Friday, October 6, 2023

Liberty University School of Law held its annual Supreme Court Review on Friday, September 1 in the law school’s Supreme Courtroom. This year’s panelists included Professors Rodney Chrisman, Rena Lindevaldsen, Tory Lucas, Natalie Rhoads, and Jeffrey Tuomala. Associate Dean for Faculty Development & Scholarship Timothy Todd also presented and moderated the program.

This annual event, which started several years ago, serves as an academic tradition at the law school. The event involves an in-depth discussion of recent Supreme Court cases designed to spark and encourage intellectual curiosity, allow the faculty to exchange ideas and commentary, and to be a source of serious academic thought within the law school. As well, the event allowed time for a “Q&A” session, giving the law students the opportunity to partake in the scholarly dialogue.

This year’s event featured cases that have weighty implications for constitutional law, the role of federal power and the administrative state, free speech, religious protections, and tax compliance. A summary of the cases discussed follows.

Biden v. Nebraska

Professor Rodney Chrisman discussed Biden v. Nebraska, which entailed President Biden’s campaign promise of 2019 to forgive $10,000 of student loans for qualifying individuals. The Supreme Court ruled that the administration did not have the power to waive student loans under the HEROES act. Professor Chrisman advanced the argument that, ideally, the federal government does not have jurisdiction to intervene in college spending or education. He also posited that, although many Christians have argued that the plan should be supported due to debt forgiveness in the Bible, administration officials were not using their own funds and finances to alleviate the debt. Thus, the student loan forgiveness plan would involve being generous with other individuals’ money and not the President’s own funding, which is radically different from what the gospel expresses.

303 Creative v. Elenis

Professor Rena Lindevaldsen discussed 303 Creative v. Elenis, which involved a website designer whose religious beliefs prevented her from creating websites to celebrate same-sex marriages, and Colorado’s nondiscrimination laws that prohibited her from publishing a statement explaining her beliefs. The Supreme Court ruled that, despite the government’s interest in prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, the free speech rights of the plaintiff prevailed over that interest. Professor Lindevaldsen agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision and stated, “If the Court had ruled in favor of Colorado, we would have suffered a significant loss to one of our most fundamental freedoms in the US.” Moreover, although Professor Lindevaldsen agreed with this decision, she expressed that the decision did not go far enough and further steps must be taken to ensure the First Amendment Free Speech guarantee is given full meaning. She added, “When we allow government to claim jurisdiction over matters of conscience and heart, like it does with nondiscrimination laws, then our government is no longer limited in its jurisdiction; rather, it claims total jurisdiction, which only God rightly possesses.”

Tyler v. Hennepin County

Professor Tory Lucas discussed Tyler v. Hennepin County. Lucas stated, “In Tyler v. Hennepin County, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that when a county in Minnesota painstakingly followed state law to force a foreclosure sale of private property for failure to pay taxes, it violated the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution when it failed to return the surplus in excess of the tax liability to the former property owner.” While Lucas is still formulating his full response to this case, he noted that he tends to disagree with the Court’s decision because it allowed the taxpayer to receive the benefits of getting the surplus money from the sale, but she did not bear any of the burden of dealing with paying taxes and the foreclosure process. It is his opinion that the taxpayer should not have received the money without bearing those burdens.

Groff v. DeJoy

Professor Natalie Rhoads discussed Groff v. DeJoy, which involved a UPS delivery driver who did not want to work on Sundays due to his observation of the Sabbath. He eventually resigned from UPS after receiving progressive discipline for not working on Sundays, and he filed a lawsuit arguing discrimination under federal law. The Supreme Court held that to deny a religious accommodation, such as observing the Sabbath, the employer must show that the accommodation would cause a substantial increase in costs or burdens on the employer’s business. Professor Rhoads stated that “Groff is an important case within the employment realm, and it also forms part of a larger context that involves religious freedom more generally. Interestingly, all nine justices agreed that the standard was too restrictive. This case could be understood as a reminder to society that, far from disfavoring them, the law safeguards religious beliefs and practices.” Additionally, Rhoads points out that the Supreme Court has not stated a definitive definition for religion, so it may be hard to protect it.

National Pork Producers Council v. Ross

Professor Jeffrey Tuomala discussed the National Pork Producers Council v. Ross. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the California regulation prohibiting the in-state sale of pork from animals that are “confined in a cruel manner” did not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause. Tuomala explained that California can prohibit the sale of pork in that state if the pigs are raised in inhumane conditions. Because California is a huge market, and because pork production is an integrated industry, California can largely dictate the conditions under which pork is produced in large hog-raising states. If the pork manufacturers want that burden on interstate commerce removed, they will have to petition to Congress rather than the Supreme Court. Tuomala added, “The Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the Commerce Clause has become the chief means allowing most powers of civil government to become centralized in Washington D.C.”

Bittner v. United States

Associate Dean Timothy Todd discussed Bittner v. United States. This case presented an interesting issue that involves the Bank Secrecy Act and its requirement that taxpayers report annually the number and nature of certain foreign bank accounts. The issue was how many violations occur when a taxpayer files the required form but fails to omit some accounts—is it a single violation for filing an inaccurate form or is it an independent violation for each account not properly reported. Indeed, these approaches created a conflict in the lower federal courts. The Supreme Court resolved the issue by holding that the Bank Secrecy Act’s penalty for a non-willful failure accrues on a per-form, not a per-account, basis. In fact, Dean Todd had previously written on this case and on this issue, in which he concluded that the per-form resolution was the superior interpretive approach. He adds that, although this particular reporting issue has now been resolved, additional issues surrounding this statutory and regulatory requirement will eventually be back at the Supreme Court.

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