Court Battles

Five Supreme Court cases to watch

The U.S. Supreme Court will dive back into questions involving the limits of executive branch power, religious freedom and scope of Fourth Amendment protections when Chief Justice John Roberts and crew return Monday to the bench.

Those issues represent familiar terrain for the Roberts court, which opens its October term with a slate of roughly 50 cases on its docket.

But it remains to be seen whether the court will take up same-sex marriage, abortion or another challenge to ObamaCare — issues that could represent the term’s biggest blockbusters.

Here are five cases to watch, and a few more to watch for:

Heien v. North Carolina

The court begins its term Monday morning with arguments in Heien v. North Carolina, a legal challenge that could broaden the reach of an individual’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The case centers on Nicholas Heien, a passenger in a car pulled over in North Carolina with a broken taillight. The officer subsequently found a bag of cocaine, and Heien was charged with drug trafficking.

Problem is, North Carolina law only requires that vehicles “shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” Since the car in question had one working taillight, the officer was not entitled to pull it over, Heien’s attorneys argue.

At issue at the Supreme Court is whether the arrest was justifiable, given the officer’s “mistake of law.” In June, the court ruled against law enforcement authority in a somewhat related case, holding in June that information on cellphones are off limits to police searches in the absence of a warrant.

Holt v. Hobbs

On Tuesday, the justices will hear arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case looking at the limits of religious freedom under the Constitution and a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The 2000 statute bars government from imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Enter Gregory Holt, an inmate at an Arkansas prison who’s serving a life sentence for attacking his ex-girlfriend.

Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard as part of his Muslim faith, but the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy restricts facial hair length to a quarter of an inch, a measure meant to keep inmates from hiding contraband in their beards.

The court will decide whether that policy violates the institutionalized persons law — or the First Amendment.

Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association

Later in the term, the high court will take up Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association, a case that strikes at the heart of rule-making power at federal agencies.

At issue are longstanding Labor Department rules for what kinds of employees are eligible to earn overtime and minimum wage. For years, the agency had interpreted the rules as not applying to mortgage loan officers, but changed its thinking under the Obama administration.

In clarifying that the loan officers are now entitled to the rights, the administration did not put out a formal notice or take public comment on the change — arguing that the Administrative Procedure Act doesn’t require those measures for regulatory interpretations.

The court, agreeing to hear a challenge from the bankers group, will determine whether agencies have to conduct notice-and-comment proceedings when making such changes.

Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads

Another challenge to regulators, DOT v. AAR, hinges on a provision of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 that called for the Transportation Department to work with Amtrak on rules that would govern the railroad industry.

The AAR balked, arguing that the plan was an improper delegation of regulatory authority to a private company.

The issue is somewhat muddled by heavy government involvement with Amtrak’s operations, and lower courts split on whether the company was simply advising the DOT on rule-making, as is allowed under the law.

The justices will decide whether the law provides for an unconstitutional delegation of authority to a private entity.

Yates v. United States

For the second-straight term, the court will hear a case in which the plaintiff argues they were charged under a statute that had nothing to do with the crime they allegedly committed.

Last term it was Bond v. United States, in which the justices ruled a woman who spread toxic chemicals on a doorknob to get back at a woman who slept with her husband could not be prosecuted under an international chemical weapons treaty.

This time around, it’s Yates v. United States, a case centering on a fisherman who got caught off the Gulf Coast with 72 grouper that did not meet the 20-inch requirement in those waters.

Told to report to shore for punishment, Yates instead dumped the fish overboard and replaced them with bigger ones.

Prosecutors promptly charged Yates with violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted in 2002 to tamp down on corporate crime. The statute contains a provision making a criminal of anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.”

The court will decide whether Yates’ grouper count as a “tangible object.”

Although the current docket may lack any single case likely to capture national attention on par with last year’s Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius or the 2012 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, that could easily change.

The court could agree to hear cases on any of three hotly contested issues:

ObamaCare: The justices could take up another in a string of high-profile challenges to the president’s signature law — this one aimed at the subsidies received by millions of people getting insurance under state-run exchanges.

Abortion: Texas’s law placing stringent restrictions on abortion clinics (which has led to the closure of all but a few in the state) could also be headed for the Supreme Court.

Same-sex marriage: The court last week declined to take up any of several cases involving state bans on gay marriage. But the justices are under fierce pressure to revisit same-sex marriage, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said the court would not duck the issue.

“If a case is properly before the court, they will take it,” she said in July.

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