To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way Foundation
Date: October 3, 2013
Re: Key Cases in the Supreme Court's New Term
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has not shied away from taking on cases with enormous impact on American laws and American lives, and the term that starts on Monday will be no exception.
In just the last term, the Court’s conservative majority dismantled a key portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act, removed important anti-discrimination protections for workers, and made it harder for consumers to sue corporations that have hurt them. One exception to the Court’s sweeping conservative activism justifiably attracted plenty of attention – the decision in which conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the Court’s four more moderate Justices to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. But that remarkable victory for individual freedom, which was powered by the Court’s moderates, should not obscure the Roberts Court’s larger, well-documented goal of shifting American law to benefit corporations over individuals and the privileged over the struggling.
The cases on the Supreme Court’s docket for the coming term are no less consequential. The Court will consider whether to continue its project of dismantling campaign finance regulations; it will take on yet more cases on the rights of individuals to hold corporations accountable for their actions; it will weigh laws protecting workers against abusive and discriminatory employers; it will decide whether to uphold the far-right DC Circuit’s decision striking down clean air protections; and it may limit or reverse precedents protecting women's reproductive choice.
Below is a preview of some of the most wide-reaching cases the Supreme Court will consider this year, and how the Roberts Court may choose to approach them.
MONEY OUT / VOTERS IN
You’ll be hearing a lot about this case in the coming weeks, months, and perhaps years. While Citizens United involved independent expenditures to affect elections, this case involves the aggregate caps on contributions made to candidates, political parties, and PACs. Currently, a donor’s individual contributions to a party’s candidates and affiliated committees during the 2013-2014 election cycle, are capped at $123,200 (on an inflation-adjusted basis). Without the cap, that number would skyrocket to $3.6 million, vastly increasing the influence of wealthy donors on our democracy and correspondingly limiting the influence of the people, who are supposed to be sovereign in our democracy. That is the goal of high-pocketed donor Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, who are asking the Court to strike down the aggregate caps as violating their First Amendment free speech rights.
Beginning in the 1970’s and in a number of cases since, the Court has upheld the constitutionality of regulating campaign contributions, recognizing how important such regulations are in preventing both real and perceived corruption. That Court has also recognized the value of aggregate caps on contributions as a means of preventing wealthy donors from indirectly bypassing the individual limits. That’s why the decision was a no-brainer for the lower court judges – even the far-right Janice Rogers Brown. The fact that the Supreme Court even took the case is disturbing, suggesting that the conservative Justices’ hunger for enhancing the power of the powerful and shutting the rest of us out of our own electoral democracy has not yet been sated.
This case challenges President Obama’s recess appointments of National Labor Relations Board members in January of 2012 on the day after the 112th Congress’s second session officially began. He acted because Republicans had been blocking the Senate from voting on his nominees, leaving the NLRB without enough members to constitute a quorum. The president bypassed this cynical GOP effort to sabotage an agency dedicated to the rights of workers by making recess appointments. The NLRB was therefore able to act, including in a case involving Noel Canning, which disputes the legitimacy of the recess appointments.
The appointments occurred at a time when the Senate was meeting for pro forma sessions for a few minutes, once every few days, to maintain the fiction that it wasn’t on recess (i.e., to prevent recess appointments). Most debate in the public and on Capitol Hill centered on the narrow question of whether the holding of the pro forma sessions meant the Senate was not in recess. Indeed, the fact that congressional Republicans insisted on the pro forma sessions indicated their recognition of the president’s broad authority to make recess appointments when the Senate is on break. Noel Canning itself noted that the DC Circuit could decide the case based on the narrow question of the relevance of the pro forma sessions, thereby bypassing even larger constitutional questions. But the DC Circuit issued a sweeping opinion overturning the understanding of presidents and senators from the country’s earliest years: The court ruled not only that recess appointments can only be made during the annual break between sessions of Congress, but also that they can only be made during the recess in which the vacancy first occurred. These restrictions would invalidate recess appointments going back to the time of President George Washington. Affirming the DC Circuit would empower Senate minorities to prevent the president from filling vital executive branch positions. Some agencies that require certain Senate-confirmed officials to be present in order to exercise their full powers (like the NLRB or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) would be crippled.
