Justices Deliver Major Rulings in Drug, Workplace Cases

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U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia
U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia

An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of Hunton & Williams partner Michael Mueller. He is the co-head of the firm’s business litigation practice group.

Before heading off for a long winter recess, the Supreme Court on Monday issued a major decision that could affect prosecutions when a crime victim dies of multiple causes.

In Burrage v. United States, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a unanimous court that an Iowa drug dealer cannot be sentenced to a mandatory 20 years in prison when the heroin he sold only contributed to the death of a user who had also ingested many other drugs.

"This is big, because the principle will hold across many other statutes," said Sidley Austin partner Jeffrey Green, one of the lawyers for the defendant in the case. An expert on criminal law, Green said the decision could even affect the recently argued Paroline v. United States case, which asks whether one of many buyers of child porn photographs can be held completely liable for injuries suffered by the child depicted.

In another unanimous ruling written by Scalia, the court in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. sided with businesses in a dispute over whether union workers should be compensated for the time they spend "donning and doffing" work clothes and protective gear. The justices also decided Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper by a 6-3 vote, ruling that the airline could not be sued for reporting on the possible security threat posed by a pilot as long as the information is "materially true."

The justices recessed without deciding much-awaited cases on campaign finance and affirmative action, titled McCutcheon v. FEC and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, respectively. The court returns to the bench on Feb. 24.

The Burrage case tested the meaning of the Controlled Substances Act, a cornerstone of the federal “war on drugs,” which calls for a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for defendants found guilty of distributing illegal drugs when "death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance."

Lawyers for defendant Marcus Burrage argued that the "results from" wording of the law requires a jury finding that death would not have occurred except for the heroin he sold to the victim, Joshua Banka of Nevada, Iowa. Experts testifying in the case said the heroin could not be isolated from the other drugs Banka used at the same time as the cause of death. Jurors were instructed to use a standard under which they could find Burrage guilty even if the heroin was just a "contributing cause." Burrage was convicted and sentenced, and on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled against him, prompting the petition to the Supreme Court.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. urged the court not to adopt the narrower test urged by Burrage, arguing that "a but-for test is an unsound tool in certain circumstances, particularly when multiple forces coincide or combine to produce a given result."

Scalia rejected that argument, asserting that the ordinary meaning of "results from" is that the harm would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant's conduct. Using a baseball analogy, Scalia said that if a home run leads to a 1-0 outcome, "every person competent in the English language and familiar with the American pastime" would agree that the victory was a result of the home run. But if the game ended in a 5-2 score, Scalia added, "one would be surprised to read in the sports page that the victory resulted" from the home run.

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