11 June 2013

Law in Plain English: Case or Controversy

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe the structure, procedures, and legal issues of the federal courts in plain English. For similar posts, click here.

The Case or Controversy Clause, part of Article III of the United States Constitution, reads as follows:
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;--to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public ministers and Consuls;--to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;--to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;--to Controversies between two or more States;--between a State and Citizens of another State;--between Citizens of different States;--between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In plain English, this means that the courts only have power to hear cases when an actual controversy exists. Federal courts cannot decide issues based on hypothetical scenarios, cannot give advisory opinions, or decide issues  that aren't yet ripe.

To illustrate this concept, let's take a recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

A group of farmers, many of who grew organic crops, did not want to have their crops contaminated by genetically-modified Monsanto seeds. They were concerned that the widespread proliferation of Monsanto's seeds would contaminate their organic crops, and afraid that Monsanto would then sue them for patent infringement (in some cases like this recent Supreme Court case, Monsanto has sued farmers for such infringement). So, the farmers asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to declare (essentially, make a legally-binding judgment) that Monsanto's patents were invalid, unenforceable, and not infringed.

After filing the suit, the farmers asked Monsanto for a covenant not to sue (something we saw in this Supreme Court case earlier this term), which is exactly what it sounds like: a legally binding agreement not to sue. Monsanto declined to issue the covenant, but instead declared (via their website) that "[i]t has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means." Additionally Monsanto advised the farmers that
Monsanto is unaware of any circumstances that would give rise to any claim for patent infringement or any lawsuit against your clients. Monsanto therefore does not assert and has no intention of asserting patent-infringement claims against your clients. You represent that “none of your clients intend to possess, use or sell any transgenic seed, including any transgenic seed potentially covered by Monsanto’s patents.” Taking your representation as true, any fear of suit or other action is unreasonable, and any decision not to grow certain crops unjustified.
The District Court concluded that, given these facts, there was no controversy. As a result, it is important to note that the court could not hear the substance of the farmers' claims. On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed.

Given our understanding of the Case or Controversy Clause, it's not difficult to understand why the courts decided as they did. The farmers were asking the court to rule on something that might happen. Given's Monsanto's stated policy and their assurances that they were unaware of any circumstances that would give rise to any claim for patent infringement or any lawsuit, the court concluded that the farmers had not been injured in any way:
In sum, Monsanto’s binding representations remove any risk of suit against the appellants as users or sellers of trace amounts (less than one percent) of modified seed. The appellants have alleged no concrete plans or activities to use or sell greater than trace amounts of modified seed, and accordingly fail to show any risk of suit on that basis. The appellants therefore lack an essential element of standing. The district court correctly concluded that it lacks Declaratory Judgment Act jurisdiction.
And now you know!
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