The Supreme Court is back in session and they’re already weighing some vital legal questions. Here’s a look at what’s on the slate for the coming months.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on campaign finance in the case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The suit concerns itself with whether aggregate limits on contributions to the campaigns of any federal candidate or non-candidate committees within one election cycle are constitutional. That limit currently stands at $123,200 in aggregate contributions for the two-year election cycle.
Shaun McCutcheon, the Republican National Committee and Sen. Mitch McConnell are all arguing in McCutcheon that this limit is unconstitutional post-Citizens United and want it tossed on grounds that it violates McCutcheon’s freedom of speech.
This is the first time the Justices have taken on campaign finance in any meaningful way since the much debated Citizens United ruling of 2010. Citizens United cleared the way for special interests to throw money at federal elections without necessarily having to disclose their spending. The unprecedented broad ruling and the reasoning behind it has been heavily criticized.
However, in Tuesday’s hearing of this latest campaign finance case, the Supreme Court appeared more inclined to serve up a narrow decision. The four Conservative justices seemed to agree that post-Citizens United, the aggregate limit will have to go while the more liberal justices were reluctant to give ground on the issue. Swing vote Justice Roberts appeared to sympathize with McCutcheon’s reasoning but at the same time seemed reluctant to issue a broad decision, therein seeking to find a middle ground.
Eliminating aggregate limits could further exacerbate the problems evidenced since Citizens United, allowing industry giants to effectively buy political candidates and shape U.S. politics. For those interested in civil rights, in particular a woman’s right to choose, a ruling tossing the limits could be disastrous.
Having mentioned women’s rights, an important case before the Supreme Court challenges the constitutionality of the 35-foot “buffer zone” around reproductive health clinics in Massachusetts that prevent abortion protesters from closely hounding women as they make their way into the clinic. The case is known as McCullen v. Coakley.
The law was upheld by the First Circuit, which also noted that this issue is not new and is part of a concerted effort to roll back the buffer zone along with other suits designed to chip away at the tenability of termination-providing reproductive health clinics.
The Supreme Court is tasked with examining whether the Massachusetts law differs in any meaningful way from a Colorado buffer zone law it has already upheld (Hill v Colorado).
Another case currently before the Supreme Court is Cline v. Oklahoma regarding an Oklahoma law that effectively bans medication abortions by prohibiting doctors from proscribing the drugs involved “off-label,” despite this being standard medical practice. The law was challenged all the way to the state Supreme Court. The Oklahoma supreme court ruled that the state law violates a number of federal Supreme Court rulings that have protected a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. The Supreme Court of the United States decided to take up the matter, and the case is on hold while the state supreme court clarifies whether the law amounts to a complete ban or not.
Reproductive health advocates are concerned this case could be one that will chip away at abortion access and begin the rollback of Roe v. Wade.
Can a state ban universities from using an affirmative action policy? That’s the question at the heart of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
The Sixth Circuit has found the ban unconstitutional but supporters of the ban argue that it is by its nature non-discriminatory and therefore can never be unconstitutional. Last term the Supreme Court concluded that affirmative action must meet strict scrutiny and must therefore have evidence of furthering the aim of having a diverse student population. Now before it is the question of whether a ban on race and sex-based preferential treatment for the aim of ensuring a diversity violates the Equal Protection Clause.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and his love of sodomy bans were dealt a big blow this week when the Supreme Court refused his petition to appeal his case wherein he argues he should be allowed to use a sodomy statute the Supreme Court previously invalidated in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas. Cuccinelli has maintained he wants to use the ban so as to prosecute those who have sex with minors and that he would not use it to go after consenting adults. This is less than convincing given his rabid anti-gay stance and the fact that he killed an attempt to amend the law to say just that.
Separation of Church and State
A fundamental question of separation of church and state is before the Supreme Court this term in the form of Town of Greece v. Galloway where a municipal legislature’s practice of opening nearly two-thirds of its meetings with an overtly Christian prayer was challenged as violating the Constitution. The question before the Supreme Court now is whether the court of appeals was wrong in concluding the legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause.
However, the question by its nature seems to beg for further comment on how the Roberts court perceives government endorsement of religion. Justice Kennedy has previously held that the government cannot attempt to coerce someone into practicing or supporting “a religion or its exercise.” Beyond that, though, his position remains murky and as he is a swing vote between the religious conservative justices and the usually liberal wing, that is troubling.
The Supreme Court will also take up a key clean air policy in the form of the DC Circuit’s invalidating the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), regulations that requires 28 states to reduce energy plant emissions that add to downwind transport of ozone pollution. The DC Circuit court decided that the EPA doesn’t have the power to require upwind states to reduce emissions in this manner, and that the EPA attempted to implement CSAPR without allowing affected states the opportunity to reduce emissions within their borders. The court also found cause to argue that the rule constrains the EPA from assessing upwind pollutant factors.
However, proponents of CSAPR say this is nonsense and that the DC Circuit court judgment was a radical misreading of CSAPR and the EPA’s aims.
The Supreme Court’s intervention here has those concerned about the environment worried because the conservative wing of the Court could easily side with the DC Circuit and therein push back EPA intervention on this vital issue by making it draw up yet another rule which, in the meantime, will give Big Energy time to keep on polluting. The cases are American Lung Association v. EME Homer City Generation and EPA v. EME Homer City Generation.
This is just a handful of the cases before the court this term. Other important topics include union laws, a Fair Housing Act case and more.
Photo credits: Thinkstock.
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