Supreme Court to rule on contractual venue agreements

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in one new case [order list, PDF] on Monday. In Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. United States District Court for the Western District of Texas [cert. petition, PDF; docket] the court will consider whether its decision in Stewart Organization, Inc. v. Ricoh Corp. [opinion] changed the standard for enforcement of clauses that designate an alternative federal forum, limiting review of such clauses to a discretionary, balancing-of-conveniences analysis under 28 USC § 1404(a) [text] and whether district courts should allocate the burdens of proof among parties seeking to enforce or to avoid a forum-selection clause. In the case, Atlantic Marine Construction [corporate website] contracted with J-Crew Management, Inc. on a construction project in Texas, providing a forum-selection clause in their agreement that disputes "shall be litigated in the Circuit Court for the City of Norfolk, Virginia, or the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division." The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled [opinion] that the forum selection clause in the contract was proper, although advised the parties to petition for certiorari due to the murkiness of the issue. "Absent some compelling countervailing factor (something J-Crew does not even argue is present here), forum-selection clauses such as this one should be and should have been enforced by transfer or dismissal."

The court also issued a per curiam opinion [text, PDF] granting a summary reversal of a US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision [opinion]. In Marshall v. Rodgers [docket], a defendant represented himself for most of his hearings on felony charges and then requested appointment of counsel to draft a motion after the trial. The California Court of Appeal "concluded that his history of vacillating between counseled and self-representation, the lack of support for his motion, his demonstrated competence in defending his case, and his insistence that he 'c[ould] do the motion [him]self' but 'just need[ed] time to perfect it,' justified the trial court's denial of his post-trial request for counsel." The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found this violated the Sixth Amendment [text] right to counsel. The Supreme Court's opinion refuted this, and stated that the Ninth Circuit made a ruling out of its own precedents, but not clearly established Federal law:

It is unnecessary for present purposes to judge the merits of these two approaches or determine what rule the Sixth Amendment in fact establishes for post waiver requests of appointment of counsel. All this case requires—and all the Court of Appeals was empowered to do under §2254(d)(1)—is to observe that, in light of the tension between the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of "the right to counsel at all critical stages of the criminal process,"and its concurrent promise of "a constitutional right to proceed without counsel when [a criminal defendant] voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so," it cannot be said that California's approach is contrary to or an unreasonable application of the "general standard[s]" established by the Court's assistance-of-counsel cases.
The court did not foreclose the possibility of hearing a similar case on the merits in the future.

 

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