Supreme Court hears arguments on benefits for children conceived after parent's death

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Monday in Astrue v. Capato [transcript; JURIST report] on whether a child who was conceived after the death of a biological parent, but who cannot inherit personal property from that biological parent under applicable state intestacy law, is eligible for child survivor benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act [42 USC § 401 et seq.]. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled [opinion] that the Social Security Act must provide for claimants' children who were born after their death. Attorney for the Commissioner of Social Security appealed, arguing that the court must defer to state intestacy law, regardless of whether the Social Security Act's definition of child is ambiguous. The attorney representing the Capato family, including twins who are trying to obtain benefits, argued that the federal definition "child" makes clear that children conceived via in vitro fertilization (IVF) [Medline backgrounder] would be included, because it relies on the objective standard of "child." Justice Elena Kagan challenged that assumption by asking, "I'm sorry, you can't point to anything because it's so clear?" The attorney responded, "In a sense, that's right. If everyone knew what the word—the word 'child' was used to define, I think, the category that people would have had in mind when they thought of a child in the legal sense." There is a circuit split [JURIST report] on the issue.

The Supreme Court also heard oral arguments in Southern Union Co v. United States [transcript; JURIST report] on whether the Fifth and Sixth Amendment [text] principles that the Supreme Court established in Apprendi v. New Jersey [opinion] and its progeny apply to the imposition of criminal fines. Apprendi requires that "any fact" other than that of a prior conviction "that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." In this case, a fine was determined based on the number of days an environmental violation occurred. The jury only returned a verdict of guilty, without determining the number of days. The judge later doled out a fine. The attorney for Southern Union Co. argued that when the judge fined his client an $18 million penalty rather than a statutory guideline of $50,000 for one day of violation, the court violated the "fundamental principle" of Apprendi by not allowing the jury to act as fact-finder: "every fact necessary to increase the punishment beyond that which is otherwise maximally provided for must be presented to the jury and must be decided by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt." The Solicitor General stated that since this type of case never required a jury finding of the number of days, there can be no "encroachment" on the jury function. He argued "with respect to fines, restitution and forfeiture, the jury was never given a substantive role at common law."

 

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