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A look back at the Supreme Court's year in 2013

December 30, 2013 by Alexander Fullman


In July 2012, after delivering his opinion for the Court upholding the Affordable Care Act, in the midst of the hubbub surrounding the opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. joked that he was looking forward to escaping to Malta -- which he described as an "impregnable island fortress" -- for the summer.

United States Supreme Court building. Photo by Jeff Kubina
United States Supreme Court building. Photo by Jeff Kubina

However, when the Chief Justice returned to the Supreme Court to convene the next term that October, he started a term (and year) that would hardly remove the Supreme Court from the spotlight; indeed, 2013 would go on to eclipse 2012 in terms of the number of high-profile cases with wide-ranging implications for American jurisprudence and American life.

One of the most significant and long-awaited decisions came on April 17, when the Supreme Court decided Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, a case that began when a group of Nigerians sued several corporations under the Alien Tort Statute, which gives certain federal courts jurisdiction to adjudicate violations of international law.

The petitioners maintained that corporations, including Royal Dutch Petroleum, assisted the Nigerian government in committing acts of violence, including torture and execution, against opponents and protestors of oil exploration projects in Nigeria. Kiobel followed an unusual path in the Supreme Court, which, after first hearing oral argument in 2011, ordered a second round of briefing and argument focused on the extraterritorial application of the Alien Tort Statute. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Court's opinion, which held that there was a presumption against the extraterritorial application of the Alien Tort Statute unless the matter "touches and concerns" the United States with "sufficient force."

In 2013, the Court handed down five decisions related to the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In one of these cases, Florida v. Jardines, the Court considered whether bringing a trained police dog onto a person's porch in order to get evidence that would then allow the police to obtain a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. In a March 26 opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court held that the dog constituted an instrument utilized by the police, and thereby constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that a warrant was required to bring trained police dogs within the curtilage of a home.

A second Fourth Amendment case that garnered attention was Maryland v. King, which the Court decided on June 3. Maryland law allows law enforcement officials to collect DNA from individuals charged with burglary or violent crimes, prior to their convictions for those crimes. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy held that the DNA swab was the equivalent of fingerprinting, a practice long-employed by police officers, and that because suspects enjoyed a lower expectation of privacy, the DNA swab passed constitutional muster.

In the area of patent law, the Supreme Court decided Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc on June 13, where the Court tackled the question of whether human genes could be patented under current law. The case emerged when Myriad Genetics managed to isolate two genes whose mutations could substantially increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad's patents gave it the exclusive right to isolate these genes, thereby controlling diagnostic testing and patenting. Myriad also patented the right to create a synthetic form of DNA -- called cDNA -- that is not naturally found. In Justice Thomas's unanimous opinion, the Court held that because a DNA segment is a product of nature, it cannot be patented simply because it has been isolated; therefore, the discovery of natural products (like isolating a strand of DNA) and their derivative products are not patent eligible. The Court held, however, that Myriad's creation of cDNA, which was not naturally found and that was created in a laboratory, was patent eligible.

As the Court wound down the term at the end of June, all eyes were on the Court, waiting for some of the Court's most high-profile decisions to come down. On June 24, the Court delivered one such decisions, in perhaps the most anticlimactic opinion of the year.  In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the University of Texas's affirmative action plan. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, maintaining that the circuit court had not properly applied the strict scrutiny standard of review to the affirmative action programs, surprising many observers that had expected the Court to use the case as a vehicle either to eliminate or substantially curb affirmative action practices.

On June 25, the penultimate day of decisions for the October 2012 term, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was intended to combat discrimination in voting. Section 5 of this legislation required certain states and local areas to obtain federal clearance before making changes to voting practices or laws. Section 4 of the VRA contained the formula used to determine which parts of the country would be covered by Section 5. Shelby County, a county in Alabama with Section 5 preclearance requirements, challenged the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court struck down Section 4's coverage formula on the grounds that Congress's failure to update the 40-year-old formula meant that the formula did not reflect current conditions and was thus unconstitutional. As a result, the Court's ruling effectively prevented the federal government's preclearance mechanism in Section 5 from operating without Congressional enactment of a new formula.

On June 26, the last day of the term, the Supreme Court delivered its decisions in two highly anticipated cases related to same-sex marriage. In 1995, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Edith Windsor, who had lawfully married her wife Thea Spyer in Canada, was prohibited from claiming the federal estate tax exemption for spouses, on the grounds that the benefit was only available to federally recognized marriages. Windsor filed suit, arguing that that DOMA violated her Fifth Amendment right to equal liberty of persons. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court agreed with Windsor, with Justice Kennedy writing for the Court that the Defense of Marriage Act both denied equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and deprived sex-sex couples of liberty guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, and thereby opening the doors for same-sex couples to receive thousands of federal benefits.

While Windsor proved a decisive victory for proponents of same-sex marriage, they achieved more limited success with respect to the Court's other same-sex marriage decision: Hollingsworth v. Perry. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 8, a referendum that amended the California state constitution to hold that only marriages between a male and a female would be recognized by the state. When a federal judge declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, California officials declined to appeal the ruling, leaving the proponents of Proposition 8 to continue the appeal through the federal courts. In the Chief Justice's majority opinion, the Supreme Court held that the proponents of Proposition 8 lacked standing to appeal the decision, having neither been elected by the citizens of the state nor taken an oath of office. As a result, the original decision by the district court stood, thereby permitting the resumption of same-sex marriages in California. While Hollingsworth was certainly a victory for proponents for same-sex marriage, some supporters of same-sex marriage were disappointed that the Court did not use the case as a vehicle to declare a right for same-sex marriage throughout the country.

After concluding its term in June, the Supreme Court made few headlines beyond continued coverage of its decisions. But when the Supreme Court returned in October to begin the 2013-2014 term, it hit the ground running with several new high-profile cases. On the second day of the new term, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenged whether federal aggregate limits on contributions to candidates, parties, and political action committees during a two-year election cycle violate the First Amendment. A week later, the Court heard a new affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which challenged the constitutionality of a Michigan initiative prohibiting affirmative action programs from being employed in the state. And in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether a town council's practice of beginning its legislative meetings with a prayer session violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

2013 was certainly an eventful year for the Supreme Court. 2014 promises to bring more big decisions, including National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning (which questions the breadth of the president's authority to make recess appointments) and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, where the Court will decide whether the Affordable Care Act's mandate that businesses pay for insurance that covers birth control for employees violates the constitution if it conflicts with the religious beliefs of the corporation. As the Roberts Court continues into its ninth year, only one thing is certain: the Court will continue to play a major role in many of the most significant issues and questions in American society.

Alexander Fullman is a Marshall Scholar pursuing graduate studies in political science at the University of Oxford's Department of Politics and International Relations.

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