Court Battles

The 7 big Supreme Court cases to watch in 2020

The Supreme Court will hear a slate of highly charged disputes when the justices return to the bench in the new year and resume one of the most politically volatile terms in recent memory.

Since the term opened in October, the court has heard high-profile fights over LGBT rights in the workplace, the scope of the Second Amendment and the deportation status of nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants.

The remaining cases on the court’s docket are no less explosive. The justices will confront novel separation of powers questions, including whether to release President Trump’s financial records to investigators. They will be asked to draw new lines between church and state. And for the first time since Trump’s two nominees joined the court, the justices will hear a case on abortion.

Here are some of the hot-button arguments awaiting the Supreme Court in 2020.


Trump’s financial records 

This landmark separation of powers fight involves three separate efforts by House Democrats and New York state prosecutors to obtain years of Trump’s financial records and tax returns.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoenaed Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, for personal and corporate records. Separately, the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees requested financial records housed at Deutsche Bank and Capital One. Manhattan prosecutors have also subpoenaed Mazars for Trump’s tax returns and other documents from 2011 to 2018.

A blockbuster ruling on the extent of presidential immunity in the face of congressional oversight and state prosecutorial power is expected before July, just months ahead of Election Day. The cases will be heard in March or early April. 

Trump has fought efforts to disclose any of his financial records or tax returns and is the first president in decades to not make his returns public.


Louisiana’s abortion law 

The justices will hear a challenge to a Louisiana law requiring that abortion-performing doctors have the right to admit patients to a local hospital in what will be the first abortion case before the court since President Trump’s two nominees took the bench.

In 2016, the court struck down a similar Texas law 5-3, with Justice Anthony Kennedy voting alongside the court’s reliably liberal bloc. But Kennedy has since retired, and with the additions of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the court now tilts more conservative. That shift has abortion rights advocates worried.

The justices previously found the Texas law placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion. Many will be watching to see if the newly composed court hews to precedent or takes a different direction when arguments over the Louisiana law are heard March 4.  


Religious school scholarships 

In a case with potentially broad implications for church-state relations, the justices will review a decision by the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate a scholarship program that could have benefited religious schools.

The state’s top court struck down the program after finding it ran afoul of a Montana constitutional provision that bans state tax dollars from funding sectarian schools, prompting several Montana parents to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question before the justices is whether that decision violates the religion or equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution by excluding religious schools from a general student aid program. The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, will be heard Jan. 22.


Religious exemptions from discrimination suits

In another religious liberty case, the justices are being asked to resolve whether two Catholic schools are exempt from employment discrimination suits brought by former teachers.

The schools claim immunity under the so-called ministerial exception. This First Amendment principle bars lawsuits by workers who are considered “ministers” due to the religious nature of their work. For their part, the former teachers say there were religious aspects to their jobs but that they should not be considered ministers. 

The pair of cases, which pit the U.S. Constitution’s safeguards for free expression of religion against legal protections for workers, have not yet been scheduled for argument.


Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

One of the most consequential questions the Supreme Court is facing this term is whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is constitutional. The independent agency has been a target of Republicans ever since it was created in 2011 by Dodd-Frank in the wake of the financial crisis, and now the regulator could be on the conservative majority’s chopping block.

The CFPB was designed to operate with an unusual level of independence for a government agency, having a single director appointed by the president who’s subject to Senate confirmation and can be fired only by the chief executive under certain circumstances. That structure will be the focus when the case is argued on March 3.

The Department of Justice is refusing to defend the CFPB in the case, so the court appointed Paul Clement, a former Republican solicitor general and acting attorney general, to advocate for an agency that the GOP has been eager to demolish for nearly a decade.


Google v. Oracle

The court will wade into the long-running battle between tech giants Google and Oracle over what constitutes fair use in internet copyright law. The case began nearly a decade ago, when Oracle accused Google of illegally copying thousands of lines of code for use in the search giant’s Android operating system. Google has argued that the code in its software interfaces are key to making different programs able to communicate with each other.

“The questions presented in this case are of critical importance to the computer software industry, one of the principal drivers of the nation’s economy,” Google wrote in a filing to the court. “Because new software builds on components of existing software, innovation in this field largely depends on how copyright law treats software interfaces, the essential building blocks of software development.”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after a federal appeals court last year reversed Google’s victory in a jury trial. The Trump administration has sided with Oracle, while many tech companies have backed Google. The court has not yet set a date for arguments.


Bridgegate and public corruption

On Jan. 14, the court will hear arguments over an appeal from Bridget Anne Kelly, who served as deputy chief of staff to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), of her conviction for her role in the infamous Bridgegate scandal. In Bridgegate, the governor’s allies allegedly colluded to close traffic toll lanes to create problems for one of Christie’s political rivals.

Kelly was sentenced to 18 months in prison for her role in the alleged scheme, but the question that her appeal has brought to the Supreme Court could have far-reaching consequences. The justices are being asked to decide if a public official lying about their motive for an official action violates federal corruption laws. The court has in recent years narrowed such corruption laws, making it harder for prosecutors to prove charges of bribery in cases against government officials. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) weighed in on the case last month with an amicus brief urging the court to reverse that trend.

“Unfortunately, a jurisprudence has emerged at the Supreme Court that dramatically narrowed the definition of corruption in the criminal law, limiting how the public through juries can hold its elected officials accountable,” Whitehouse wrote.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Neil Gorsuch Sheldon Whitehouse
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