.” Evergreen Int’l., S.A. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 531 F.3d 302, 304 n.1 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty & Maritime Law § 5-2 n.1 (4th ed. 2004)). See also Black’s Law Dictionary 88 (9th ed. 2009) (defining an allision as  [t]he contact of a vessel with a stationary object such as an anchored vessel or a pier”). The Marquessa was stationary at the time of the incident in this case.

Black’s explains, however, that “collision” is often used where “allision” was once the preferred term. Black’s Law Dictionary at 88. And as the Fifth Circuit has noted, “[i]n modern practice, courts generally use the term ‘collision’ as opposed to ‘allision’ when describing contact between vessels that gives rise to a suit.” Apache Corp. v. Global Santa Fe Drilling Co., No. 10-30795, 2011 WL 2747575, at *1 n.1 (5th Cir. Jul. 13, 2011)(unpublished). Indeed, the district court here used the term collision.

We adhere to the more precise usage, and are particularly mindful that admiralty law draws a distinction (albeit not one relevant to this appeal) between allisions and collisions. See Bessemer & Lake Erie R.R. Co. v. Seaway Marine Transp., 596 F.3d 357, 362 (6th Cir. 2010) (noting that admiralty law establishes a rebuttable presumption that in an allision, the moving object is at fault).

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In United States v. Hackley, the Fourth Circuit today affirmed the conviction and sentence for several offenses arising out of a drug conspiracy. Judge Duncan authored the opinion, which was joined in by Judge Davis and Judge Diaz. While the ultimate outcome favors the prosecution, the language in the opinion strikes a cautionary note for federal prosecutors. The opinion begins as follows:

James Richard Hackley (“Hackley”) was convicted of several offenses related to his sale of cocaine base to a government informant and subsequent efforts to have that informant—the lead witness in the government’s case against him—murdered. Hackley challenges his convictions, the joinder of the charges into a single trial, the court’s refusal to grant him new counsel, and his sentence. Although the facts in this case come perilously close to the lower boundary of what we will accept as substantive evidence of a conspiracy to distribute drugs, for the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

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Judge Duncan, joined by Judge Motz, wrote the majority opinion earlier this week in United States v. Martin affirming the criminal forfeiture of a Mercedes and gobs of cash.

Although agreeing on some issues, the panel split in resolving the argument that “the district court was without jurisdiction to order the criminal forfeiture of their property after sentencing and the entry of judgments.” Judge Duncan’s opinion addresses this issue largely through application of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dolan v. United States, 130 S.Ct. 2533 (2010), a recent case addressing the consequences of a missed deadline:

Appellants correctly note that the district court neither referenced forfeiture in sentencing Appellants, nor included final orders of forfeiture in their judgments. In fact, the district court failed to enter the preliminary order of forfeiture until after it entered judgments and did not enter a final order of forfeiture until months later. Appellants argue that by missing the deadline set in Rule 32.2, the district court lost jurisdiction to enter orders of forfeiture and to amend the judgments to
include the orders of forfeiture.

Although Rule 32.2, as it existed in 2004, required a district court to finalize forfeiture orders at sentencing and include them in a final judgment, it did not set forth the consequences that would flow from missing that deadline. The Supreme Court, however, has recently provided guidance in an analogous context. Following this guidance, we conclude that missing the deadline set in Rule 32.2 does not deprive a district court of jurisdiction to enter orders of criminal forfeiture so  long as the sentencing court makes clear prior to sentencing that it plans to order forfeiture.

In Dolan v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2533 (2010), the Court examined a statute that set forth a deadline without specifying a consequence, and provided an analytical construct that is applicable here. There, the district court ordered the defendant, as part of his sentence, to pay restitution to the victim of his crime. Id. at 2537. The governing statute provided, “the court shall set a date for the final determination of
the victim’s losses, not to exceed 90 days after sentencing.” 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5). It was undisputed both that the defendant was on notice that the district court would order restitution and that the district court missed the deadline to order restitution and failed to include an order of restitution in the defendant’s judgment. Dolan, 130 S. Ct. at 2538.

Judge Gregory dissented from the majority’s holding regarding the criminal forfeiture:

Not a single case, published or unpublished, has done what today’s majority does: it holds that even if a punishment of forfeiture is not discussed at sentencing or ordered in judgment, a defendant can still be subject to that punishment if she has notice that such punishment may be ordered.

It is undisputed that the district court did not enter a preliminary order of forfeiture before sentencing and judgment. Nor were proper remedial actions, such as amendment of the sentence pursuant to Rule 35, timely pursued under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Because the appellants’ sentences became final for purposes of Rule 32.2 before the district court entered the preliminary order of forfeiture, I would hold that the district court did not have authority to enter the preliminary and final orders of forfeiture in 2007 and the amended judgments in 2010, and therefore the district court’s orders and amended judgments should be vacated.

Dolan v. United States, which is the principal precedent that the panel argues about, had an unusual voting line-up. Justice Breyer wrote for a 5-4 majority, joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Alito, and Justice Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts authored a dissent, joined by Justice Stevens, Justice Scalia, and Justice Kennedy.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued two published opinions and a published order. A look at the three together reveals various ways in which one can end up in a published Fourth Circuit opinion or order, none of them very attractive.

Meyer v. Astrue is an appeal about the denial of Social Security disability benefits. In an opinion by Judge Motz, joined in by Judge King and Judge Duncan, the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of benefits because the court could not determine from review of the record whether substantial evidence supported the denial of benefits. The facts portion of the opinion begins with the sentence: “In December 2004, Meyer fell 25 feet out of a deer stand while hunting and suffered significant injuries.”

Li v. Holder involves a petition for review of an order of the BIA remanding petitioner’s case to the IJ. Li is a Chinese citizen who entered the country illegally, was found to be removable, and was granted a voluntary departure. The BIA upheld a denial of Li’s application for adjustment of status, but remanded for the IJ to grant a new period of voluntary departure to provide certain “required advisals” that the IJ previously failed to provide. Li petitioned for review. The government contended that the Fourth Circuit lacked jurisdiction. The court disagreed based on binding panel precedent that it found had not been disturbed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dada v. Mukasey, 554 U.S. 1 (2008). The court nevertheless declined jurisdiction on prudential grounds. The opinion is interesting for its discussion of the circumstances under which intervening Supreme Court precedent displaces prior circuit precedent–not often. Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Shedd joined.

The published order today was a public admonishment of a New York attorney based on five violations of the rules of professional misconduct. It seems piling on to repeat the allegations and plaster the attorney’s name around the internet more, so just read the admonishment if you’re interested.

There were a few other unpublished opinions in argued cases, the most notable of which is Haile v. Holder, in which a panel vacated a denial of asylum. The beneficiary of this ruling is a citizen of Eritrea who asserted past persecution and a well-founded fear of future persecution based on her political opinion and her membership in a social group (which was her family, as her father had been persecuted for his political activities). Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Motz and Judge Shedd joined.

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