5 major cases to watch at the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court on Monday will kick off a new term in which the justices will hear the latest Republican challenge to ObamaCare, a bid to reinstate voting limits in Arizona that were struck down as racially biased and House Democrats’ long-running pursuit of secret Russia probe materials.
The court resumes its business just weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a stalwart liberal, left a vacancy that is expected to be filled by President Trump’s third nominee to the bench, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who would cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.
Senate Republicans hope to seat Barrett prior to the Nov. 3 election, and the pace of her confirmation may have a bearing on how some of the term’s cases are decided. Barrett is prohibited from voting on cases argued before she was confirmed, creating the possibility that some cases may be decided on a 4-4 vote, which would effectively uphold the ruling in the lower court.
The justices will continue to add new cases to its docket as the term unfolds, and it already faces requests to review additional voting rules disputes in states that could help decide the outcome of the 2020 presidential race. For now, though, here are five cases that will draw public attention and likely be decided in May or June.
Fate of ObamaCare
The Supreme Court will hear a third major challenge to the Affordable Care Act, known as ObamaCare, with arguments scheduled for a week after Election Day.
The challengers, a group of more than a dozen Republican states, argue that President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts effectively rendered a key provision of ObamaCare unconstitutional and therefore the entire health law should be struck down.
The GOP challengers note that the law’s original design depended on a requirement that most people purchase insurance, and set up a tax penalty for noncompliance. But the Trump tax cuts zeroed-out the penalty, which, according to the litigants, should cause the whole ObamaCare structure to collapse.
Court watchers say that even if Republicans convince the justices that the health requirement provision is now illegal, they may face difficulty convincing the court to strike down the law in its entirety, rather than simply lop off the so-called individual mandate that makes the purchase of coverage compulsory.
The political ground has shifted dramatically since the justices agreed in March to take up the case. The country has gone from enjoying historically low jobless numbers and fewer than two dozen coronavirus cases to seeing millions of newly unemployed Americans lose job-based health coverage and more than 209,000 die from COVID-19.
Democrats, who are defending the law, say that if the Republican-led lawsuit succeeds, it would increase the health risks to Americans in the middle of a pandemic.
Arizona voting rules
The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a Republican bid to reinstate a pair of Arizona voting restrictions that were struck down by a lower court as racially biased.
The case, which has not been scheduled for argument yet, is the first election-related dispute to be taken up by the court following the death of Ginsburg, a stalwart liberal and fierce defender of voting rights.
One of the disputed policies deals with how Arizona election administrators must handle ballots that are cast at the wrong polling place, or precinct. Under Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule, administrators are required to throw away any miscast ballot in its entirety.
The second voting restriction at issue is a 2016 Arizona law that criminalizes the collection and delivery of another person’s ballot, a service sometimes referred to as “ballot harvesting.”
In its decision striking down the rules, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that in recent elections the restrictions fell disproportionately hard on Arizona’s minority populations, who tend to vote Democratic.
Religious rights and LGBT discrimination
The justices will hear a dispute that pits religious rights against nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in a case scheduled for Nov. 4, a day after Election Day.
The lawsuit arose after Philadelphia ended its foster-care partnership with a Catholic social services organization. The city severed ties after learning that the Catholic group refused to place foster children in the homes of gay couples, in violation of Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
The Catholic group, represented by the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, brought suit. The organization alleges that the city has unfairly targeted religious contractors whose sincerely held objection to gay marriage is protected under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.
Federal agency power
The justices on Dec. 9 will hear a constitutional challenge to the structure of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), an agency created in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
The agency oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored entities that Congress set up to help expand the U.S. housing market. Among other activities, Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages from private banks and sell them as mortgage-backed securities to investors.
Sitting atop its regulator, the FHFA, is a single director whom the president of the United States cannot fire at will, but only for neglect or misconduct. At issue in the case is whether the director’s relatively insulated status unlawfully usurps the president’s authority over the executive branch, in violation of the Constitution.
A successful bid by the challengers — a group of Fannie and Freddie shareholders — could make the agency director more vulnerable to dismissal as well as undo much of the FHFA’s previous actions.
Mueller grand jury material
The Supreme Court will hear the long-running dispute over House Democrats’ request for access to secret grand jury materials stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The Trump administration is asking the justices to overturn a lower court order to hand over secret transcripts and exhibits that the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee initially sought as part of its impeachment inquiry into Trump.
Some court watchers say it’s possible the justices sidestep a major ruling on separation-of-powers by finding that House Democrats’ window to access the documents has already closed.
“There’s at least the possibility that, rather than resolve a complex inter-branch dispute, the justices might seize upon the intervening election of a new House of Representatives as grounds for vacating the decisions below and dismissing the government’s appeal,” legal analyst Steve Vladeck wrote on SCOTUSBlog.
Trump’s Department of Justice, for its part, says it would be a grave breach of grand jury secrecy and set a dangerous precedent to require the department to give the Mueller materials to Congress.
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