Argument analysis: In a case seeking nominal damages, the judge weighs public opinion after the government policy changes-SCOTUSblog


The Supreme Court heard an oral argument from a Georgia student on Tuesday who was prohibited from distributing religious literature and talking about his beliefs on the campus of his public university. Student Chike Uzuegbunam argued that the university’s policy violated the First Amendment, but shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the university changed its policy to allow students to speak anywhere on campus without permission.Questions before the court on Tuesday Uzuegbunam v Preskivsky Is it because Uzuegbunam is only seeking symbolic damages, whether the lawsuit can continue, or whether the case is controversial-that is, it is no longer an on-site dispute. In the debate that lasted just over 90 minutes, the justices posed tricky questions to both sides, which made it difficult to predict how they would eventually rule.

The lawsuit began after the evangelical Christian Uzuegbunam distributed religious literature outside the campus library of Gwinnett College, a public university in the suburbs of Atlanta. A campus police officer told Uzuegbunam that he could distribute literary works only if he had booked one of the two designated areas in advance. However, when Uzuegbunam later booked one of the areas to give lectures and share literary works, another police officer told them that he had violated the university’s ban on “disorderly behavior” because his speech disturbed others.

After the university changed its policy, the Federal District Court dismissed Uzuegbunam’s lawsuit, and Uzuegbunam (and another student, Joseph Bradford, who participated in the lawsuit) also graduated. Although Uzuegbunam had requested symbolic damages, that is, symbolic damages, such as one dollar, in addition to his order to prohibit the university from implementing its now abolished policy, the court also held that the nominal damages were not sufficient to allow Uzuegbunam’s case. carry on. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the ruling, Uzuegbunam went to the Supreme Court, which agreed to an assessment last summer.

Lawyer Kristen Wagoner (Kristen Wagoner), representing the students, told the justice that when university officials prevented Uzugbunan and Bradford from sharing their beliefs, they caused “specific harm” and, for this, a nominal loss Can provide remedies. Wagner said that these damages, regardless of the label, put the money in the student’s pocket, so they meet the constitutional requirement that the federal courts are limited to resolving active disputes involving actual interests.

Despite Waggoner’s claims, the judges spent a lot of time trying to determine for themselves what role nominal damages actually play in litigation. Chief Justice John Roberts was the first to raise this issue. She told Wagner that, in fact, the only relief she and her client sought was “a statement that you were right,” and the nominal loss was $1. Symbol of this defense.

Wagoner stepped back, emphasizing that nominal damages not only represent a declaration that the defendant’s actions were wrong, but also represent a ruling on the plaintiff’s past injuries. But a few minutes later, Justice Samuel Alito responded to Roberts’s question and asked her to explain why nominal damages could prove an earlier violation of constitutional rights. Alito observed that if nominal damages can only provide a statement that a right has been violated, it sounds like an advisory opinion, and the Constitution does not allow the court to provide such an opinion.

Judge Neil Gorsuch suggested to Wagoner that even if a separate claim for damages is not enough to keep the case alive, most litigation will continue. That’s because everyone agrees that even small compensatory damages (which can provide compensation for measurable losses) are enough to prevent the case from getting into trouble. When Wagoner responded that victims of government misconduct might not be able to prove any damages other than nominal losses, Gorsuch believed that these plaintiffs could recover their bus fares or compensate them for walking. Time to the scene. They were injured. Gorsoqi quipped: “We have a lot of imaginative lawyers, all with imaginative damage compensation theories.”

Judge Elena Kagan posed a similar question to the U.S. Attorney General Hashim Mooppan, who has provided support to students on behalf of the federal government. Kagan admits that students and the federal government “have a lot of history around you”, but she seems to think this is not particularly relevant to the world today. Kagan emphasized that we are now monetizing claims that are difficult to quantify, for example in the form of emotional distress claims. However, Kagan went on to say that in this case, what students really want is a defense-this is not a case or controversy targeted by the constitution.

The Attorney General of Georgia, Andrew Pinson, also faces thorny issues about the importance of nominal damages, especially the difference between nominal damages and small awards. Roberts asked him about how Congress passed a law and compensated the plaintiff who was enforcing the law prevalent in private litigation.

