SCOTUS Decision Day Roundup: Spider-Man royalties, raisin takings, and some Supreme Court humor

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The Supreme Court of the United States issued four opinions today that addressed patent royalty payments, administrative searches of hotel guest logs, use of force against detainees, and the application of the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause to personal property.

A few of the Justices also offered a rare, entertaining glimpse into Supreme Court humor.  “[H]aving the Court of Appeals calculate ‘just compensation’ in this case would be a fruitless exercise,” Justice Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion involving government takings of raisins.  “In this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility,” quoted Justice Kagan in a case involving royalties over a Spider-Man toy, who also quipped that “[p]atents endow their holders with certain superpowers,” and that “[t]he parties had contemplated that royalties would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can).”  The day’s four opinions were as follows:

1.  Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment (6-3):

ScotusBlog has the summary:  “The question in this case was whether the Supreme Court would overrule a very old decision that prohibits a patentee from collecting royalties after the patent expires, even if the patentee and licensee expressly agreed that the royalties would last longer.  The Court was encouraged to overrule that precedent because it doesn’t make much economic sense.  The Court said it would adhere to its old rule anyway.”

The majority’s opinion turned on the Court’s commitment to stare decisis – Latin for “to stand by things decided” – which means that the Court declined to overturn its prior ruling on the same issue.  Of note, Justice Kagan also referred to the force of stare decisis in this particular case as “superpowered” because: (1) “stare decisis carries enhanced force when a decision . . . interprets a statute,” and (2) because people had relied on the Court’s prior decision in Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U. S. 29 (1964), when drafting their agreements (“we see a reasonable possibility that parties have structured their business transactions in light of Brulotte”).

2.  Los Angeles v. Patel (5-4):

Los Angeles passed a law requiring hotel and motel operators to record and keep specific information about their guests for a 90-day period.  The law further stated that such records “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection . . . at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business,” and that failure to make the records available would be punishable as a criminal offense.  Several motel operators sued the city, claiming that the law violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

Held:  The statute “is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide hotel and motel operators with an opportunity for precompliance review” before they must give their guest registries to the police for inspection.

3.  Kingsley v. Hendrickson (5-4):

While awaiting trial in a county jail, an inmate was forcibly removed from his cell.  According to the inmate, the officers slammed his head into a concrete bunk.  Additionally, all parties agree that the inmate was handcuffed and that the officers “applied a Taser to [the inmate’s] back for approximately five seconds” while he was handcuffed.

The inmate filed a complaint in Federal District Court claiming that the officers used excessive force against him in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  At the trial’s conclusion, the District Court instructed the jury that the inmate was required to prove that the officers both “recklessly disregarded [Kingsley’s] safety” and “acted with reckless disregard of [his] rights.”  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that the law required a “subjective inquiry” into the officers’ state of mind.

Held:  Under U.S.C. § 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.  A subjective inquiry into the officers’ state of mind is not required.

4.  Horne v. Department of Agriculture (8-1 on the takings holding):

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate “marketing orders” to help maintain stable markets for particular agricultural products.  The Secretary’s specific marketing order for raisins established a “Raisin Administrative Committee” that obligated growers to set aside a certain percentage of their crop for the Government free of charge.  The Government made use of those raisins by selling them in noncompetitive markets, donating them, or disposing of them by means consistent with the purposes of the program.  If any profits were left over after subtracting the Government’s expenses from administering the program, the net proceeds were distributed back to the raisin growers.

ScotusBlog explains:  “Horne was brought by a family of raisin farmers, who object[ed] to being required to participate in [the] government program that obligated them to set aside a portion of their crop and not sell it on the market [in order] to keep crop prices up.  The basic question before the Court was whether, in its efforts to manage supply and demand to raise the prices of raisins[,] the government was “taking” the farmers’ property from them, triggering a constitutional duty to pay compensation.”

The specific question presented for review in this case was whether “the [raisin] reserve requirement was an unconstitutional taking of [the farmers’] property under the Fifth Amendment.”  More broadly, however, the question was whether the Fifth Amendment requires the government to pay just compensation when it takes personal property– just as it is required to do when it takes real property (ie: a person’s land).

Held:  The Fifth Amendment requires the Government to pay just compensation when it takes personal property.

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