June 16, 2011

Supreme Court agrees to answer one question as Ninth Circuit asks more

In April, the Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court another question of state law. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to answer, as it usually does. The court restated the question it will answer in Doe v. Harris: “Under California law of contract interpretation as applicable to the interpretation of plea agreements, does the law in effect at the time of a plea agreement bind the parties or can the terms of a plea agreement be affected by changes in the law?”

Meanwhile, the ever-inquisitive Ninth Circuit continues to ask questions.

Two days ago, in Hayes v. County of San Diego, the court requested the Supreme Court to determine “[w]hether under California negligence law, sheriff’s deputies owe a duty of care to a suicidal person when preparing, approaching, and performing a welfare check on him.” Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit stated that “the outcome of the question here would normally be dictated by the holdings” of two California Court of Appeal opinions, but that “[t]here is disagreement within” the Ninth Circuit panel whether a 2009 Supreme Court decision “suggests that the California Supreme Court would not follow th[os]e holdings.” Indeed, the Ninth Circuit three months ago issued a divided opinion on the issue and is now referring the issue to the Supreme Court after being asked to do so by the defendants in their rehearing petition. The Supreme Court has docketed the request and will likely decide by mid-August whether it will answer this question.

Last month, in Orange County Department of Education v. California Department of Education, the Ninth Circuit asked the Supreme Court to decide “[w]hether under California law the school district responsible for the costs of a special education student’s education while the student is placed at an out- of-state residential treatment facility is the district in which the student’s de facto parent, who is authorized to make educational decisions on behalf of the student, resides.” The Supreme Court docketed the request and will likely decide by the end of next month whether to answer the question.

The Ninth Circuit does show some restraint, however, in adding to the Supreme Court’s caseload. Earlier this month, the federal appeals court twice rejected parties’ requests to send state law questions to the Supreme Court.

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