Pinsen responded that only a one-dollar compensation was awarded, and the question of whether the lawsuit can continue will depend on the harm resolved. He said that if what Congress really did was to provide the court with a tool to issue an advisory opinion, “I think the court must study this carefully.” However, in answering a question from Roberts, he admitted to driving to the campus. The ruling on gasoline costs is not too trivial, because compensatory damages, regardless of the amount, are regarded as “reducing the loss of the car.” Past injuries. “

Alito urged Pinson to ask whether the $10 statutory damages are large enough for the lawsuit to continue. Pinsen replied that if the award is compensation for “difficult to prove injury,” then it will provide a remedy to allow the lawsuit to continue.

Kagan brought the case of music superstar Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift), who Kagan described as “the most famous nominal damage case I know of lately.”rapid Filed a sexual assault case with a radio station host for one dollar, Kagan observed, because she said she didn’t want his money, just a dollar representing what she and others experienced. Kagan emphasized that there was “unquestionable” physical injury, but Swift only asked “for the dollar to say she was injured.”

Pinsen refused to describe Swift’s case as a case of seeking nominal damage, arguing that Swift was “accused with obvious compensable damage.” If so, Kagan retorted: “Why is it different?”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett (Amy Coney Barrett) implied that what Swift really wanted was a defense, and asked whether the court should consider the motive for filing a lawsuit so that nominal damages “can actually be used against a person Compensation, but not another person?”. Barrett pointed out that according to various consumer protection regulations such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act, the statutory damages are relatively low, but the court may order the defendant to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees . These regulations prevent illegal activities in regulated industries and allow consumers to defend their rights. If Congress reduces the available damages for violations of these regulations to one dollar, will it raise questions about whether the lawsuits filed under these laws are constitutional? When Pinson seemed to agree that these lawsuits were still constitutional, Barrett fought back: “So, you admit to receiving a pair of annoying text messages without violating your First Amendment rights and incurring losses?”

Justice Brett Kavanov (and Justice Sonia Sotomayo) focused on the federal government’s recommendation that when the plaintiff only seeks nominal damages for past actions, the defendant can accept A nominal ruling ends the litigation. Compensation for damages, but does not determine the merits of its claims. Such a move may minimize the actual effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of students, because their litigation will not move forward anyway. Kavanaugh argued that the real risk in such cases is not awarding nominal damages, but worrying about awarding attorney fees. Kavanaugh pointed out that if the plaintiff files a lawsuit and the defendant changes the challenged policy, then if the lawsuit only seeks an injunction, the plaintiff will not be entitled to attorney fees.

Mooppan pointed out that the defendant may not want to admit wrongdoing or even pay nominal damages, but he also emphasized (in response to the question of Justice Clarence Thomas) that the costs in cases involving only nominal damages may be Very small.

Pinsen argued that this situation may be more complicated than the defendant paying nominal damages of about one dollar just to end the lawsuit. He believes that the default verdict is regarded as the final solution of the case. In addition, he added that in such cases, it may be unfair to require public officials who are being sued in their personal capacity to take responsibility to avoid litigation.

In a question to Mooppan, Barrett reminded her colleagues that the potential impact of its ruling goes beyond the First Amendment.During last semester’s challenge to New York City’s ban on the delivery of guns outside the city, the Justice Ruling that the case has no practical significance because the city changed its policy. She asked, if the challenger seeks nominal compensation, will the decision be made in other ways?

Yes, Mooppan replied because it will be an on-site claim. When the justices returned the New York case to the lower court last year, among the dissidents involved in Thomas and Gorsuch, Alito wrote: “The claim for nominal damages precludes bargaining. After Tuesday’s argument, it is not clear whether the proposal has at least five votes. We will know the answer in summer.

This article is Originally published in Haoge Court.

Published on Uzuegbunam v Preskivsky, Featured, Excellent case

Recommended citation:
Amy How
Argument analysis: In cases seeking nominal damages, judges will weigh boredom after government policy changes,
SCOTUS blog (January 12, 2021, 7:46 PM), cases-seeking nominal damage/

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