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Supreme Court hears arguments on racial composition of jury pools, ERISA

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Wednesday in two cases. In Berghuis v. Smith [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments on whether there is a constitutional violation when the African-American representation on a jury is disproportionate to the community population. There is a circuit split on whether the so-called the comparative-disparity test, which calculates the percentage of otherwise eligible jurors from a given group who are excluded from jury service, should be used to make such a determination. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit applied the comparative-disparity test and held [opinion, PDF] that the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community had been violated. Counsel for the government argued that, "[t]he Michigan Supreme Court did not act unreasonably in concluding that there was no unconstitutional underrepresentation and that there was no systematic exclusion." Counsel for the respondent defended application of the comparative-disparity test, dismissing justices' concerns that it wouldn't apply in areas with a relatively small minority population.

In Conkright v. Frommert [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the Court heard arguments on whether a district court has an obligation to defer to an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) [text] plan administrator's reasonable interpretation of the terms of the plan if the plan administrator arrived at the interpretation outside the context of an administrative claim for benefits. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that a district court is under no obligation to defer to an ERISA plan administrator's interpretation and that a district court has "allowable discretion" to adopt any "reasonable" interpretation of the terms of the plan. Counsel for the petitioners argued:

Under either a deferential standard of review or a de novo standard, the plan administrator's interpretation should prevail. That interpretation, unlike the district court's interpretation, is grounded in the language of the plan. It recognizes the fundamental actuarial principle of the time value of money, and it avoids conferring windfalls.
Counsel for the respondents argued that the court does not have to defer to the plan administrator's interpretation.

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