ACCESS TO ABORTION
This involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics (with exceptions for employees, patients, and others with business there). Within this area, only those with business at the clinic (essentially, clients and employees) could stand within a certain radius of the clinic. Anti-choice advocates claim this violates their freedom of speech because it restricts only people with a particular viewpoint. The lower courts disagreed, citing the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone making it illegal to approach people at clinics for the purpose of counseling, education, or protesting. That 6-3 decision analyzed the law as a content-neutral regulation of speech that was reasonable in light of the importance of protecting unwilling people’s right to avoid unwanted conversations and their right to pass without obstruction. However, two of the conservatives Justices in the 6-3 majority have been replaced by far more conservative Bush nominees: Rehnquist (by Roberts) and O’Connor (by Alito). Since Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas dissented in the 2000 case, there are five likely votes to strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone and possibly overrule Hill completely.
Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice: The Court may uphold a state “drug safety” law that restricts women’s access to medical abortions and perhaps overrule the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision protecting a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
An Oklahoma law pushed by anti-choice groups requires misoprostol and methotrexate, medications used to terminate early pregnancies, to be prescribed only as directed by the FDA; any variation from that (called “off label” use) is made illegal. But in the years since these drugs were approved by the FDA, doctors through experience have determined that such “off label” uses are more effective, safe, and convenient for women. Such “off label” uses also allow for abortion later in a pregnancy than FDA-approved use does.
The general right of a state to regulate off-label uses of FDA-approved drugs is not being contested in this case. Oklahoma’s stated goal is to protect women from unsafe and unapproved use of medications, but this is clearly a pretense for limiting women’s access to medical abortions. Under the 1992 Casey decision, states cannot place an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck the law down as obviously unconstitutional. Ominously, the Supreme Court accepted the appeal.
Because of a procedural hurdle, it is possible the case might not be heard. The Supreme Court has asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to clarify exactly which medications and under what circumstances the statute applies. Only after the Oklahoma Supreme Court responds will the Supreme Court decide whether to schedule oral arguments. If it proceeds, the case provides a dangerous opportunity for the Roberts Court to overrule Casey or, as in the more recent “partial birth abortion” case (2007’s Gonzales v. Carhart), to simply ignore Casey and open the floodgates to more restrictive legislation.
LIMITING CONGRESSIONAL AUTHORITY
Bond v. United States: The Court is being asked to overrule a 1920 precedent recognizing Congress’ broad authority to enact legislation implementing a treaty, and to sharply restrict congressional authority under the “Necessary and Proper” Clause.
The case involves a woman who repeatedly tried to poison her husband’s mistress and was convicted of violating a federal criminal law prohibiting the possession and use of chemical weapons, a law passed to implement a treaty on chemical weapons. Carol Bond argues that the administration of criminal justice is a purely state responsibility except for where Congress, exercising one of the powers enumerated by the Constitution (like the Commerce Clause), creates an offense against the United States. Therefore, she says, the law violates the Tenth Amendment and constitutional principles of federalism.
But a 1920 precedent says exactly the opposite. Missouri v. Holland recognized that if you have a properly signed and ratified treaty, the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to pass laws implementing the treaty. The enactment does not have to also be based on one of the specific powers enumerated in Article I Section 8.
If the Supreme Court rules for Bond, it might do so narrowly, holding that her use of chemicals was not part of the purpose of the chemical weapons treaty. But the Roberts Court may also see this as an opportunity to issue a broad ruling that overrules the 1920 precedent and limits longstanding congressional authority under the “Necessary and Proper” Clause.
RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND FAIRNESS
In this case, a town government wants to redevelop a housing development occupied primarily by low- and moderate-income minority families and replace it with more expensive housing. Residents sued under the Fair Housing Act, alleging that the plan had a disproportionate impact on minorities.
