Thursday, May 05, 2005

Today's opinion

In its first published opinion since April 25, the Court today held that the plaintiffs' homeowners' insurance did not cover damage caused when heavy rains triggered a mudslide, causing a tree to fall on the plaintiffs' house.

The plaintiffs had an "open peril" policy with Hartford, which insured against all risks that did not fall within certain specific exclusions. When Hartford refused to cover the loss, the plaintiffs sued for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hartford successfully moved for summary judgment. That order was upheld by the Court of Appeal and, today, by the Supreme Court.

The Court held that a "weather conditions clause" in the contract excluded the peril of rain inducing a landslide. Thus, the Julians were out of luck. The Court's opinion is available here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

People v. Roldan

The Court today unanimously upheld the death sentence given to Ricardo Roland for a 1990 murder-robbery at a southern California swap meet. While no novel legal issues were discussed, the 121-page opinion provides an interesting description of the difficulties faced by court-appointed defense counsel in capital cases.

The opinion also briefly discussed an objection to the prosecutor's use of biblical references during the penalty phase. Although the defendant did not properly preserve the issue for appeal, the Court's brief discussion of it seemed to be an attempt to send a message that this practice constitutes misconduct. This is not the first time in recent capital cases that the Court has discussed this practice, which appears to be fairly common. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a decision that received significant news coverage, recently overturned a defendant's death sentence based on improper biblical references by the prosecutor.

The Court's opinion is available here.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Other news

The US Supreme Court heard arguments today in Johnson v. California, a case involving Equal Protection challenges to peremptory challenges based on a prospective juror's race. Brian Fletcher at SCOTUSblog had this post summarizing the case and previewing the argument this morning.

David Savage of the LA Times has this account of today's argument at the Supreme Court.

People v. Thomas

The defendant was 15 years old when he held up a market at gunpoint. He was charged in criminal court and ultimately pled guilty to 1 count of robbery and use of a firearm. Under the plea agreement, Thomas would not receive more than 13 years in prison. Thomas claimed that, under Penal Code section 1170.19, the criminal court had discretion to order him commited to the CA Youth Authority (CYA) instead of state prison. The prosecution objected to Thomas' request for a juvenile disposition. Under the language of the statute, such an objection automatically bars the trial court from even considering a juvenile disposition. After 1 trip through the Court of Appeal to the CA S. Ct. and back again, the case was resolved by a unanimous Court today.

After concluding that the prosecutorial consent provision in Pen. Code section 1170.19 is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine of the CA Constitution, the Court turned to the issue of the trial court's discretionary authority to order a juvenile disposition. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennard noted that "resolving this issue requires the interpretation and cross-referencing of five statutes from two different codes." Fun stuff...

Two of these statutes - one enacted by voters as Prop. 21; the other enacted by the Legislature before voters passed Prop. 21, but not taking effect until after Prop. 21 - purport to have almost opposite effects on a trial court's discretion in cases like this. However, the Court sidestepped that messy issue by concluding that the one enacted by the Legislature did not apply here. Thus, the Court held that the trial court was correct when it ruled that it had no authority to commit Thomas to the CYA or to a less restrictive juvenile disposition. In doing so, the Court upheld "the voters' view that . . . [minors who use firearms or commit certain other enumerated crimes] need more restrictive confinement."

The Court's opinion is available here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

May oral arguments

The Court has posted this amended schedule for oral arguments May 3-5.

In the coming days I will try to post brief summaries of some of the cases set for argument.

One of those cases is Snowney v. Harrah's. The plaintiff sued Harrah's, alleging false advertising and unfair business practices. The Supreme Court granted review to determine whether NV hotels are subject to personal jurisdiction in CA. The hotels advertise in CA, maintain a toll-free number for accepting reservations from within CA, and maintain a website which is obviously capable of processing online reservations of CA residents. The Superior Court dismissed Snowney's complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal reversed as to some of the casinos, holding that some of the casinos are subject to specific jurisdiction in CA.

Also, 4 of the cases set for argument are automatic appeals. As

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Judge rules on former prosecutor's claims

Last month the Court asked a superior court judge to investigate a former prosecutor's claim that he and a judge systematically barred Jews and black women from capital juries. Yesterday, that superior court judge concluded that the prosecutor's claims were false, and that the former prosecutor is "dishonest and unethical."

The practical result is that Fred Freeman will likely have a much lower chance of being granted a new trial by the Court. Defense attorneys, however, aren't so quick to dismiss these claims as false; many are reviewing past cases in search of racial bias.

The SF Chronicle has this article. has this Reuters report.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Other News and Info

The Court's website says it will be carrying audiocasts of 2 of the oral arguments from the LA session. From 2-3 PM today it will broadcast the argument in Marine Forests Society v. California Coastal Commission. On April 7 it will broadcast the argument in People v. Black from 9-10 AM.

The Court has released the oral argument schedule (available here) for May 3-5. The Court will hear arguments in 16 cases over the 3-day San Francisco session. I will try to post summaries of any particularly interesting cases within the next few days.

Today's News

Bob Egelko of the SF Chronicle has this article about Marine Forests Society v. California Coastal Commission, to be argued today in the 1st day of the Court's Los Angeles session. The case involves a challenge to the very existence of the CCC. Both lower courts concluded that the CCC violates the separation of powers doctrine.

The Contra Costa Times has this AP report on the same case.

The Contra Costa Times also has this article on yesterday's decision in Parnell v. Adventist Health System.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Two Opinions Today

Parnell v. Adventist Health System (opinion available here)
This case involved the interpretation of CA's Hospital Lien Act (Ca. Civ. Code sections 3045.1-3045.6). The HLA permits a hospital that treats a patient injured by a 3rd party tortfeasor to establish a lien against a judgment received by that patient from the tortfeasor.

Joel Parnell was injured in a car crash and treated at the defendant's hospital. Parnell's health plan had agreed to reimburse preferred providers (like defendant) in the plan's network for services rendered to the plan's beneficiaries. In turn, the providers agreed to accept those amounts as "payments in full."

After Parnell was treated, his health plan reimbursed the hospital in the amount specified by the provider agreement. Parnell also paid his required share of deductibles and co-payments. Nevertheless, when Parnell later sued the driver that struck him in a tort action, the hospital filed a notice of lien. The hospital wanted to use the lien to recover $14,450, which was the difference between the "actual" cost of the medical services and the negotiated amount received under the provider agreement.

Today, the Court unanimously concluded that a lien under the HLA requires the existence of an underlying debt owed by the patient to the hospital. Recognizing that this could have adverse effects on CA hospitals, the Court noted that it was simply giving effect to the hospitals' contracts with health care plans. If hospitals want to preserve a right to recover the difference between "usual" charges and the negotiated discount rate by using a lien under the HLA, they are free to contract for that right.

Burbank v. State Water Board (opinion available here)
The Court's second decision today involved the power of regional water boards to impose pollutant restrictions. Federal law sets national water quality standards but allows states to enforce their own water quality laws so long as they comply with federal standards. In what was largely a supremacy clause issue, this was the Court's conclusion:

"A regional board, when issuing a wastewater discharge permit, may not consider economic factors to justify pollutant restrictions that are less stringent than the applicable federal standards require. When, however, a regional board is considering whether to make the pollutant restrictions . . . more stringent than federal law requires, CA law allows the board to take into account economic factors, including the wastewater discharger's cost of compliance."

Justice Brown filed a concurring opinion, expressing frustration that the federal and state agencies involved "seemed to have worked hard to make this simple question impenetrably obscure."