Violent video games, climate change and a million Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) employees will preoccupy the U.S. Supreme Court in the homestretch of its nine-month term.
The justices will issue 31 rulings over the next four weeks, beginning today when they take the bench at 10 a.m. in Washington. The June flurry has become a tradition at a court where the combination of summer plans and calendar realities can leave the justices resembling high school students rushing to complete their term papers.
The lingering disputes include two securities-fraud clashes, two patent cases, a campaign-finance test, a free-speech case involving pharmaceutical marketing and a fight over suits against generic-drug makers. Those rulings ultimately may be overshadowed by higher-profile decisions, particularly the class-action case that will determine whether potentially a million workers can unite in a suit accusing Wal-Mart of gender bias.
“There are three major rulings coming that will set the tone for the term: global warming, class actions and violent video games,” said Tom Goldstein, a lawyer at Goldstein, Howe & Russell PC and the creator of the Scotusblog website.
The March 29 argument in the Wal-Mart case suggested skepticism among the justices about the scope of the class approved by a federal appeals court. Should the justices rule in Wal-Mart’s favor, they could either kill the lawsuit outright or kick the case back to a lower court.
The ruling will be the court’s first in a dozen years on the standards for certifying a class action. In a testament to the importance of the case, more than 20 companies are supporting Wal-Mart, the country’s biggest private employer.
Companies may get another victory in the climate change case, which involves six states seeking to force five companies including American Electric Power Co. (AEP) to cut their emissions of the gases that contribute to climate change.
During arguments in April, justices across the ideological spectrum said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was better equipped than a federal court to sort through the costs and benefits of reducing carbon emissions.
The climate change ruling “could have the greatest potential impact on business, given that virtually every business is an emitter of greenhouse gases and therefore a potential defendant” in a similar lawsuit, said former U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre, now a lawyer at Latham & Watkins LLP in Washington. He filed a brief in the case on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The video-game industry is focused on its challenge to a California law that would bar the sale of violent games to minors. California is asking the court to put new limits on the Constitution’s free-speech clause and to let states treat violent games like pornography and restrict youth access.
The Nov. 2 argument session signaled the court was poised to strike down the law. The five-month wait since then has fostered new uncertainty, as the dispute has become the longest-pending case.
An industry victory “seemed very likely at first but seems far more uncertain now,” said Roy Englert, an appellate lawyer at Robbins Russell Englert Orseck Untereiner & Sauber LLP.
For business, victories in those cases would take the sting out of what so far has been a disappointing term. The Chamber of Commerce has lost seven of the 12 cases in which it has filed a brief, including its own challenge to an Arizona law that imposes penalties on companies that hire illegal aliens.
Patents and Drugs
The court also will rule in a patent case that led to changes in Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Word software and may force the company to pay a $300 million award. A ruling in favor of Microsoft, which is fighting a lawsuit by I4i LP, could make it easier for large technology companies to invalidate patents.
And in another free-speech case, the justices may overturn a Vermont law that would limit the ability of brand-name drugmakers to target individual doctors with sales pitches.
As with the video-game dispute, the court’s reasoning may have implications well beyond the industry involved in the case.
“The First Amendment is always an important area,” said Lisa Blatt, an appellate lawyer with Arnold & Porter LLP. “Whatever the court says about the First Amendment has ripple effects.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at email@example.com.