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Friday, October 4, 2013

Previewing First Monday: Cases to watch in the Supreme Court’s coming term

UPDATE, Oct. 7, 2013: Our full report on the current term is available here.

Much of the government still may be shut down on Monday, but the Supreme Court will be open for business.  Every year, the first Monday in October ushers in a new Supreme Court term, during which the nine justices of the Supreme Court will decide critical constitutional and statutory questions that will shape the future of our rights and our everyday lives.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Last term, the Roberts Court continued its trend of favoring corporate and other powerful interests over those of everyday Americans.  The conservative bloc of five justices shielded generic-drug manufacturers from liability for harm caused by their drugs, curbed  access to justice for consumers by making it more difficult to litigate against big business, and greatly restricted the ability of individuals facing workplace discrimination to bring  claims against their employers.

This term the Court will be deciding issues affecting corporate accountability, abortion rights, racial discrimination, affirmative action,  rights of criminal defendants, human rights, separation of powers, separation of church and state, and more.  They will be answering questions like:

●How easily may the police search our homes or our cars?
● What are the rights of the indigent when it comes to effective counsel and fair sentencing?
● What recourse do consumers have when they are harmed by corporations?
● When can people who have been discriminated against seek redress in the courts?

Alliance for Justice will release our full report previewing the 2013-2014 Supreme Court term on Monday.  Today, we highlight just a few of the cases we’re following.

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action:  In 2006 the state of Michigan put affirmative action to a vote.  As a result, voters passed Proposal 2, which amended the state constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based affirmative action in public-university admissions.   The constitutional amendment went so far as to bar university admission officials from even considering whether to use race as a relevant factor in admission.

As a result, a student who wants her race to be considered in admission must seek an amendment to the state constitution, but a student who wants the university to consider something like the fact that her father and grandfather attended the same school may petition the regents directly.  As the Sixth Circuit held, the voter-initiated ban violated equal protection because it “unconstitutionally alters Michigan’s political structure by impermissibly burdening racial minorities.”  If the Supreme Court were to reverse the Sixth Circuit’s decision, it would severely limit backers of racial diversity seeking recourse through the political process.

Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action:  In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether individuals suing for discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) can sue based on a “disparate impact” theory—in which a policy that seems to be race-neutral has such a strong, negative effect on particular groups of minorities that the effect of the law constitutes discrimination—or whether they must prove that there was an intent to discriminate.

When the Court agreed to hear the case, 11 circuit courts had found that the FHA was meant to apply to discrimination based on disparate impact, despite a lack of explicit text to that effect.  Not a single circuit court has found otherwise.

While the case was pending, the Department of Housing and Urban Development even promulgated a rule stating that the FHA is violated by disparate impact discrimination, and the Solicitor General advocated against the Supreme Court hearing the case.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court accepted the case.  A decision striking down disparate impact theory under the FHA could have dire consequences for the enforcement of many civil rights statutes.

McCullen v. Coakley:  This case, where the Supreme Court will revisit the constitutionality of buffer zone laws outside of clinics where abortions are performed, may have broad implications for women’s safety and access to reproductive services.  In the 2000 case Hill v. Colorado, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s “buffer zone” law, which created a 100-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics that protesters cannot cross.  The zones are needed to prevent patients and staff from being harassed and intimidated.

The buffer zone law in McCullen is even more modest:  it mandates a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in Massachusetts, and allows clinic employees and representatives, law enforcement officials, and passers-by to enter the buffer zone.  Opponents urge the Court to strike the law down as a violation of the First Amendment, while supporters argue such laws are necessary to protect the safety of patients accessing clinics.  Although this case is very similar to the decade-old precedent upholding a similar and more restrictive law, one thing has changed since 2000:  the makeup of the Supreme Court.

Unite Here Local 335 v. Mulhall: In order to avoid the strife and recrimination that sometimes accompanies efforts to unionize a workplace, unions and employers often enter into “neutrality agreements.” These agreements set ground rules for organizing where both sides make promises and concessions.

Although such agreements are common and viewed as a useful tool by both labor and management, they are being challenged by anti-union forces.

Based on an obscure legal theory, the Eleventh Circuit held that neutrality agreements violate an anti-bribery statute from 1947 that forbids employers from paying any money or other valuables to labor unions.  If the Supreme Court affirms the Eleventh Circuit and finds against neutrality agreements, it could mean the end to one of labor’s most powerful and successful organizing tools.

These cases represent just a few of the many cases the Court will hear this term that will have important consequences for all of us.  In addition to these cases, the Court could:

• Provide police with a loophole to conduct a warrantless search of a defendant’s home despite his or her explicit objections;
• Severely impair criminal defendants’ ability to receive a fair trial and a just sentence;
• Make it easier for corporate interests to escape accountability for harming  consumers;
• Drastically curb  the president of authority to appoint officials to vital government positions;
• Weaken the constitutional wall between church and state; and

Eliminate limits on aggregate direct contributions to candidates and party committees.

Read our full report on all of the cases Alliance for Justice is following. 

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