For 40 years, the Fair Housing Act has been a key tool to address unfair mortgage lending practices, insurance redlining, discriminatory zoning ordinances, and other obstacles to equal housing. Under the FHA, a practice that has a discriminatory effect – even if it does not have a discriminatory purpose – can be judged to violate the law. This is called “disparate impact.” All 11 circuits to have considered the question have agreed that disparate impact cases are covered under the Fair Housing Act. These cases go back to the 1970s and 1980s, and Congress has never amended the law to say otherwise. Although different circuits vary in the details, most follow a process in which, once a plaintiff shows that an action will have a racially disparate impact, the burden shifts to the defendant to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. In some cases, the defendant must also show that it can’t accomplish the same thing with less discriminatory results. The “burden shifting” disparate approach makes it much easier to fulfill the FHA’s goal of protecting Americans from housing discrimination. HUD regulations also interpret the FHA to include claims of disparate impact. A contrary interpretation by the Roberts Court could lead to the reversal of decades of progress in eliminating housing discrimination, the goal of the Fair Housing Act.
The constitutionality of Affirmative Action is not an issue in this case. Instead, the question is whether the Constitution allows states to amend their own constitutions to prohibit Affirmative Action.
In 2006, Ward Connerly succeeded in getting an anti-Affirmative Action measure on the ballot in Michigan, and it was passed by the voters. It prohibits the consideration of race, sex, ethnicity, and national origin in individualized admissions decisions by public colleges and universities. The Sixth Circuit struck down the measure, noting that no other factors (like legacy, geographic diversity, or athletic skill) were similarly made unconstitutional. As a result, an applicant who wants her alumni connections to be considered can ask the university to adopt a legacy-conscious admission program, but an African American applicant who wants a race-conscious admissions policy must persuade the entire electorate to adopt a constitutional amendment. The circuit court characterized this as a structural burden that violates the Equal Protection Clause.
Justice Kagan is recused from this case, which may affect how the Court rules.
Town of Greece v. Galloway: Legislative Prayer – The Court will decide if a town’s consistent use of sectarian prayer at town meetings violates the Establishment Clause, even if it shows that the town endorses a particular religion.
Over the course of many years, the town of Greece, NY, officially opened monthly public Town Board meetings with prayers. For years, the local members of the clergy who delivered the prayer were always specifically invited by the town supervisor to do so. Only Christian clergy were invited and mostly sectarian prayers were delivered. When two citizens complained that it appeared the town was officially aligning itself with Christianity, officials told them that anyone who wanted to could ask to deliver the prayer and do so regardless of content. Yet the town never publicized this alleged policy, and only four times subsequently did non-Christians deliver the prayer.
The Supreme Court held in 1983’s Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayers do not automatically violate the Establishment Clause, but that they should not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one religion, faith or belief, or to disparage any such belief. And in other contexts (like public crèche displays), the Court has ruled that under the Establishment Clause, the government may not appear to endorse any one specific faith.
With Justice O’Connor having been replaced by Justice Alito, the Court’s Establishment Clause cases may take a sharp turn to the right. There may now be a majority that would vastly expand government’s ability to endorse not only religion in general but also specific sectarian beliefs.
Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores: The Court is being asked to rule that the statute of limitations to challenge an employer’s denial of disability benefits begins to run before the claim has finally been resolved.
Julie Heimeshoff had been working for Wal-Mart for nearly 20 years when she developed pain and fatigue due to fibromyalgia and other conditions. Within a few months, she was unable to work and she filed for long-term disability benefits, which Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Company administers for Wal-Mart. Heimeshoff’s disability claim was denied.
Courts interpreting the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) have ruled that under the law, you cannot challenge the denial of benefits until you exhaust your remedies under your company’s benefits plan. Wal-Mart and Hartford’s plan sets a three-year statute of limitations for those who are denied benefits to sue, beginning as soon as Hartford requires the employee to provide proof of their disability. So the clock was ticking while the mandatory internal resolution process continued. In 2007, Heimeshoff was informed that Hartford was still denying her claim, and that this was its final decision. She sued in 2010, within three years of this final determination but more than three years after she was first required to prove the extent of her disability.
The Court will decide if a benefits plan can require the clock to start ticking before the plan has resolved the claims, or whether the clock can start ticking only when the worker has exhausted her plan remedies and can actually sue. In other words, does ERISA let employers and insurers impose a plan that makes it harder for employees to vindicate their ERISA rights in the courts?
