The Supreme Court has ended its current term, as of June 29, 2015. Here is your quick guide to the major cases decided this term.
The decisions are listed below by when arguments were heard by the Justices. Recent announced decisions and opinions follow.
Elonis v. United States (heard December 1, 2014; decided June 1, 2015)
Elonis vs. United States is a case originating near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Anthony Elonis was challenging a 44-month prison sentence for posts on Facebook that appeared to threaten his wife with violence, including statements made by Elonis online after he was served with a protection-from-abuse order.
In a majority 7-2 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court said that the lower court that convicted Elonis needs to rehear the case after not requiring evidence the threats were made with malice.
On first blush, the decision seems to be a victory for free speech advocates. But the ruling was on statutory (and not First Amendment) grounds and Anthony Elonis may still see his conviction stand if a retrial results in an opinion that Elonis's Facebook statements were made with a "subjective intent to threaten."
EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch (heard February 25, 2015; decided June 1, 2015)
Samantha Elauf applied to work for the famous clothing retailer but was rejected. The EEOC took up the case, contending that Elauf, a Muslim, was denied employment because she wears a headscarf. But the agency lost in the Tenth Circuit and was asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
A near unanimous Supreme Court said that the lower court didn’t properly interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Link: Read The Decision
Justice Antonin Scalia said in an 8-1 majority opinion that “an employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no-headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an ‘aspec[t] of religious . . . practice,’ it is no response that the subsequent ‘fail[ure] . . . to hire’ was due to an otherwise-neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”
Zivotofsky v. Kerry (heard November 3, 2014; decided June 8, 2015)
Zivotofsky v. Perry involved 12-year-old Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky. Menachem’s parents are American citizens, and Menachem was born in Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys asked the State Department for a passport for Menachem that listed “Jerusalem, Israel,” as his birthplace. The State Department refused to add the word “Israel” to Menachem’s passport, and the dispute has been in the legal system since then.
In the 6-3 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy affirmed that “the President has the exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign.” The decision upheld a lower court ruling that the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2002 was unconstitutional. The act directed the State Department to “record the place of birth as Israel” in the passports of Americans born in Jerusalem, if the children born in Jerusalem or their parents requested it.
Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed with the decision. “Today’s decision is a first: Never before has this Court accepted a President’s direct defiance of an Act of Congress in the field of foreign affairs,” Roberts said, who added that the decision underscored “the stark nature of the Court’s error on a basic question of separation of powers.”
Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans (heard March 23, 2015; decided June 18, 2015)
A divided U.S. Supreme Court said that the state of Texas has the right to ban a specialty license design that features the Confederate battle flag.
In the 5-4 decision in the Walker III V. Texas Division, Sons Of Confederate Veterans, Inc., case, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the state’s decision fell under the government speech doctrine of the First Amendment, superseding the private free speech claims of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (or SCV).
“Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design,” wrote Breyer, who was joined by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
“Messages that are proposed by private parties and placed on Texas specialty plates are private speech, not government speech. Texas cannot forbid private speech based on its viewpoint. That is what it did here. Because the Court approves this violation of the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent,” said Alito.
Reed v. Town Of Gilbert, Arizona (heard January 12, 2015; decided June 18, 2015)
A unanimous court said that Gilbert, Arizona town violated the First Amendment by placing restriction on of signs announcing church services.
This case was about local zoning laws that pertain to temporary signs that give directions to where people can attend church services. The Court accepted the case in July 2014 and it involved the zoning ordinance in Gilbert, which draws a distinction between “ideological signs” and “political signs” posted in publicly viewed locations. The Gilbert code restricted religious signs to 6 square feet, while political signs can be up to 32 square feet in size. There were also different time restrictions. A lower court had decided the Gilbert code was “content neutral.”
King v. Burwell (heard March 4, 2015; decided June 25, 2015)
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare subsidies in about three dozen states, granting a major victory to the administration and supporters of the Affordable Care Act.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, in which he was joined by Anthony Kennedy and the Court’s four liberals.
Link: Read The Opinion
“Tax credits are available to individuals in States that have a Federal Exchange,” said Roberts.
The case of King v. Burwell was a significant challenge to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The Justices decided if language in the act blocked people from getting tax breaks on premiums sold by federally run health-care exchanges in 34 states.
Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project (heard January 21, 2015; decided June 25, 2015)
A divided Court backed the concept of disparate impact, where housing policies with outcomes that discriminate can be challenged under the terms of the Fair Housing Act, even if there wasn't a deliberate intent to discriminate.
This case began in 2008, when the Inclusive Communities Project (or ICP) filed a lawsuit against the Texas state agency for the distribution of tax credits in a way that reinforces and increases racial segregation. Because landlords who receive the tax credits are required to accept affordable-housing vouchers from low-income tenants—many of whom come from minority communities—the allocation of those credits has an outsized impact on racial housing patterns. Courts at the district and circuit levels agreed with the ICP, concluding that Texas’ distribution of tax credits violated the Fair Housing Act because of its “disparate impact” on minorities.
"The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act's continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
Obergefell v. Hodges (heard April 28, 2015; decided June 26, 2015)
A divided Supreme Court said that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment recognizes a national right to same-sex marriage Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority. The Court’s four other conservative Justices wrote lengthy dissents.
Link: Read The Opinion
“The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State,” said Kennedy.
The Supreme Court heard extended arguments in late April about the legality of same-sex marriages in four states. Same-sex marriage supporters believed the unions were permitted nationally under the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection provisions. But four states in this lawsuit – Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee – believed same-sex marriage eligibility should be determined by the states, through a political process that gives voters a role in the decision.
Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (heard March 2, 2015; decided June 29, 2015)
Proposition 106, passed in 2000 by 56 percent of Arizona voters, established a statewide, bipartisan committee to oversee the redistricting process for state and congressional seats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, partisan bickering roiled the committee’s decisions. The GOP-controlled state legislature was hoping the Supreme Court will return control to Phoenix. But a ruling in favor of the bipartisan committee would have far-reaching effects about redistricting – if the Court decides the Arizona legislature has standing to sue.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the majority said that Arizona legislature had standing to sue. But the Elections Clause and the federal statute allow Arizona to use a commission to draft federal congressional districts. Justice Anthony Kennedy was part of the majority.
Glossip v. Gross (heard April 29, 2015; decided June 29, 2015)
Glossip v. Gross was a case was brought by several death-row inmates in Oklahoma, who claimed that the use of midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication, as a sedative during lethal injection violates a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
In another 5-4 opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority and said that the death-row inmates failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits on their claim that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment.
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