Our U.S. Supreme Court – SCOTUS – receives more than 7,000 requests to hear cases per year.
That’s a lot of requests.
SCOTUS agrees to hear between 100 and 150 of those petitions.
Whoa! That seems like so few out of so many.
And the people/groups filing those petitions have already been through a lot, including slogging through our labyrinthian court system, where nothing happens expeditiously and everything costs a great deal of money.
Here are two cases, one of which hopes to go to SCOTUS and shouldn’t, and one I hope will go to SCOTUS and win.
Rip-Off Attempt #1: The Case SCOTUS Should Skip
SDG&E – San Diego Gas & Electric – is our not-so-beloved utility company. It is, in my opinion, best-known for trying to squeeze every possible penny from its customers, while paying maximum amounts of money to itself and its shareholders.
In this case, SDG&E has filed their SCOTUS petition because they believe the California Public Utilities Commission and the 4th District Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court violated their constitutional rights by denying the company permission to charge customers $379 million in leftover wildfire expenses.
“Leftover”? What does that mean?
It means money SDG&E owes to plaintiffs and wants to screw out of its customers.
The dispute over the $379 million dates back more than a decade, when SDG&E first applied to recover the money from customers. This was following three of the worst wildfires in a devastating firestorm in San Diego County in October 2007.
The three fires combined to kill two people, injure 40 firefighters and destroy 1,300 homes.
Investigations into the causes of the wildfires found they were sparked by SDG&E equipment that had not been properly maintained.
SDG&E was confronted by plaintiffs alleging more than $5.5 billion in damages, but resolved those claims for $2.4 billion. It recovered $1.1 billion from insurance and $824 million from legal settlements with third parties, leaving $476 million in unrecovered losses.
Read: The “leftover.”
So SDG&E filed an application to charge customers $379 million, which – when I do the math – still leaves around $100M unaccounted for.
Perhaps SDG&E is planning to sneak that part of the “leftover” into the nebulous category of “other charges” that appears on my bill each month?
To that $379M SDG&E want to collect from us, let’s add that $100M, plus beaucoup bucks in lawyer$$$$$$ fee$$$$$$, for a case that one opponent called “a Hail Mary pass,” and another described as both “specious” and frivolous.”
If SCOTUS agrees to hear this case, I hope they tell SDG&E to…
Rip-Off Attempt #2: The Case SCOTUS Should Hear – And Agree With Me
No one is disputing that the painting by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain, once belonged to the Cassirer family. Julius Cassirer, a German industrialist and part of a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, acquired the artwork in 1898, the year after Pissarro painted it.
No one is disputing that Lilly, Cassirer’s daughter-in-law, inherited the painting in 1926 after her husband’s death, or that the painting belonged to the family for four decades.
Nor is anyone disputing that, as the persecution of Jews escalated, Lily needed to get out of Germany. In 1939 as she tried to leave, a Nazi official forced her to surrender the painting in exchange for the exit visa she needed.
And Rue Saint-Honoré became another of the estimated 600,000 paintings acquired, confiscated, and stolen by the Nazi government.
The painting passed through many hands before it was purchased in 1976 from a New York gallery by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss art collector and descendant of a German steel empire family. In 1993 Rue Saint-Honoré was then acquired from the Baron as part of a $350 million purchase of his collection by his soon-to-be-namesake museum, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.
So here’s the dispute.
Did the Baron know or suspect that Rue Saint-Honoré was owned by a Jewish family and confiscated by the Nazis?
Did the museum know or suspect the same?
The descendants of Lilly Cassirer say the Baron and the museum knew, or should have suspected.
But in a trial in Los Angeles that concluded in late April, U.S. District Judge John Walter sided with the museum.
Now, the baron was no slouch when it came to art collecting. Among other red flags, the Cassirer descendants claimed that the baron was a sophisticated art dealer, and that he purchased Rue Saint-Honoré for $275,000, approximately “half of what would have been expected in a dealer sale,” according to their expert. The expert concluded that, “There is no reasonable explanation for this price other than dubious provenance.”
Another red flag: The baron who, when indicted in 1972 by Italian authorities for illegally exporting art from Italy, allegedly joked, “I buy the stuff in Switzerland and the United States, but how it gets there I don’t know. I can’t check all that.”
The judge, on this issue, seemed to agree: “There were sufficient suspicious circumstances or red flags which should have prompted the baron to conduct additional inquiries” about the provenance of the painting.
Also at issue: There are international agreements – though non-binding – that appeal to the moral conscience of participating countries to return confiscated art works, and encourage public and private institutions to apply them as well.
But the judge concluded that the museum had purchased the painting in good faith, and “The court…cannot force the Kingdom of Spain or Thyssen-Bornemisza [museum] to comply with its moral commitments.”
So for now, Rue Saint-Honoré continues to hang in the museum in Madrid.
And instead of passing the painting from generation to generation, Lily Cassirer’s descendants have passed the lawsuit. From Claude, the grandson she raised who began the lawsuit in 2005, then to Claude’s daughter, and then to her son, David.
I believe the baron knew. I believe the museum knew.
I hope David Cassirer continues his slog through our labyrinthian court system – where nothing happens expeditiously and everything costs a great deal of money.
I hope his case reaches SCOTUS, and becomes one of those few out of so many that the justices agree to hear.
And I hope that after more than 80 years, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain will once again grace the wall of a Cassirer home.