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US Supreme Court to tackle California cases on immigration, frequent flier miles

The US Supreme Court Building is seen in this March 31, 2012 photo on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
The US Supreme Court will take up a wide variety of issues, from freedom of speech to frequent flier miles, when the justices return in October. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The US Supreme Court returns to work two weeks from today. Some of the cases the High Court will tackle sound familiar: campaign finance, affirmative action, public prayer, and abortion.  Lawyer Kannon Shanmugam of Williams & Connolly calls this “the year of the sequel.” Shanmugam says the key for court watchers is to see how and where the Justices stray from previous court rulings, known as precedent.

As usual, a sizeable portion of the cases – 9 out of 45 – to be scrutinized by the Supreme Court come from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Like California, it’s a diverse lot of lawsuits – ranging from a luxury carmaker accused of human rights abuses in South America to a Rabbi thrown out of an airline’s frequent flier program. One of the most important involves search and seizure – when are police allowed to search a suspect’s home for evidence?


Walter Fernandez robbed a man in Los Angeles, slashing him with a knife and escaping to his apartment. The police found him there and asked permission to search for a weapon. He said no. After he was arrested, the police returned and asked his girlfriend for permission to search the premises. The girlfriend - who told police Fernandez had hit her earlier during a domestic dispute - allowed the search, which turned up a knife and gang paraphernalia. The girlfriend’s four-year-old son showed police where a shotgun was hidden.

The question before the High Court is whether a defendant must be on site and making objections himself when police officers ask a co-tenant for consent to poke around looking for evidence without a search warrant. Pamela Harris, who teaches criminal law at Georgetown Law School says it seems like a narrow issue, but “it comes up more than you would think.” She says police find asking permission to enter is the “fastest way” to get into a house to find evidence. A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Georgia v. Randolph that residents have the right to say “no” to a search. Professor Harris says that ruling was unusual – taking powers away from police – and the Supreme Court may be looking for a way to limit the ruling.


This is a case that will resonate with anyone fighting with an airline over frequent flier miles. Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg was a Northwest Airlines frequent flier, obtaining the airlines’ “premium elite status” in 2005. Three years later, the airline terminated his membership. Ginsberg sued, saying the company had breached its contract and the implied doctrine of good faith. Northwest argued that the Airline Deregulation Act pre-empts local laws in the areas of price, route, or service. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said frequent flier miles are none of those things. The Supreme Court will decide what exactly frequent flier programs are.


Nearly two dozen workers - or relatives of workers - at a Mercedes Benz plant in Argentina are suing the parent company Daimler-Chrysler for human rights abuses during Argentina’s “Dirty War” of 1976-1983. They accuse the company of targeting workers suspected of being union organizers, working with the military and police to allow raids at the factory. The case is more about jurisdiction than about the alleged abuse. The Argentinians sued in federal court under the Alien Torts Act, which allows civil lawsuits in the US for alleged human rights abuses abroad. The case was brought in California, where a number of Mercedes Benz dealers are located. The question in the case is whether Mercedes Benz has a strong enough connection to the parent company to be sued.


As Congress tackles immigration reform, members complain about how long it can take to get a legal immigration visa. A case illustrating that comes before the Supreme Court.

Under US law, US citizens and lawful permanent resident aliens can petition for a visa for their unmarried child under the age of 21. During the waiting period, that child may “age out” of the visa category, and could get sent to the back of the line to apply as an adult. But there’s a provision that allows them to keep the original filing date when they apply as adults. Because the parents in this case immigrated themselves, the question before the court is whether THEIR children also qualify for this turn-back-the-clock provision.


John Apel was protesting at Vandenberg Air Force Base after being told to stay off the base. So he took his protest to the Pacific Coast Highway which is owned by the Air Force, but with easements granted to both California and Santa Barbara County. The Air Force says PCH is also off limits.

Apel is represented by the Dean of UC Irvine's Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky. He says it's a freedom of speech issue. The case is about “the ability to peacefully protest on a public street” and is important because Apel isn't the only person who uses the areas outside of military bases to protest. "The government is making a very broad claim of the ability to exclude them." Chemerinsky will be making the oral arguments before the High Court in December.

Also on the schedule when the justices return - a pair of California bankruptcy cases, EXECUTIVE BENEFITS INSURANCE AGENCY v. ARKINSON and LAW v. SIEGEL.