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Oyez, Oyez: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Term in Review

The merits of the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which concerns a religious belief exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate, will be debated until believers and secularists agree to disagree or, in the alternative, when Hell freezes while pigs fly, but it was by no means the Court’s only interesting decision in its term. For the benefit of those who had better things to do than to hang on the Court’s every word, here are the highlights of its past term.

The Term’s most controversial decision – at any rate, the decision which provoked the most animus between the Justices – was unquestionably Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Writing for the plurality (there were five separate opinions in all), Justice Kennedy said that while affirmative action is not unconstitutional, neither is it mandated by the Constitution: Michigan’s voters, who decided to ban its use in the admission process to the state’s public universities, are adult enough to take these kind of decisions. But Justice Sotomayor (of “wise Latina” fame) wrote a virulent dissent, which began by hinting that Michigan’s voters were Jim Crow-style racists, and ended by stating the decision “reveals how little my colleagues understand about the reality of race in America” (this includes Justice Thomas, the Court’s only black justice and a stalwart opponent of affirmative action).

Announcing her dissent from the bench, Sotomayor then took jabs at the majority for “fundamentally misunderstand[ing] the nature of the injustice” in the case, while her colleagues carefully avoided eye contact, except Justice Kagan who, having recused herself from the case, “[looked] around the courtroom with a smile that suggests, ‘I had no role in this.’ ” Meanwhile, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that it “does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate”, a remark whose intended recipient is not hard to guess.

The lack of collegiality in Schuette aside, most of the Term’s other politically contentious decisions were settled politely. The Court continued its trend of issuing narrow rulings which did not overturn its own precedents. Thus, in McCutcheon v. FCC, it stuck down aggregate campaign contributions limits, but not the principle of limits on political contributions. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, it permitted prayers at legislative meetings on ground that it is traditional practice, but the majority did not adopt Justice Thomas’ long-held view that the Establishment Clause merely forbids the establishment of an official religion, not governmental promotion of religion in general. Even Schuette was a narrow decision, the majority having declined to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), in which Justice O’Connor famously declared that affirmative action was constitutionally permissible then, but perhaps will not be in 25 years.

Also noteworthy is the fact that 69% of the Court’s opinions for the Term were unanimous, an abnormally high rate by recent standards. Most of the unanimous decisions were about minute questions of law which would fail to interest anyone in full possession of his faculties. But three of them stand out.

In NLRB v. Noel Canning, the Court ruled that the Senate is in session when it says it is, not when the President thinks it is, invalidating three of President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labour Relations Board while the Senate was technically in session (such appointments require immediate Senate confirmation, unless it is in recess). In McCullen v. Coakley, Massachusetts’ buffer-zone law for abortion clinics was stuck down. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, who voted to strike down the law, upheld a similar law in Hill v. Colorado (2000): the reason for their change of heart remains something of a mystery. Finally, warrantless searches of cell phones were held to be unconstitutional in Riley v. California.

After his last-minute switcheroo in last term’s Obamacare case, Chief Justice Roberts is firmly back on the conservative side, alleviating fears in some quarters that he would become increasing liberal, like some previous Republican appointees. Despite pressure for her to retire so that President Obama can nominate her successor, the fiercely-liberal Justice Ginsburg has shot down any such idea and looks set to extend her tenure for another year. Justice Kennedy remains the swing justice, although this year he usually voted with the conservative wing in contentious cases.

The Court’s two Obama appointees, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have been strong liberals, as expected. Sotomayor remains in many ways the Court’s black sheep: in addition to her dissent in Schuette, she was rebuked at length by Ginsburg in a one-page footnote in Daimler v. Bauman, in which one of Sotomayor’s natural allies on the Court, joined by all the other justices, all but accused her of rank dishonesty in her reading of an earlier case.

The Court’s calendar for next session is already taking shape. Highlights include Yates v. United States (whether a fish is a documentary record under Federal law), Holt v. Hobbs (the legality of a ban on beards in prison), and Zivotofsky v. Kerry (who, Congress or the President, gets to decide what city is Israel’s capital). It promises to be a fun year.

– Yuan Yi Zhu

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