Death penalty, same-sex marriage and air pollution: Supreme Court’s most important decisions this term
The Supreme Court has handed down more than two dozen decisions this term on matters involving politics, civil rights, free speech and air pollution. Several of these cases were pending for months, suggesting the justices were sharply split, and indeed they were.
Marriage and gay rights
The court has said the right to marry is a basic liberty protected by the Constitution. Same-sex couples, some of whom are raising children, say that as a matter of equal rights, states may not deny them a marriage license. In their defense of laws banning same-sex marriage, the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee say the decision should be left to them and their voters. (Obergefell vs. Hodges)
Decided June 26: Declaring that same-sex unions deserve equal respect and dignity under the law, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide without regard to their state’s laws.
Death penalty and lethal injection
The court had to decide whether prison authorities, lacking access to sodium thiopental, may use a less effective sedative, midazolam, which has been blamed for several botched executions. (Glossip vs. Gross)
Decided June 29: The court cleared the way for Oklahoma and other death-penalty states to execute convicted murderers with a lethal injection that relies on the sedative midazolam.
The 5-4 decision rejected claims from death-penalty foes who said the drug is not reliably effective and could subject an inmate to a cruelly painful death.
Toxic air and power plants
The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to force power plants to sharply reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous air pollutants. The coal and power industries, backed by Republican-led states, say the nearly $10 billion a year required to abide by the rule is too high. The case of Michigan vs. EPA offered a test of whether the high court would uphold the Obama administration’s most ambitious clean air rules, including proposed climate change standards.
Decided June 29: The court blocked new Obama administration rules designed to sharply limit the hazardous air pollutants.
The justices by a 5-4 vote agreed with the coal industry and Republican-led states that said the forced cutbacks were too costly and could lead to power outages.
Politicians and redistricting
At least once a decade, new census data prompt states to redraw their districts. Party leaders can use this power to draw safe seats for their members. Upset by gerrymandering, voters in Arizona and California opted to create an independent commission to draw congressional districts. Arizona’s Republican legislators want the Supreme Court to strike down these commissions and rule the Constitution reserves this power for “the legislature.”
The case of Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was heard in March.
Decided June 29: The court upheld the kind of independent redistricting commissions used in Arizona and California to prevent partisan gerrymandering.
The 5-4 decision bolsters an increasingly popular political reform adopted by voters in California and other states to transfer authority to draw districts from state legislators to a nonpartisan citizen panel.
Health insurance and tax subsidies
The Affordable Care Act said Americans must have health insurance, and the law promised to help pay part of the cost for low- and middle-income people. One clause said these subsidies go for insurance bought through an “exchange established by the state.” But only 14 states established an exchange of their own, and the rest rely on exchanges set up by federal authorities. A small conservative group sued, alleging that subsidies in the 36 states are illegal. Supporters of the law say Congress clearly envisioned that subsidies would be offered in all states. (King vs. Burwell)
Decided June 25: In a major victory for President Obama, justices voted 6-3 to reject a second conservative challenge to the law. A decision to accept the challenge could have left more than 6 million Americans scrambling to pay for their coverage.
Race and housing bias
One of this term’s most important civil rights cases will decide the reach of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It forbids refusing to sell or rent to people because of their race, religion, sex or national origin. Judges have said it forbids more than blatant acts of bias, but also zoning, lending rules and housing policies that have a discriminatory effect based on race. However, the court’s conservatives are skeptical of bias claims based on statistics. The case of Texas vs. Inclusive Communities Project was heard in January.
Decided June 25: The court ruled 5-4 to uphold the broad reach of a federal law that forbids racial discrimination in housing, ruling the civil rights measure covers more than merely cases of intentional and blatant racial bias.
Motel registers and police searches
The court will decide whether Los Angeles may require motel owners to keep a guest registry that is always available for immediate inspection by the police. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court said the city’s ordinance violated the 4th Amendment and its ban on unreasonable searches. (City of Los Angeles vs. Patel)
Decided June 22: In a 5-4 decision that upheld the 9th Circuit Court ruling, the high court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that permits the police to check guest registries at motels and hotels at any hour of the day or night.
Raisin growers and private property
The court will decide whether it is an unconstitutional taking of private property for a government-backed raisin board to seize as much as one-third of a farmer’s annual crop. The case could unravel one of the last New Deal-era programs that allows farmers to band together with government backing to prop up prices. (Horne vs. U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Decided June 22: In a 8-1 decision, the high court declared it was unconstitutional for a government-backed agricultural board to claim control of about one-third of the raisin farmer’s crop. The justices said Marvin Horne from Fresno deserves to be compensated for the official seizure of his personal property.
License plates and Confederate flags
The court will decide whether specialty license plates speak for the state or its motorists. At issue is whether the 1st Amendment forbids states from refusing to produce plates because of their message, such as a Confederate battle flag. (Walker vs. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans)
Decided June 18: In a 5-4 decision, the justices said a state-issued license plate is “government speech,” not the private speech of a motorist. For that reason, the state may decide which messages it wants conveyed on license plates.
Child victims and trial testimony
The court will decide whether a child abuse suspect can block the trial testimony of a preschool teacher who reported what a 3-year-old told her. Usually, young children are shielded from testifying. But the 6th Amendment gives the accused the right to be “confronted with the witnesses against him.” The court has struggled to decide when others, like a teacher, can testify in place of the witness to a crime. The case of Ohio vs. Clark, heard in March, could have a far-reaching effect.
Decided June 18—The court ruled 9-0 that a pre-school teacher is not a law enforcement agent and therefore, may testify about the abuse reported by the 3-year-old.
Passports and foreign policy
A seemingly minor case involving the passport of a 12-year-old American boy born in Jerusalem raises a major question: Does Congress or the president have the final word on foreign policy? Congress in 2002 passed a law giving U.S. parents a right to have “Israel” listed as the birthplace for a child born in Jerusalem, but Presidents George W. Bush and Obama refused to abide by it, noting that both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital. They say the law interferes with a president’s “exclusive authority to recognize foreign states” and handle a sensitive matter of foreign policy. The case of Zivotofsky vs. Kerry was argued in November, so the decision is overdue.
Decided June 8:
By a 6-3 vote, the justices struck down part of a law that gave American parents the right to list “Israel” on a U.S. passport as the birthplace of a child born in Jerusalem. The decision gave the president the final word in the sensitive, long-running dispute.
Facebook threats and free speech
It is illegal to transmit “any threat” on the phone or the Internet, but it is unclear what the government must prove to win a conviction. Anthony Elonis was sent to prison after he boasted on Facebook of how he could kill his ex-wife, hide her body and “slit the throat” of an FBI agent who was on his case. He now says he was just ranting, and prosecutors did not prove he intended to threaten anyone. Elonis vs. U.S. has been pending since early December.
Decided June 1: By an 8-1 vote, the justices reversed the conviction on the grounds that the jury was told to focus only on whether a “reasonable person” would see his comments as threats.
Head scarves and religious liberty
The case of a 17-year-old Muslim girl who wore a black head scarf and was turned down for a sales job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store calls on the court to clarify the rules for religion in the workplace. Must a job applicant ask for a religious accommodation, or does an employer have a duty to ask her whether workplace rules conflict with her religion? (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie & Fitch)
Decided June 1: By an 8-1 vote, the high court said the store violated the federal Civil Rights Act because its managers knew or at least suspected she was wearing the scarf, or hijab, for religious reasons.
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