By Kevin Carty
October 6, 2015 at 4:00 am ET
The Supreme Court met Monday to formally begin its 2015-2016 term, which could be marked by high-profile battles over abortion, the power of public unions, affirmative action and voting rights. Below are the cases most likely to make headlines this year:
Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 14-1997, and Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole
These cases challenge regulations aimed at clinics that provide abortions in Mississippi and Texas, and could bring the most significant decision on abortion since the Court ruled on Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.
Both states passed health regulations which define how abortion clinics need to administer care. The Texas laws require that all clinics providing abortions have ambulatory surgical facilities or admitting privileges to a hospital which does, and that they meet the same standards as other surgical health-care facilities in the state. Mississippi’s version has shuttered all but one abortion clinic in the state.
If the Court takes the case, justices will decide if such regulations pose an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions, a standard first used by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Justice Anthony Kennedy, likely to be the deciding vote, dissented in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell 15-105
Little Sisters of the Poor is the next challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and challenges the law’s requirement that employers provide contraception to their workers. The Obama administration says they’ve given religious organizations an out by allowing “third-party administrators” to cover the cost of contraception in health plans if the organization has religious objections. But the Little Sisters of the Poor say they don’t want to be involved in the system at all, which they argue is a means of consent to providing birth control. Justices will need to decide if the Little Sisters’ objection is valid as part of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and if the government still has a sufficiently “compelling interest” to require them to pave the way for their employees to get contraception.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – 14-915
The question before the Court is whether it is constitutional to compel public employees to pay union dues and whether those dues violate employees’ constitutional right to free speech. An earlier case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, decided in 1977, held that public employees cannot be forced to join a union, but they can be required to pay dues to a union, as long as that money do not contribute directly to lobbying and political advocacy.
In the upcoming case, a group of California teachers have teamed up with the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal organization, to challenge that precedent. Plaintiffs say the line between the “political speech” that Abood cordons off and the regular activities of a public union is nonexistent in practice. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs and against the Abood precedent entirely, the effect will be similar to passing a right-to-work law in California.
Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission – 14.232
Arizona plaintiffs are asking the Court to decide if drawing state legislative districts to give one party a boost over another is unconstitutional according to the “one-person one-vote” standard the Warren Court established in 1964. As it stands, district boundaries can be unequal in population, as long as they do not deviate by more than ten percent. The Arizona plaintiffs argue that their state’s redistricting commission put more non-minority citizens into Republican-leaning districts and more minority citizens in Democratic districts, the result being voter dilution and a violation of “one-person, one vote.”
The Court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s redistricting commission in the last term, though Republicans who oppose the commission are coming back for another shot. Issues of population size and vote dilution add a complicating factor to the question of how a state ought to redraw districts.
Evenwel v. Abbott – 14-940
Like Harris v. Independent Commission, Evenwel v. Abbott also deals with the “one-person, one-vote” standard, but this case turns on how a state ought to determine population when drawing districts. The plaintiffs in this case out of Texas say the population size of voting districts should be measured by the population of eligible voters, not the population of district as a whole.
That matters a lot in Texas, which has legislative districts that vary in population size by less than 10 percent, but which vary by up to 50 percent in terms of eligible voters. The difference between population and voting age population is especially contentious because voter eligibility is much higher in whiter, more rural districts.
Foster v. Chatham – 14.8349
The question before justices involves the 1986 conviction of Timothy Foster, a black man, for murdering a white woman. During his trial, the prosecutor struck all four qualified black jurors from the jury pool, creating an all-white jury that convicted Foster. Striking jury members on the basis of race alone is unconstitutional, but the prosecutor offered race-neutral reasons for striking all four jury-members at the time, which the trial court found sufficient.
After his conviction, Foster filed a public records request for the prosecutor’s notes, in which he found a number of indications that the prosecutor had identified each juror for by race during jury selection, writing “B” next to each of their names and even writing in regards to one juror, “if it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, Garret might be okay.” The Court will determine if this new evidence is sufficient to demonstrate racial discrimination in jury selection.
Hurst v. Florida -15.7505
The second of three big criminal cases involving the death penalty on the Court’s docket asks the court to decide if Florida’s method of capital sentencing is constitutional. An earlier case, Ring v. Arizona, held that if a court is to impose a more severe sentence because of “aggravating factors”–information which demonstrates a particularly egregious crime deserves a harsher sentence–the jury must find and demonstrate those factors. Florida’s capital sentencing scheme only requires the judge to make “independent findings” about such factors to impose a death sentence.
Montgomery v. Louisiana – 14-280
The third criminal justice case involves a 2012 ruling that found mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. This case will decide if that rule applies retroactively. If they rule in favor of the plaintiff, Henry Montgomery, convicted of killing a deputy sheriff in 1963 as a 17-year-old, he and 27 other inmates in Federal prison will be eligible for parole.
Utah v. Strieff – 14-1373
The question before the justices revolves around the “exclusionary rule,” which marks evidence gathered by unlawful means inadmissible in court. The case involves a police officer who conducted an unlawful investigatory stop, during which he discovered that the person he stopped had an outstanding warrant. The officer gathered evidence in the course of arresting the plaintiff, and the Court would decide whether that evidence is admissible.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin – 14-891
Justices will have another a chance to reexamine earlier decisions that found race-conscious admissions were acceptable as long as race was one of multiple factors used to decide admission. Abigail Fisher alleges that the University of Texas’ system of using race as a contributing factor when considering applicants amounts to a violation of using the equal protection clause.
Two previous cases matter here: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the court held that affirmative action was acceptable as long as it wasn’t a racially determined quota system; and Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the majority held that using race as a “factor” in admissions did not amount to a quota system.
Since the Grutter decision, Justice Samuel Alito, an affirmative action skeptic, has replaced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who authored the 5-4 decision.
The Supreme Court decides which cases they will take up on a rolling basis throughout the year, only stopping for the session once they have a full docket of around 70 to 90 cases. The Court has decided to hear some 40 cases so far.