Lawrence v. Chater, 949323

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
Citation133 L.Ed.2d 545,516 U.S. 163,116 S.Ct. 604
PartiesAlexis LAWRENCE, Guardian and Next Friend on Behalf of Kemmerlyn D. LAWRENCE, a Minor, v. Shirley S. CHATER, Commissioner of Social Security
Docket Number949323
Decision Date08 January 1996


Under the Social Security Act, the unmarried minor "child" of a deceased individual who was insured under the Act may receive survivors' benefits if she was "dependent upon such individual" prior to his death. 49 Stat. 623, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(C) (1988 ed.). In order to determine whether a claimant is, for these purposes, the "child" of the deceased, and, as such, eligible to receive benefits, the Commissioner of Social Security "shall apply such law as would be applied in determining the devolution of intestate personal property by the courts of the State in which [the] insured individual . . . was domiciled at the time of his death." 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A) (1988 ed.).

The petitioner in this case, Lawrence, asserts an entitlement to benefits under these provisions. In so doing, she acknowledges that the relevant state law, that of North Carolina, appears on its face to defeat her claim by imposing procedural requirements on proof of paternity (which it requires as a prerequisite for intestate succession) which she cannot meet. She contends, however, that these difficulties can be overcome in her case as they were in Handley v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 999 (1983). In that case, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that state law requirements of proof of paternity can only be applied against a claimant for benefits under § 416(h)(2)(A) insofar as they are constitutional, and that an Alabama law similar to the North Carolina law involved here was unconstitutional. In contrast, in the case before us, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council's denial of benefits to Lawrence. The Court of Appeals expressly adopted the rationale for rejecting her claim that the Government advanced in its brief to that court: that the constitutionality of a state paternity law need not be considered before applying it to determine entitlement to benefits under the federal statutory scheme. Lawrence petitioned for certiorari to review that decision.

In his response, the Solicitor General advises us that the "Social Security Administration has re-examined" the role of state paternity and intestacy laws in the federal benefits scheme, and now interprets the Social Security Act as "requir[ing] a determination, at least in some circumstances, of whether the state intestacy statute is constitutional." Brief for Respondent 8. He also correctly notes that the Act directs the Commissioner of Social Security—not, in the first instance, the courts—to "apply such law as would be applied . . . by the courts of the State" concerned. § 416(h)(2)(A). Without conceding Lawrence's ultimate entitlement to benefits, he invites us to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand the case (GVR) so that the Court of Appeals may either decide it in light of the Commissioner's new statutory interpretation or remand the case to the Commissioner for reconsideration in light of that interpretation. We conclude both that we have the power to issue a GVR order, and that such an order is an appropriate exercise of our discretionary certiorari jurisdiction.

Title 28 U.S.C. § 2106 appears on its face to confer upon this Court a broad power to GVR: "The Supreme Court or any other court of appellate jurisdiction may . . . vacate . . . any judgment, decree, or order of a court lawfully brought before it for review, and may remand the cause and . . . require such further proceedings to be had as may be just under the circumstances." In his dissent issued today in this case and in Stutson v. United States, No. 94-8988, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 611, --- L.Ed.2d ----, another case in which we issue a GVR order, Justice SCALIA contends that "traditional practice" and "the Constitution and laws of the United States" impose "implicit limitations" on this power. Post, at __. We respectfully disagree. We perceive no textual basis for such limitations. The Constitution limits our "appellate Jurisdiction" to issues of "[federal] Law and Fact," see Art. III, § 2, but leaves to Congress the power to "ordain and establish . . . inferior Courts," Art. III, § 1, and to make "Exceptions" and "Regulations" limiting and controlling our appellate jurisdiction. Insofar as Congress appears to have authorized such action, we believe that this Court has the power to remand to a lower federal court any case raising a federal issue which is properly before us in our appellate capacity.

