A recurring theme in my CLE presentations about the Fifth Circuit is that the phrase “a conservative court” is largely meaningless. To be sure, a majority of Fifth Circuit judges were appointed by Republican presidents, and many judges on the court have “conservative” philosophies, but what that actually means in a specific case about separation of power between judge and jury, trial and appellate courts, branches of government, etc. can vary a great deal.
Consider the recent 8-7 vote against en banc rehearing in Passmore v. Baylor Health, discussed in yesterday’s post, which involved a close Erie question about state law pre-suit requirements. In a slide I just prepared for the upcoming Advanced Civil Appellate course in Austin, you can see the nominees of Republican presidents in red and those of Democratic presidents in blue — the “for” vote was 5-2 and the “against” vote was 5-3. (The judges with stars by their names joined a dissent.) Perhaps that split just shows that this technical issue is not ideological, but I think it also shows that there is far more to judicial philosophy than the simple label of “conservative.”
The Fifth Circuit recently denied en banc review — by a “photo finish” 8-7 vote — of Passmore v. Baylor Health System, which concluded that Texas’s expert report requirements for medical malpractice cases were procedural and did not apply in federal court under the Erie doctrine. A dissent argued that this vote was inconsistent with the recent en banc opinion in Flagg v. Stryker Corp. that analyzed a comparable requirement of Louisiana law.
In a case about the scope of a “drilling rig” exclusion in an insurance policy, a party asked the Fifth Circuit to not follow a previous unpublished opinion because it was not binding precedent. The Court disagreed, stating: “While [Appellant] is correct, we find Cash’s reasoning compelling,” and then applying the precedents cited by the opinion. Nonbinding precedent has persuasive power. Richard v. Dolphin Drilling Ltd., No. 16-30003 (Aug. 1, 2016).
In a 4-3 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s exhaustive analysis and validation of the admissions policies used by the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14–981 (U.S. June 23, 2016). The Dallas Morning News has an excellent summary of this case’s long history.
I recently spoke at the University of Texas appellate course to provide an update on recent Fifth Circuit cases, here is my PowerPoint from that presentation.
Alleging that a toe joint implant did not work properly, Flagg sued “Manufacturing Defendants” (who built the implant) and “Medical Defendants” (who surgically installed it in Flagg’s foot.) The Manufacturing Defendants were diverse from Flagg, a Louisiana citizen, while the Medical Defendants were not.
Affirming the district court while reversing the panel, an 11-4 en banc opinion holds “the plaintiff had improperly joined the non-diverse defendants because [he] has not exhausted his claims against those parties as required by statute.” That Louisiana statute requires review by a “medical review panel” before suit is filed against a health care provider; the Fifth Circuit concluded that pursuant to it, “there is no doubt that the state court would have been required to dismiss the Medical Defendants from the case,” as no such review had occurred at the time of removal. A vigorous dissent raised questions about the Court’s standard for analyzing claims of improper joinder, as well as whether this kind of state statute (“a non-adjudicative, non-comprehensive, waivable process since concluded in this case”) was a proper foundation for an improper joinder claim. Flagg v. Stryker Corp., No. 14-31169 (March 24, 2016) (en banc).
The panel majority in Torres v. SGE Management, 805 F.3d 145 (5th Cir. 2015) decertified a class action about the operation of a multilevel marketing program. The full Court has now granted en banc review of this important decision about a significant area of the economy.
Justice Blackmun famously declared, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994). In less dramatic fashion, in the 9th appeal from a ruling about the administration of the Deepwater Horizon settlement, the Fifth Circuit has declared: “If the discretionary nature of the district court’s review is to have any meaning, the court must be able to avoid appeals like this one which involve no pressing question of how the [BP] Settlement Agreement should be interpreted or implemented, but simply raise the correctness of a discretionary administrative decision in the facts of a single claimant’s case.” In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 15-30395 (March 8, 2016).
Principled and provocative, Justice Scalia served as the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Fifth Circuit for many years. Vaya con Dios.
In unsurprising but still important news, the Supreme Court has decided to review the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Texas v. United States, the challenge to President Obama’s immigration initiatives. The order granting the petition notes: “In addition to the questions presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: ‘Whether the Guidance violates the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, Art. II, §3.'”