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Recent decisions


WORLD Radio - Recent decisions

Five opinions handed down by the Supreme Court about copyright infringement, hardship exemption, arbitration dispute, forfeiture hearing, and government agency funding

Members of the Supreme Court Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Five opinions. The Supreme Court handed them down over the past week and a half.

First, a copyright case called Warner Chappell v Nealy, arising from the use of this song from 1983:

MUSIC: [Pretty Tony version of Jam the Box]

REICHARD: A 6 to 3 majority allows a music producer to seek damages for alleged copyright infringements— no matter when the infringement occurred.

Music producer Sherman Nealy helped create that song with a collaborator. Then he served time in prison, not learning until after he left that his collaborator licensed the music to another publisher. So, he sued for copyright infringement and damages.

MAST: The legal question was whether he could do that if the infringement happened more than three years before bringing a lawsuit. That’s the time limit laid out in the Copyright Act.

But is that three years from discovering the alleged infringement? Or three years from when the initial infringement occurred?

Nealy’s lawyer Joe Earnhardt had the winning argument back in February:

JOE EARNHARDT: It has to be actual notice, it's a discovery rule. It turns on what the plaintiff knows, not on what the defendant did.

Dissenting Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch pointed out the majority just assumed, rather than decided, that the three year time clock starts when a copyright owner first discovers the infringement.

REICHARD: Yeah, expect to see this crop up again in some future term.

The second opinion is another timing question, Harrow versus the Department of Defense. It’s a win for a federal employee who missed a deadline to file an appeal from an agency that denied him a hardship exemption from furlough. He had a pretty good excuse: the agency took five years to make the ruling and by that time he’d moved and never received notice so that he could appeal on time.

A unanimous court says this deadline is not the strict kind, because Congress didn’t say it was. Still, the case is remanded to lower court to figure out other aspects of the dispute.

MAST: Next, Smith v Spizzirri is an arbitration dispute in the workplace. The Federal Arbitration Act says when all the claims in a lawsuit are subject to arbitration, the courts shall pause involvement, issue a “stay,” pending the outcome of the arbitration proceedings.

But here, the lower court just dismissed the case outright. A unanimous court ruled that’s a no-no… when a party asks for a stay.

Chief Justice John Roberts said as much during oral argument in April:

JUSTICE ROBERTS: You’re saying it’s more trouble to let the thing just sit there than to file a new action? …It seems to me that the alternative would be a lot more burdensome than just sitting there.

REICHARD: Alright, moving on. The Supreme Court ruled against two women whose cars were seized by the police and impounded for over a year.

The case is Culley versus Marshall. These women loaned their cars to men who were then pulled over by police, who in turn found drugs in the vehicles. The women claimed the “innocent owner” defense and eventually got their cars back.

But they sued, arguing they were entitled to a prompt hearing after seizure.

A majority of 6 justices disagreed. The Due Process Clause only requires a timely forfeiture hearing, not a separate preliminary hearing. States can require those, but the Constitution does not.

Lawyer for the state, Edmond LaCour argued persuasively back in October:

EDMOND LACOUR: They’re essentially just asking to have the final hearing 2,3 weeks after and that’s gonna cause serious problems. You will gain speed, but you will lose accuracy.

Accuracy lost, perhaps, but in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that due process sometimes does require a minimal retention hearing before taking away an innocent person’s car for months at a time.

MAST: And lastly, a 7-to-2 decision that keeps the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau funded through the Federal Reserve System. Most agencies are funded via money Congress allocates annually. On that basis, payday lenders brought a challenge after the CFPB limited the number of times a lender could withdraw money from a borrower’s bank account.

The opinion cited the text of the Constitution as well as English and American history to uphold the bureau’s funding scheme.

You could hear the eventual ruling in this comment from Justice Thomas to a lawyer for the payday lender during oral argument last October:

THOMAS: I get your point that this is different, that it’s odd, that they’ve never gone this far. But not having gone this far is not a constitutional problem.

Other agencies funded outside the appropriations process include the Post Office and the Patent Office.

But dissenting Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch wrote that perpetual funding defeats the purpose of the Appropriations Clause, and that the Framers would be “shocked, and even horrified” by CFPB’s funding scheme.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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