Our past practice affirms this conclusion. Although, as Justice SCALIA'S dissent explains, post, at __-__, the exercise of our GVR power was, until recent times, rare, its infrequent early use may be explained in large part by the smaller size of our certiorari docket in earlier times. Regardless of its earlier history, however, the GVR order has, over the past 50 years, become an integral part of this Court's practice, accepted and employed by all sitting and recent Justices. We have GVR'd in light of a wide range of developments, including our own decisions, see post, at __-__ (SCALIA, J., dissenting), state supreme court decisions, see, e.g., Conner v. Simler, 367 U.S. 486, 81 S.Ct. 1679, 6 L.Ed.2d 1241 (1961), new federal statutes, see, e.g., Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States, 329 U.S. 685, 67 S.Ct. 364, 91 L.Ed. 602 (1946), administrative reinterpretations of federal statutes, see, e.g., Schmidt v. Espy, 513 U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 43, 130 L.Ed.2d 5 (1994), new state statutes, see, e.g., Louisiana v. Hays, 512 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 2731, 129 L.Ed .2d 853 (1994), changed factual circumstances, see, e.g., National Labor Relations Bd. v. Federal Motor Truck Co., 325 U.S. 838, 65 S.Ct. 1412, 89 L.Ed. 1965 (1945) (demilitarization of employees), and confessions of error or other positions newly taken by the Solicitor General, see, e.g., Wells v. United States, 511 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 1609, 128 L.Ed.2d 337 (1994); Reed v. United States, 510 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 1289, 127 L.Ed.2d 644 (1994); Ramirez v. United States, 510 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 1039, 127 L.Ed.2d 363 (1994); Chappell v. United States, 494 U.S. 1075, 110 S.Ct. 1800, 108 L.Ed.2d 931 (1990); Polsky v. Wetherill, 403 U.S. 916, 91 S.Ct. 2232, 29 L.Ed.2d 693 (1971), and state attorneys general, see, e.g., Cuffle v. Avenenti, 498 U.S. 996, 111 S.Ct. 553, 112 L.Ed.2d 560 (1990); Nicholson v. Boles, 375 U.S. 25, 84 S.Ct. 89, 11 L.Ed.2d 43 (1963).

This practice has some virtues. In an appropriate case, a GVR order conserves the scarce resources of this Court that might otherwise be expended on plenary consideration, assists the court below by flagging a particular issue that it does not appear to have fully considered, assists this Court by procuring the benefit of the lower court's insight before we rule on the merits, and alleviates the "[p]otential for unequal treatment" that is inherent in our inability to grant plenary review of all pending cases raising similar issues, see United States v. Johnson, 457 U.S. 537, 555, n. 16, 102 S.Ct. 2579, 2591, n. 16, 73 L.Ed.2d 202 (1982); cf. Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314, 323, 107 S.Ct. 708, 713, 93 L.Ed.2d 649 (1987) ("we fulfill our judicial responsibility by instructing the lower courts to apply the new rule retroactively to cases not yet final"). Where intervening developments, or recent developments that we have reason to believe the court below did not fully consider, reveal a reasonable probability that the decision below rests upon a premise that the lower court would reject if given the opportunity for further consideration, and where it appears that such a redetermination may determine the ultimate outcome of the litigation, a GVR order is, we believe, potentially appropriate. Whether a GVR order is ultimately appropriate depends further on the equities of the case: if it appears that the intervening development, such as a confession of error in some but not all aspects of the decision below, is part of an unfair or manipulative litigation strategy, or if the delay and further cost entailed in a remand are not justified by the potential benefits of further consideration by the lower court, a GVR order is inappropriate. This approach is similar in its flexibility to this Court's longstanding approach to applications for stays and other summary remedies granted without determining the merits of the case under the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651. See, e.g., Heckler v. Lopez, 463 U.S. 1328, 104 S.Ct. 10, 77 L.Ed.2d 1431 (1983) (REHNQUIST, J., in chambers) (staying a District Court order pending the decision on the merits of the Court of Appeals). (Naturally, because GVR orders are premised on matters that we have reason to believe the court below did not fully consider, and because they require only further consideration, the standard that we apply in deciding whether to GVR is somewhat more liberal than the All Writs Act standard, under which relief is granted only upon a showing that a grant of certiorari and eventual reversal are probable, see id., at 1330, 104 S.Ct., at 12.) Used in accordance with this approach, the GVR order can improve the fairness and accuracy of judicial outcomes while at the same time serving as a cautious and deferential alternative to summary reversal in cases whose precedential significance does not merit our plenary review.

Justice SCALIA'S dissent would confine GVR's to three categories of case:

"(1) where an intervening factor has arisen that has a legal bearing upon the decision, (2) where, in a context not governed by Michigan v. Long, [463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983) ], clarification of the opinion below is needed to assure our jurisdiction, and (3) . . . where the respondent or appe...

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