It is time to take part in the traditions of July 4 — celebrating our nation’s independence, watching fireworks … and, of course, taking stock at the end of the Supreme Court’s term. As has become the norm, the Roberts Court issued a number of damaging and ideological 5-4 rulings over the past year. Sometimes, that split was harder for the public to see since the Justices were united on the end result, even if deeply divided on their reasoning and the consequences for Americans. But every one of these cases was a reminder that our nation’s courts matter, and we should all care deeply about who is nominated to the federal bench.
As usual, it was a great year for powerful corporations and individuals, with the Supreme Court giving them expanded abilities to exercise control over various aspects of our lives, notwithstanding the federal laws and constitutional provisions that are supposed to protect us.
Four years after Citizens United, the far-right Justices’ 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC drove another dagger into the heart of our democracy by empowering the wealthiest and most powerful among us to exercise even more control over our elections. The Court struck down federal limits that capped aggregate campaign contributions during a single election cycle — limits that the Court had upheld in 1976. To justify this, the Roberts Court ignored the way the world really works and made it far more difficult to justify much-needed protections from those who would purchase our elections and elected officials. The Court continued its absurdly cramped reading of the First Amendment, that campaign finance laws can only be justified if they are intended to prevent real or perceived “quid pro quo” corruption, which is essentially bribery.
The same five-Justice bloc that held in Citizens United that corporations have the same rights as people to spend money to influence our elections, ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that for-profit corporations have religious liberty rights, just like people. The ruling lets businesses deny their women employees the contraception coverage guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act. Of course, no court in the history of the republic has ever found that for-profit corporations have religious liberty (or religion at all), but that didn’t stop Justice Alito and his four far-right colleagues from finding this right in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). While they claimed their ruling was limited to privately held family-owned corporations, nothing in their reasoning imposed such a limit. Instead, they opened the door for all kinds of for-profit corporations to cite RFRA in claiming that they are exempt from rules that they have religious objections to — including rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Even putting that aside, the ruling by itself makes a woman’s private healthcare decisions subject to the whims of her employer’s religious beliefs. This is not what religious liberty is about.
Another blow to religious liberty came in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which continued the conservative Justices’ effort to undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. The case involved a town that regularly invited Christian clergy — and only Christian clergy — to open their town meetings with a prayer. The prayers were often sectarian in nature, leaving town citizens with the choice of either participating or showing publicly that they did not share the majority’s religion. The conservatives on the Court downplayed how the majority can use state-sanctioned religion to cast citizens as outsiders in their own political community, dividing communities into “them” and “us.” Their ruling also ignored the dangers of having government appear to endorse religion and misapprehended the types of religious-based coercion that courts — and all Americans — should be concerned with.
Public employee unions took a big hit at the end of the term in Harris v. Quinn, a 5-4 ruling written by the fervently anti-union Justice Samuel Alito. The far-right Justices took great pains to undermine the decades-old Abood precedent, which upholds “fair share” fees by public employees who do not join the union that is legally obligated to represent them. These fees cover only the cost of collective bargaining and other acts of representation; the non-members are not required to cover the cost of the union’s other work, such as political activities. Anti-worker forces have long targeted these fees as a way to defund and ultimately destroy public sector unions. But rather than overruling the Abood precedent, the Court held that it didn’t apply in this case, which involved home healthcare workers paid by Medicaid and subject to the authority of both the state and the disabled individuals who they care for. Justice Kagan’s dissent explains why Abood clearly applied to this case, why its legal reasoning remains solid, and how deeply entrenched that precedent has become in our national culture. But she only wrote for four Justices, not five. The majority’s ruling weakens public sector unions, and it is clear that Alito is laying the groundwork to do far more damage in a future case.
It was also not a good term for women seeking access to abortion, who found their right to safe access to clinics undermined by the Court’s ruling in McCullen v. Coakley. Although the Justices were unanimous in striking down the Massachusetts clinic buffer zone law at issue in the case, they were bitterly divided in their reasoning. Four of the conservative Justices would have overruled the 2000 Hill v. Colorado precedent upholding a clinic buffer zone law in that state. But Chief Justice Roberts, joined by the four moderates, did not go that far. In fact, they actually reaffirmed that this and other buffer zones at reproductive health clinics are content-neutral laws subject to less exacting First Amendment scrutiny. However, the Massachusetts law failed scrutiny nonetheless, according to the majority, which claimed that the state had to try other ways of accomplishing its goals that didn’t have such an impact on opponents of abortion. And while the majority did not overrule Hill, they did not endorse it, either, leaving its viability in doubt.
In Schuette v. BAMN, the Court ruled 6-2 that voters in the state of Michigan could amend their constitution in a way that harmed racial minorities by passing an amendment to ban race-based affirmative action. (The Court made clear that this case was not about the constitutionality of affirmative action itself.) There was no majority agreeing on the reasons, but six Justices did agree on the outcome. While no one claimed that affirmative action could never be ended, proponents argued that revoking it by state constitutional amendment restructured the political process to the detriment of racial minorities and, consistent with earlier cases on that subject, was unconstitutional. The case is particularly notable for Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, where she directly took on the Chief Justice’s famous line from 2007 that “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.
Fortunately, not every case before the Court this term came out badly.
In Riley v. California, a unanimous Court recognized our privacy interest in cell phones, ruling that police need a warrant to search the cell phone of someone who is arrested.
Corporate efforts to escape environmental regulations lost in two cases. In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, seven Justices of the Court upheld the EPA’s general authority to issue regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, while a 5-4 conservative majority limited its ability to regulate it in certain contexts. In EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, the Court upheld the agency’s cross-state air pollution rules in a 6-2 ruling.
In Lawson v. FMR, the Court refused to interpret a post-Enron whistleblower protection law to exclude protection for employees who work for contractors of publicly traded companies. This is an important protection, because mutual funds (which millions of Americans invest in) technically have no employees, and all the day-to-day work is done by contractors. When one of those contractors learns that false or misleading information is being given to investors, whistleblower protection makes it safe to warn us.
Yet these few bright spots don’t change the fact that, overall, this was another bad term for Americans’ rights under the Constitution and other federal laws, with the Court’s far-right Justices shaping numerous areas of the law to fit their conservative ideology.