A blockbuster year ahead for the U.S. Supreme Court

By: - January 7, 2015 5:20 am

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Marriage equality, healthcare, voting rights, abortion, campaign finance on the docket

With a showdown over the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans looming and a reprise of the Obamacare challenge already on the docket, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised for a momentous year in 2015.

Even before the high court opens its doors on January 12, the justices will meet in conference this Friday to consider taking at least one of several cases from five states concerning marriage equality, at a time when same-sex marriage has taken root in a growing majority of states (now 36).

And in March, the court will hear argument in the most recent challenge to the Affordable Care Act, deciding this time whether the wording of the Act prohibits subsidies for people who purchase health insurance on the federal exchange.

By then, millions of people will have purchased health insurance on a federal exchange (where they had to go because their states did not set up one), most with the help of subsidies.

The importance of each of these issues cannot be overstated, of course — both for the underlying merits and for what a resolution says about the role of the courts during times of distinct societal shifts.

As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston noted yesterday at the Constitution Daily:

Behind both of those issues lurk larger questions about the role of the courts in answering some of America’s most divisive and consequential questions. The marriage cases are this generation’s version of a constitutional dispute over the nature of American culture, and the new health care controversy is a monumental test of government power in the guise of a simple question about how to interpret four words in a federal law.

And decisions in both would themselves make for a blockbuster.

But add to them several other cases of consequence on the court’s docket, including several of note for North Carolina residents, and you have the makings of one historic term.

Below are a few to watch in the coming months.

The decennial round of redistricting cases are now making their way to the Supreme Court following the 2010 census, with the North Carolina challenge on its way there in the next few weeks.

The justices already heard argument in November in an Alabama case with implications here.

In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, challengers of that state’s maps argued that the packing of African-American voters into districts where they already had political control constituted an unlawful racial gerrymander.

The justices will consider taking a similar case out of Virginia at their conference this Friday, following a November decision by a panel of federal judges who found that the packing of African-American voters into a Congressional District was motivated purely by race and violated the 14th Amendment.

Challengers to North Carolina’s 2012 redistricting plan made those arguments to the state Supreme Court in January 2014, but came up short in the court’s 4-2 decision issued on December 19. They plan to appeal to the nation’s highest court and will file papers there over the next few weeks.

In a case out of Arizona of interest to proponents independent redistricting bodies, the justices will hear argument in March over the viability of an independent redistricting commission.  Voters there amended the state constitution in 2000 to create that body and gave its five members the power to draw both congressional and legislative districts.

After the second round of redistricting in 2010, Republican lawmakers sued, saying that the commission’s authority to draw Congressional maps violated the U.S. Constitution.

A panel of federal judges rejected the lawmakers’ argument in February.

Cases concerning state-enacted restrictions on abortions are also making their way to the high court, but so far the justices have sidestepped rulings directly addressing the continued viability of a right to an abortion.

Most recently the court declined to take up a case out of Arizona concerning state restrictions on drugs used for medically-induced abortions. Challengers of the Arizona law, which would have limited the use of a two-drug formula now widely used, won in the lower courts.

But two cases out of North Carolina addressing abortion-related First Amendment issues may be waiting in the wings.

The first, arising out of the state’s selective offering of “Choose Life” license plates without a corresponding pro-choice plate, has been pending for review at the high court since November.  It now appears, though, that the case has been put on hold as the court considers a non-abortion case out of Texas  raising the same question – whether the states had engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

The second concerns North Carolina’s pre-abortion ultrasound law, which the Fourth Circuit overturned just before Christmas.  Attorney General Roy Cooper has said that the state will seek Supreme Court review of that ruling, given that it conflicts with a decision out of the Fifth Circuit.

Judges raising campaign dollars, particularly from attorneys and firms likely to appear before them in court, is a scenario so obviously rife with the potential for undue influence and bias that it’s been banned in most places.

Thirty-nine states have some form of elections for judges, and in 30 of those judges are prohibited from personally soliciting campaign contributions.

That’s not the case in North Carolina and eight other states, where judges are free to ask attorneys and law firms as well as any other member of the public directly for campaign money.

On January 20, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether such solicitation bans violate the First Amendment in Williams-Yulee v. the Florida State Bar.


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Sharon McCloskey

Sharon McCloskey, former Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, writes about the courts and decisions that impact North Carolina residents. McCloskey also wrote for Lawyers Weekly and practiced law for more than 20 years. Follow her online at sharonmccloskey.com or @sharonmccloskey.