WASHINGTON -- With five weeks remaining in its term, the Supreme Court on Monday morning chipped away at its 20-plus cases yet to be decided by issuing a flurry of opinions concerning deportation, translation and in vitro fertilization, along with taking up a case for next term over who has the right to challenge federal wiretapping laws.
The three decisions Monday focused on how broadly courts could interpret Congress' language, and in each instance, the answer was, "not very." And by granting the wiretapping case, the justices are teeing themselves up for a battle over how much any group or individual must be affected by the law before they can attack it in court.
One law permits non-citizens who commit deportable offenses to seek cancellation of their removal if they have been lawful permanent residents for at least five years, resided continuously in the United States for seven years after their initial entry into the country, and have not been convicted of any aggravated felony. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers California and Arizona among other western states, allowed offenders who could not meet this duration requirement to apply towards their status the lengths of time their parents have been in the country.
Those days are now over. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court said that the "provision calls for 'the alien' -- not, say, 'the alien or one of his parents' -- to meet the three prerequisites for cancellation of removal."
The case for next term comes from a set of attorneys, journalists and labor and human rights organizations led by Amnesty International, challenging a federal wiretap law that targets non-United States citizens or residents outside the United States for purposes of collecting foreign intelligence. The court will consider whether the plaintiffs have the power to challenge the law's constitutionality if they only have the fear of being wiretapped and the burdensome costs to avoid that injury, but have not been subject to wiretapping or offered evidence that it is imminent.
In Monday's second decision, the court determined that a Japanese baseball player did not have to pay document translation fees as a result of losing his lawsuit against a Northern Mariana Islands resort over injuries he sustained from falling through a deck on the resort's property. The law at issue says that losers pay the winners' "compensation for interpreters," and the justices again reversed the 9th Circuit -- this time by a 6-3 vote -- with a narrow reading of the rule.
"Because the ordinary meaning of the word 'interpreter' is a person who translates orally from one language to another, we hold that 'compensation of interpreters' is limited to the cost of oral translation and does not include the cost of document translation," Justice Samuel Alito wrote, for himself and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. "Documentary evidence in a foreign language, no less than oral statements, must be translated to equip the parties to present their case clearly and the court to decide the merits intelligently," wrote Ginsburg. "[T]here is no good reason to exclude from taxable costs payments for placing written words within the grasp of parties, jurors, and judges."
Monday's third decision, announced by Justice Ginsburg for a unanimous court, held that twins conceived from their dead father's frozen sperm were not entitled to his social security benefits. Rejecting the mother's argument that all natural children of predeceased wage-earning parents should obtain child survivor's insurance, the court deferred to the Social Security Administration's reliance on the state law governing the dead parent's will to determine who are his or her surviving children. And in Florida, where the father's will was executed, "a child born posthumously may inherit [without being named in the will] only if conceived during the decedent’s lifetime."
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