Here are the major questions before the Supreme Court this year


The Supreme Court has a backlog of cases awaiting a decision, some of which were argued in early October. The justices will continue to hear new cases through April and are expected to issue rulings in all of them by the end of June.

Here are the major questions pending before the court this year:

Religious liberty and gay rights

Can a baker refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his Christian beliefs, or can the state require that businesses open to the public provide “full and equal” services to customers without regard to their sexual orientation?

Colorado and 20 other states have civil rights laws that protect gays and lesbians. Trump administration lawyers have urged the court to carve out a “narrow” exception based on the freedom of speech for cake makers, photographers, musicians and others whose work is “expressive.”


Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado was heard on December 5.

Partisan gerrymandering

When one party controls a state’s government, can it draw election district maps to “entrench” itself in the majority for another decade, even in elections where most voters cast ballots for other party?

Since the 1980s, the justices have frowned on “partisan gerrymandering” as unfair and corrupt, but they have not agreed on a rule for when an election map tilts so far as to be unconstitutional. By contrast, the court has outlawed racial gerrymandering, but often the lines between racial and partisan gerrymandering are blurred.

The justices tackled partisan gerrymandering again in a Wisconsin case, Gill vs. Whitford, heard on October 3. Several Democrats, alleging Republicans had drawn a map that all but guarantees their party will control the state House. On March 28, the court heard a second case on partisan gerrymandering where Democrats are accused of redrawing the lines to all but guarantee their party would win seven of eights seats in the U.S. House. It is Benisek vs. Lamone.

Cellphone tracking and privacy

Can the FBI and police obtain cellphone data to track the movements of a crime suspect because such phone company-held records are not private, or must they first obtain a search warrant based on probable cause from a magistrate?

Privacy advocates on the right and left urge the court to strictly protect these records. However, investigators say they sometimes need the data to track travel patterns to identify a crime suspect or a terrorist.

Carpenter vs. United States was heard on November 29.

Employees and group arbitration

Can companies require workers to waive their rights to join any class or collective action against their employer and instead resolve disputes as individuals through binding arbitration?


Obama administration lawyers told the court these arbitration clauses were illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which said workers had a right to join a union or take “other concerted activities.” In June, the Trump administration switched sides and said these waivers could be enforced under the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925.

The court heard the arguments on October 2 in NLRB vs. Murphy Oil USA and two related cases.

Jail before deportation

Can noncitizens who are slated for deportation be kept in jail indefinitely, or must they be given a bail hearing after six months?

Acting on a class-action suit in Los Angeles, the 9th Circuit Court said such detainees have a right to bail after six months if they pose no danger to the public and are unlikely to flee. The justices heard the government’s appeal in 2016, shortly after President Trump’s election, but could not reach a decision.

The case, Jennings vs. Rodriguez, was argued again October 3. The court finally ruled on Feb. 27, deciding by a 5-3 vote that the detainees did not have a right to a bail hearing under the federal immigration laws. But the justices did not rule on whether the Constitution protects the right to hearing and sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for a ruling on that issue.

Voting rolls and purges

Can states remove voters from their rolls if they fail to vote for two years and do not respond to notices over four years?

The 6th Circuit Court agreed with civil rights lawyers who said this procedure in Ohio violated a federal law that says a voter’s registration may not be canceled for “a failure to vote.”

Arguments in Husted vs. A. Philip Randolph Institute were heard on January 10.

Sports betting

Can New Jersey allow sports betting at its casinos and racetracks, or must it abide by a federal law that prohibits gambling on sports, except in Nevada?

The state had lost repeatedly in lower courts, but the justices on December 4 gave a friendly hearing to the state’s claim in Christie vs. NCAA.

Public employees and union fees

Can states require teachers and other unionized public employees to pay a fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining?

The court upheld such laws 40 years ago, but anti-union lawyers say these forced payments violate the free-speech rights of workers.

The court was set to decide this issue in 2016 in the case of a California teacher, but after Justice Antonin Scalia died, the justices were split 4-4.

An Illinois child care worker filed an appeal raising the same issue, and the court will hear arguments on February 26 in the case of Janus vs. AFSCME.

Pregnancy centers, abortion and free speech

Can California require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose to patients that the state offers subsidized prenatal care and abortion to eligible women, or does this mandatory state message violate the free-speech rights of the clinic’s sponsors, many of whom are morally opposed to abortion?

The court voted to hear the case of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates vs. Becerra, and arguments were heard on March 20.

On-line sellers and state sales taxes

Can states require Internet merchants to collect sales taxes on each purchase, even if they operate on-line only and do not have stores or employees in the state? In 1992, the court ruled in Quill vs. North Dakota such far-reaching tax laws would violate the Constitution’s protection for the free flow of interstate commerce. But the justices agreed to hear an appeal from 41 states arguing that ruling costs the states tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue and should be overturned. The case of South Dakota vs. Wayfair was heard on April 17.

President Trump and the travel ban

Can President Trump, acting by proclamation, bar most travelers and immigrants from six majority Muslim nations because he sees them as a threat or does his order exceed his powers under the immigration laws and violate the Constitution’s ban on religious discrimination?

The justices voted to allow the travel ban to take full effect, but they will review a 9th Circuit ruling which held the president, acting on his own, does not have the power to deny entry to immigrants based solely on their nationality. The case of Trump vs. Hawaii was heard on April 25.

Decision time at the Supreme Court: A look at this term’s rulings on religion, free speech and immigration »

On Twitter: DavidGSavage