Five Supreme Court cases to watch

Five Supreme Court cases to watch

The U.S. Supreme Court's justices return to the bench next week to hear a slate of new cases with sweeping implications on race, the criminal justice system, public sector unions and, many experts expect, another rendezvous with ObamaCare. 

Following a momentous term producing a landmark decision to legalize gay marriage and another major win for the president’s signature healthcare law, the justices will return to another full docket, and court watchers say more blockbuster cases could be added.

The court has agreed to hear 34 cases and is likely to take up more at its conference on Monday.

Among those cases to be added is a pair focused on reproductive rights, including one out of Texas challenging the state’s controversial abortion restrictions. Meanwhile, the legal challenge against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is winding through the federal courts and could also land before Chief Justice John Roberts’s court.

“If the court takes a reproductive rights case or an immigration case is could end up being a very momentous term,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center.

The term marks Roberts’s 10th anniversary as chief justice, a milestone certain to increase scrutiny of his leadership and the direction of the court. That attention will only be intensified by an increasingly contentious presidential race that has a already seen its fair share of SCOTUS-sniping from the candidates.

Several GOP candidates have already cast doubt on whether Roberts should have been confirmed in the first place.

“I’ve known John Roberts for 20 years, he’s an amazingly talented lawyer, but yes, it was a mistake when he was appointed to the Supreme Court,” Sen. Cruz — previously a Roberts supporter — sais during this month’s debate.

Taken together, those politics and a slate of upcoming decisions sure to impact the lives of millions of Americans create the potential for high drama at the high court.

Here’s a look at five must-watch cases to watch this term.

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

Before the court for second time is a case challenging the University of Texas (UT) policy of using race as a factor in its undergraduate admissions process.

Committed to increasing minority enrollment, UT adopted the policy after the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one of many “plus factors” in admissions in the 2003 landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, sued the school when she was not accepted in 2008. She argued that UT’s consideration of race in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.

Texas law already grants automatic admission to any public state college, including the UT, to all students in the top 10 percent of their high school class, assuring minority students a path to enrollment, Fisher argues.

In 2013, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts in a 7-1 decision. The justices said the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals failed to apply the correct standard of strict scrutiny in upholding UT’s policy.

Because the 5th Circuit ruled again in favor of UT, the case is now back before the court.

“The basic argument of the challengers is you have your top 10 percent plan and now you’re stuck with it,” said Lisa Blatt, a partner at Arnold and Porter.  “I don’t think this case puts the fear of god in every other university because they don’t have the top 10 percent plan.”

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

This case centers on a California law that allows school districts to require public school teachers, as a condition of employment, to either join the union or opt out —but still pay a portion of the union dues.

At issue is whether the court should overturn a 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case, the court upheld the requirement that non-union workers pay a portion of the union fees because a public union shop bargains on behalf of everyone.

If the court is not going to overturn Abood, however, the justices must decide whether it violates the First Amendment to require public employees to affirmatively opt out of union payments instead of requiring employees to opt into the union and affirmatively consent to the union fees.

Wydra said the case doesn’t put public-sector unions squarely on the chopping block, but argued that it could make it significantly harder for people to come together to speak up for better and fairer working conditions.

Evenwel v. Abbott

The justices will also be tasked with deciding how states should measure population when drawing voter districts, in a case with major political implications.

In this case, Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger claim their votes for state Senate representation count less than those in bigger districts because the state used total population to draw the voting districts instead of voting-age population.

A lower court held that the “one-person, one-vote” principal allows states to use total population in drawing district lines. Now the Supreme Court will need to decide if the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment requires states to user voter population instead.

 Montgomery v. Louisiana

This case centers on Henry Montgomery, who was found and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed in 1963 at the age of 17.

Montgomery, who is now 69, is challenging the state of Louisiana’s decision to keep him behind bars despite the Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as a punishment for murder.

The court must rule whether that case, known as Miller v. Alabama, retroactively applies to people like Montgomery who were sentenced to life in prison without parole as a juvenile prior to that decision, as well as whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide whether the Louisiana Supreme Court correctly refused to apply the case retroactively.   

Montgomery was given a new trial in 1969, but was again found guilty.

Sharpe Holdings Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 

Though the justices have not yet agreed to hear this case, legal experts say it’s likely they will. Earlier this month, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that requires all employer healthcare plans to cover federally approved forms of birth control. 

The ruling differed with previous federal court decisions, signaling a lower split, which often helps trigger Supreme Court review of a case. 

The 8th Circuit said requiring religious nonprofits to seek an exemption by writing a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services or documenting their objections on a two-page form “substantially” burdened their exercise of religion.

The court said the burden mirrors the substantial burden the court recognized in Burwell v Hobby Lobby, a 2014 decision that allowed certain for-profit companies to opt out of the contraceptive mandate.