Five Supreme Court cases to watch in 2016

The Supreme Court is entereing a busy New Year, with cases in front of the nine Justices during a presidential election season. Here is a quick look at five major cases you’ll be hearing about a lot.

800px-Supreme_Court_US_2010January is the last month in which the Court can accept new cases for its current term, which should end in late June. Indeed, at their private conference on January 15, the Justices will consider taking a case about President Obama’s executive action on immigration, before he leaves office.

Whole Women’s Health v. Cole (Abortion)

Status: Arguments on March 2, 2016; Decision: June 27, 2016

The petitioners in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole claimed a Texas law enacted in 2013 would force about 75 percent of the state’s abortion services to close. Two provisions in the law required that doctors at clinics have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the clinics, and that clinics have facilities equal to those of an outpatient surgical center. Texas officials believe the laws protect the health of the women seeking abortions by guaranteeing better care.

A divided Supreme Court ruled against the Texas law that placed restrictions on how women can gain access to abortions at clinics.

In a 5-3 decision, Justice Stephen Breyer said that “both the admitting privileges and surgical center requirements place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, constitute an undue burden on abortion access, and thus violate the Constitution.”


Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Affirmative Action)

Status: Argued on Dec. 9, 2015; Decided on June 23, 2016

In December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a landmark challenge to affirmative action at Texas’ flagship public university. The University of Texas is required to admit all high school seniors who rank in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Candidates for any remaining spots undergo a “holistic” evaluation process in which race is among the considered factors.

The Court has heard this case before. In 2013, the Court indeed issued a decision, but it sent the case back to the lower courts to be reviewed under a tougher constitutional standard.

On June 23, the Supreme Court affirmed, in a 4-3 decision from Justice Anthony Kennedy, a lower court ruling that allowed the University of Texas to use a race-conscious admissions policy under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

“The Court’s affirmance of the University’s admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admission policies,” Kennedy said.

United States v. Texas (Immigration)

Status: Granted on January 19, 2016; Decided on June 23, 2016

The Supreme Court heard a dispute between President Barack Obama and 26 states over the President’s ability to issue sweeping executive orders about immigration.

The 26 states had hoped the Supreme Court would rule on several issues, including the ability of the states to sue the Obama administration; the alleged constitutional overreach of the executive branch in forming immigration policies conflicting with laws passed by Congress; and the alleged unwillingness of President Obama to honor the Constitution’s “Take Care Clause” to execute laws passed by Congress.

Instead, the Justices considered two of the three questions: on standing and the Take Care clause.

Two lower courts that ruled on the case agreed that the state of Texas had standing to sue the Obama administration because it had been potentially injured by immigration enforcement decisions, which could defer the deportation of 5 million undocumented immigrants. In November 2015, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s injunction that blocked President Obama’s executive orders on immigration from taking effect.

The orders seek to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which gave prosecutorial discretion regarding the enforcement of immigration laws against “certain young people.” The orders would make millions more eligible for the program. A November 2014 executive action also established the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program (DAPA), which allows the parents of U.S. citizens to remain “lawfully present” in the United States. The District Court determined that at least 4.3 million individuals would be eligible for lawful presence under DAPA.

On June 23, in a 4-4 tie, the divided Court said in a one-sentence per curium opinion that the judgment of the lower court in United States v. Texas, was confirmed, leaving in place an injunction against President Barack Obama’s recent deferred immigration policies.


Evenwel v. Abbott (One Person, One Vote)

Status: Arguments on Dec. 8, 2015; Decided on April 4, 2016

In this case, the Court decided if eligible voting population numbers can be substituted for total population numbers when voting districts are determined.

Back in 2013, the Texas legislature drafted new districts for electing the 31 members of the state senate. The lawmakers proceeded on a theory of equal representation by actual population, with just an 8.04 percent difference between the largest and the smallest districts. But the Texas legislature based its headcount on the total population of each district and not the numbers of people eligible to vote in each district. Due to an imbalance in the voting age population in the districts, the difference between the largest and the smallest districts rose to as much as 49 percent, when it came to who could actually cast votes.

In a decision written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court said that Texas can determine its voting districts based on total population numbers, and isn’t required to use a system based on numbers related to registered voters. The decision, however, didn’t preclude the ability of a state to establish a representation system based on registered voters, if it so desired.


Zubik vs. Burwell (Obamacare)

Status: Arguments Heard March 23, 2016, Decided on May 16, 2016

The United States Supreme Court in November consolidated seven cases challenging Obamacare’s birth-control mandate into one: Zubik v. Burwell. The current legal challenge, the fourth to be accepted by the Court since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, involves religious-sponsored non-profit corporations.

These institutions object on moral grounds to an Obamacare provision that allows their employees to obtain contraceptive coverage through their health insurance, even if those contraceptive products are provided by insurance companies and the government, instead of the institutions.The groups argue that even indirect participation in such a plan is offensive, and they want to be included in a broader Obamacare exception extended to churches, synagogues and worship-based employers.

The federal government believes that religiously oriented non-profit institutions such as hospitals and universities have numerous employees who don’t share the beliefs of religious groups that sponsor the non-profits, and these workers would be harmed by the exclusions.

On May 16, the Court said it won’t decide this dispute over Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate and religious rights, telling lower courts and the parties involved to find a compromise solution. In an unsigned five-page opinion in the Zubik v. Burwell case, the Court reached the conclusion that “in light of the positions asserted by the parties in their supplemental briefs, the Court vacates the judgments below and remands to the respective United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D. C. Circuits.”

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