Welcome To Supreme Court Decision Season

June is the month where decisions on cases of the highest political priority are typically issued; this year that includes, abortion rights, affirmative action, and immigration. I’ll be reporting on these important decisions throughout this month for The Establishment.

But first: a primer on how the court works, and what to expect.

Decisions come down whenever the court decides — a truism for a lot of inner workings of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts has a reputation for being especially aware of the politics around the cases the court chooses to hear, how results will affect the reputation of the court, and when the decisions are released. During his tenure, we have had to wait until the end of June for same-sex marriage and health care — two of the most closely anticipated decisions in recent history. Which means we are likely to wait on this year’s “big three” — Fisher v. University of Texas (affirmative action), United States v. Texas (immigration), and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (abortion) — until the week of the 27th.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has managed to get some business done already this year — despite the fact that Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy and GOP leadership promises to never hold confirmation hearings on President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland have made this a complicated decision season.

Here’s what the court has decided on voting, unions, contraception and religious freedom, life sentences for juveniles, and the death penalty. We bring you: your SCOTUS rewind!


Evenwel v. Abbott — “One Person, One Vote”

The Court ruled unanimously in April to uphold the established “one person, one vote” principle challenged in the case. Voting districts will continue to be drawn based on total number of persons, rather than on total number of eligible voters — a shift that would have reapportioned power to white, rural, republican districts.

Expert Supreme Court writer Dahlia Lithwick boiled down the premise of the case for Slate after oral arguments in December:

“In the plainest sense, Evenwel v. Abbott simply asks the court to determine whether states — in this case Texas — should apportion legislative districts by counting the total population (as determined through the census) or the number of eligible voters. The plaintiffs, Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, contend that basing apportionment on persons rather than voters violates the line of 50-year-old cases, including Reynolds v. Sims, that established the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ the court has located in the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.”

The notion that only eligible voters should be represented — thus disenfranchising children, felons in some states, the mentally ill in some states, and undocumented residents — is a notion created by Edward Blum, president of the Project on Fair Representation. If his name or organization sounds familiar, it’s because he was behind Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 SCOTUS case that dismantled the “preclearance” requirement — essentially, the enforcement arm — of the Voting Rights Act. States with histories of disenfranchising minority voters no longer need to submit proposed changes; predictably, an explosion of laws at the state level followed.

Between 2011 and 2015, 395 new voting restrictions were introduced in 49 states. Thanks to the 2013 decision, voting rights advocates have very little recourse in fighting those laws; bringing down “one person, one vote” would have wreaked further havoc. The Evenwel v. Abbott ruling was a welcome relief.


Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — Labor Rights

The Court split 4–4, unable to reach a majority decision due to the vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death. As with split decisions, the lower court ruling stands — which means unions just dodged a bullet that could have been a death blow. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in favor of the unions in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will stand; the nonunion public sector workers seeking to opt-out of paying union dues lost their appeal.

According to reports from oral arguments in January, it seemed that the court would vote 5–4 with Scalia tipping the scales for the conservative majority. Because the 4–4 decision does not set precedent (essentially, it’s a non-decision decision), petitioners’ counsel intends to seek a rehearing next term, should there be a full nine-justice court.

Lithwick’s summary at Slate on what’s at stake:

“California, along with 22 other states, requires all public employees represented by unions to pay a ‘fair-share’ or ‘agency’ fee, which is directed toward the union’s collective-bargaining activities, even if they do not belong to the unions. This has been approved by the Supreme Court for nearly 40 years and allows those who benefit from union activities to opt out of a union’s political efforts without being free riders.”

Challenges to union fees have become a regular thing since the Supreme Court upheld agency fees in a 1977 decision called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. So, while this is a win by avoiding a precedent-setting loss, we can be sure this isn’t the last attempt to destroy what’s left of unions in this country.


Zubik v. Burwell — Contraception And “Religious Freedom”

Zubik v. Burwell is the most confounding “action” by the court this term. The unsigned order issued last month directed the lower courts to “resolve any outstanding issues between them” on the latest set of challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate. Court watchers don’t expect the mess of conflicting lower court rulings to magically work themselves out simply because the highest court tells them to make it so, which means the patchwork of inconsistencies will remain pending further challenges.

Zubik v. Burwell was the lead case brought by religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations that feel that the concessions from the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (yes, the same Burwell) decision and Obama administration’s ACA opt-out/work-around form relieving them of their duty to provide birth control for employees is not enough. Filling in the form, say the plaintiffs from Little Sisters of the Poor, violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court has not agreed or disagreed.


Montgomery v. Louisiana — Life Sentences For Juveniles

The 6–3 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana issued in January expanded on the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama that life without parole should be an “uncommon,” even “rare,” sentence for defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. According to SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston who has been covering the court for 58 years, the new ruling will retroactively apply and “provide a chance for early release of a thousand or more inmates whose life sentences are now unconstitutional but were valid when imposed years earlier.”


Lynch v. Arizona, Hurst v. Florida, Kansas v. Carr, Kansas v. Carr, Kansas v. Gleason — Death Penalty

The Supreme Court issued majority decisions on two cases — Lynch v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida — that affect the manner in which those convicted of capital crimes receive the death penalty.

In January by an 8–1 vote with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, Florida’s practice of allowing a jury to issue an “advisory sentence,” while allowing a judge to unilaterally sentence someone to death was found to be a violation of the Sixth Amendment and struck down. This leaves just one state — Alabama — where a trial judge can override a jury’s sentence of life without parole to impose the death penalty. According to Denniston, the implications of this decision on the Alabama law are unclear, but it was written broadly so as to include the principles of the death penalty sentencing process.

Then, in May, the court ruled 6–2 with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting that the defendant has the right to inform the jury that the only two possible sentences are death and life without the possibility of parole in cases where the defendant’s “future dangerousness” is considered at sentencing. The Arizona Supreme Court ruling to the contrary is reversed.

All three Kansas cases considered procedural elements of the trial and sentencing process. Brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr (hence, the two separate Carr cases) and Sidney Gleason had their death sentences overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2014. The Carr brothers were challenging the constitutionality of their joint sentencing hearing and all three were claiming that juries should be instructed that “mitigating factors” — evidence in favor of sparing their lives — needn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be considered. According to Amy Howe, editor/reporter at SCOTUSblog, “The failure to tell that to the jury, they contended, created the possibility that the jury would be confused and would not take all of the mitigating evidence into effect.”


The next round of decisions is expected Monday at 9:30 a.m. EST. At that time, Justice Roberts should announce if there will be additional decision days next week.


Lead image: flickr/TexasGOPVote.com