U.S. Supreme Court "retroactive" precedent question

I’m hoping one of the Doper esquires can help with this one.

I sometimes read U.S. Supreme Court decisions as a hobby, but I have no formal legal training (I know – wierd;)) I like reading the analysis to see how a decision was arrived at. By following the thread through previous decisions, you can get a sense of how the common law of the Court’s previous decisions is affecting the current case. This answers a lot of my questions, but there are some that this tactic doesn’t illuminate.

Reading a recent opinion (EEOC v. Waffle House, iirc), the Court granted certoriari to address a conflict in Appeals Court interpretations of a previous standard. This is in itself nothing unusual, and makes sense to me. What I was wondering about was what happens to the previous decisions by the Appeals Court whose opinion was contrary to the new Supreme Court opinion?

Let me give an example to make that question clearer. In EEOC v. Waffle House, the Supreme Ct. decided that the EEOC could pursue back pay and other monetary remedies in court for an employee who was discriminated against even if the employee signed an employment contract specifying arbitration. I don’t remember the details of the lower court decisions, but assume that, say, in 1998 the 5th Circuit decided that the arbitration contract was binding and the EEOC could not pursue remedies in court. Then perhaps the 10th decided in 2000 that the arbitration contract was not binding on the EEOC. In 2001 the Supreme Court accepts certoriari to resolve the conflict, and in 2002 sides with the 10th Circuit. (Again, these details are probably wrong, but it’s an example) This invalidates the 5th Circuit’s opinion. So what happens to the disposition of the case the 5th Circuit decided? Can the EEOC go back to the lower court and say they want to reopen the case and petition for a directed verdict in light of the new Supreme Ct. decision? Do the parties in the earlier case just have to live with a decision that’s no longer law? What if this was a criminal case instead of a civil case?

Thanks for any help.

On the civil side, once the case is over, it is over. The end of the line is (I believe) the S.Ct. denying the Petition for Cert.; maybe there’s a motion for rehearing but I think not.

Of course, sometimes cases go on even after the reported decision of the Court of Appeals panel is rendered. The loser may have appealed (or filed a motion for en banc reconsideration by the entire Court of Appeals) and the appeal may remain pending; or, the case may have been remanded for further proceedings. In any event, if the case is still alive, whoever has it will then of course conform its approach to the newly-announced Supreme Court opinion.

On the criminal side, I think things are less easily closed, particularly if the Defendant is still incarcerated.

I don’t state this to be Gospel Truth; I might be a little bit off. But as far as the basics, I am confident.
JohnW77707, Esq.

If it’s a constitutional issue, the opinion of SCOTUS is deemed to be the original intent of the framers of the Constitution, and is retroactive. Therefore, those who are imprisoned based on a law later found to be unconstitutional by SCOTUS are entitled to petition for release.

Civil actions are rarely based on constitutional issues, but on interpretations of various statutes or the common law. I would think, however, that if time for rehearing has not lapsed, and there is a constitutional issue, the losing party can file a request for a rehearing.

JohnW and barbitu8, thanks for the responses. I myself cannot remember a civil case turning on constitutional issues, but IANAL, so that’s no surprise. It sounds like the only recourse in this case is for whichever party was on the “wrong” side of the prior decision to keep filing post-judgement motions, a’la Exxon. Otherwise, the party is SOL, I guess. Could they file a new suit, instead?

Of course the loser can and often will file post-trial/post-judgment motions, but they all have time limits and eventually they are going to run out. (You might be able to string out an adverse jury verdict for two or three years, but that’s on the high side except for the most complex cases).

I would be interested in hearing more of what BARB means; I don’t know how the existence of a constitutional issue (let’s say, the due process concerns regarding large punitive damages findings) can cause a civil case to be reopened once closed. In the federal courts the only real recourse for reopening dead cases is Rule 60, Fed.R.Civ.P., and that doesn’t address any sort of a constitutional-reopening-type argument.
JohnW77706, Esq.

By the way, look at BMW v. Gore (U.S. S.Ct., maybe 1998) for an example of consitutional concerns in civil cases – this is a case about the due process limitations on punitive damages. But I’ve never heard of a closed case being reopened after Gore, even if those cases would now clearly be in jeopardy after the Gore ruling.
JohnW77707, Esq.

barbitu8 is completely wrong. A Supreme Court judgment resolves only the case in which it is rendered. But it also establishes the law for all subsequent cases. If the S. Ct. says teh death penalty is unconstitutional in the case of H.R. Puffinstuff v. State, a state is perfectly free to set an execution date for Mayor McCheese. The catch, of course, is that the courts will surely grant McCheese’s writ of habeas corpus in light of Puffinstuff.

When the Supreme Court overrules a lower court decision that is not directly under review in the case at hand, it will most likely make no difference on the previous case, due to the doctrine of law of the case. Basically, once a point of law has been decided by a court, without any subsequent possibility of appeal on the point, that point of law is established for all subsequent purposes in the same case. If the 5th Circuit has ruled you can’t sue, then the Supreme Court denies review of your case is over even if the Supreme Court later decides in another case that you should have been allowed to sue.
minty green, Esq

I have to quote myself since I have been misquoted. I said that prisoners are entitled to petition for release; i.e., petition by way of habeus corpus. SCOTUS’ interpretation of the Constitution is deemed to have always been the correct interpretation, unless, of course, it changes its mind. :slight_smile:

I also said that * IF THE TIME FOR REHEARING HAS NOT LAPSED * . I did not say that one can reopen a closed case.