In this case, a company and union agreed that management would remain neutral on efforts to organize workers to form a union, let the union have limited access to non-work areas to talk to employees, and give the union the employees’ names and home addresses for the same purpose. In return, the union promised that it would not picket, boycott, or act to economically harm the business. Such recognition-process agreements are fair and orderly ways to facilitate union organizing that benefit both workers and employers.
The question is whether this violates Section 302 of the Taft-Hartley Act, which makes it a criminal act for an employer to “pay, lend, or deliver … any money or other thing of value” to a labor union seeking to represent employees. The law was adopted in the 1940s to prevent corruption from distorting the process of forming a labor union. The employer and the union assert that their agreement is legal, because the employer’s agreement is not a “thing of value” as contemplated by Taft-Hartley. To the contrary, they claim that it furthers the statute’s goal of encouraging peaceful and honest labor organizing. But Mulhall claims the agreement falls within Taft-Hartley’s criminal provisions.
The Clean Air Act requires states to adopt plans that not only bring their own states into compliance with federal safety standards, but also prevent pollution that “contributes significantly” to air pollution in downwind states. Under the law, states that fail to implement a sufficient (or any) plan must then implement a plan designed by the EPA.
In this case, the EPA designed such plans, which reflected the extreme technical complexity of the issue. Based on the administrative record and its expertise on environmental health, the agency concluded that the new rules would prevent 13,000-34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, and 400,000 cases of asthma. They would also save $280 billion a year in healthcare costs.
Utility companies appealed, and a divided D.C. Circuit panel struck down the rule. The dissent accused the court’s majority of “disregard[ing] limits Congress placed on its jurisdiction, the plain text of the Clean Air Act (‘CAA’), and this court’s settled precedent interpreting the same statutory provisions at issue today.” The majority’s decision has been cited by some as an example of judges imposing their own ideologies over the technical expertise of a federal agency.
HOLDING CORPORATE WRONGDOERS ACCOUNTABLE
DaimlerChrysler is a German corporation being sued in a federal court in California for human rights violations by a wholly-owned subsidiary in Argentina. The subsidiary (Mercedes-Benz Argentina) allegedly identified “subversives” at the plant for the country’s military dictators, knowing that they would then be kidnapped, detained, tortured, or murdered as a result. Former plant employees or their surviving family members sued the parent company in California.
Under the Due Process Clause, a state cannot bring a defendant into its courts unless that party has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the state. That is called “personal jurisdiction.” In this case, DaimlerChrysler has a wholly-owned subsidiary that regularly does business in California: Mercedes-Benz USA. The 9th Circuit said the court had personal jurisdiction over the parent company because it had engaged in substantial and continuous corporate activity in the state for years via the subsidiary.
The Supreme Court is being asked to reverse that ruling. In a world where people’s lives are affected by the actions of enormous multinational corporations operating around the world through a seemingly endless number of subsidiaries, many will be interested in how the Court decides this case.
The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a securities reform law passed by Congress after the Enron collapse, protects “employees” of publicly traded companies who expose fraud by publicly traded companies. The term “employees” is at issue in this case.
At issue in this case is whether individuals working as contractors to publicly traded companies are considered employees for the purpose of protecting them from retaliation as whistleblowers. In this case, individuals who exposed alleged fraud involving Fidelity mutual funds were retaliated against. The mutual funds are owned by their shareholders and registered with the SEC. However, the whistleblowers were not employees of Fidelity’s funds, because those funds have no employees of their own. Instead, all the funds’ day-to-day work is done by privately owned “investment advisers” with names like Fidelity Management and Research Co. and Fidelity Brokerage Services. This is not an uncommon setup for mutual funds. So the whistleblowers were employees of Fidelity’s contractors, not of Fidelity itself, and those contractors are not publicly traded.
The district court ruled that interpreting “employees” so narrowly as to exclude contractors like the ones in this case would defeat the purpose of the law. However, the First Circuit reversed that decision. Now, the Supreme Court will decide.