[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments in two cases [JURIST report] Wednesday. In Metrish v. Lancaster [transcript, PDF] the court heard arguments on whether the Michigan Supreme Court violated due process rights [Cornell LII backgrounder] when it recognized a state statute that abolished the diminished capacity defense [Cornell LII backgrounder] and applied it retroactively to defendant Burt Lancaster’s re-trial. The Michigan Solicitor General argued that under Harrington v. Richter [JURIST report], “a Federal court may only overturn a State court conviction that is such an erroneous misapplication of this Court’s clearly established precedent as to be beyond any possibility of fair-minded disagreement. That is, an extreme malfunction.” In this case, the SG suggested, the state judge simple exercised fair-minded discretion to apply the statute retroactively. The attorney for Lancaster argued that his client has been treated in a fundamentally unfair manner: that his re-trial was not held quickly enough, that the Michigan Supreme Court abolished diminished capacity based on a statute that does not clearly abolish it, and that the Michigan Supreme Court retroactively applied the abolition to Lancaster. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned if Lancaster had been allowed to bring the defense in a timely fashion, if the Supreme Court wouldn’t have just struck it then, and if anyone had ever mitigated their charges in Michigan based on diminished capacity.
The court also heard arguments in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar [transcript, PDF] on whether the retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [42 USC § 2000e-2(a) text] requires a plaintiff to prove but-for causation [backgrounder] or instead requires only proof that the employer had a mixed motive [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The attorney for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center argued that Gross v. FBL Financial Services [JURIST report] provides that but-for causation is the default and mixed motive is only required when provided by statute. He went further to suggest that since Title VII was amended in 1991 to explicitly provide for a mixed motive causation only in discrimination claims based on a protected class, mixed motive cannot be the standard for retaliation claims, such as the one Nassar is bringing. The attorney for Nassar retorted “It does not make any sense at all for Congress to have created two causation standards under the same statute in 1991 without saying anything about it at all.”