Supreme Court Term in Review
The 2010-2011 Supreme Court term ended on Monday with a little less fanfare than usual – for the first time since 2009, a justice did not retire – but no less intrigue to those of us court-watchers. This year’s term saw a new associate justice; a consolidation of the ideologically conservative wing of Justices Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas, who were in the majority in 87% of the cases that were decided by a 5-4 margin; a victory in one of the cases in which the Reform Movement joined an amicus brief; and several disappointing decisions affirming the Court’s recent tendency to favor corporations. Here are some highlights of the 2010-2011 term (and keep reading for a preview of what’s to come):
- Snyder v. Phelps: Going into the term, Snyder v. Phelps was viewed as the biggest case on the docket, attracting so much attention that I and fellow RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Jonathan Backer couldn’t even get in to see the oral arguments. In March, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the First Amendment right of free speech protects the Westboro Baptist Church members who protested at a military funeral.
- Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn: In this case, Arizona taxpayers challenged a state program that gives tax credits to individual taxpayers who make contributions to private, non-profit groups that provide scholarships to private school students. The challengers were arguing that this statute amounts to state funding of religious organizations, but the Supreme Court ruled the taxpayers didn’t even have standing to sue in the first place.
- Thompson v. North American Stainless Steel: The two questions before the Supreme Court in this case were: Does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect an employee from retaliation if his/her fiancée is the one who complained about discrimination? And, if so, can the fired employee sue under the law even though he/she did not file the discrimination complaint? The Reform Movement joined an amicus brief urging the Court to answer “yes” to both questions, and we were pleased to see all eight justices agree (Associate Justice Elena Kagan recused herself).
- McComish v. Bennett and Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett (consolidated): In its first campaign finance reform case since the controversial Citizens United v. FEC, the Court was asked whether the matching funds provisions of Arizona’s public financing system violated the First Amendment right to free speech. The Union for Reform Judaism drafted its first amicus brief in this case, urging the justices to uphold the public financing program. On Monday, the Court ruled otherwise in a 5-4 decision – but RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Jonathan Backer says it’s not all bad: New Associate Justice Elena Kagan delivered a passionate dissenting opinion on Monday, suggesting that she could “breathe new life” into her fellow supporters of campaign finance reform on the Court.
- Wal-Mart v. Dukes: I’ll be honest: I didn’t realize how big this case would be when the Court first agreed to consider it. The question was whether 1.5 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart could pursue a class action lawsuit against the retail chain alleging gender discrimination. The Reform Movement joined an amicus brief arguing that they should be allowed to sue as a class, but last week the Court narrowly decided otherwise. We find this decision troubling because it essentially creates a “large-company exception” to America’s civil rights laws, and it has broad implications for the future of class action lawsuits as a legal tool, especially when it comes to fighting discrimination in the workplace.
Of course, there were plenty of other major decisions this term, such as the one protecting video games as expressions of free speech and two that were considered to be “significant victories” for drug companies. For more analysis of the 2010-2011 term, check out SCOTUSblog’s stat pack or “Term Review” post. You can also browse issue-specific reports such as the American Civil Liberties Union’s summary of the major civil liberties decisions and the National Women’s Law Center’s fact sheet on cases that impacted women (which also includes a sneak preview of next year’s term!)
Speaking of the 2011-2012 Supreme Court term, here are some other things you might want to look for:
- The newest Associate Justice Elena Kagan will probably be able to hear all of the cases next term (she had to recuse herself 26 times this year to avoid conflicts of interest from her time as Obama’s solicitor general). Although some would argue that Kagan’s recusals didn’t make a huge difference, it will still be interesting to see, to a larger extent, the kind of Supreme Court justice she will be.
- Some analysts say efforts to challenge the health care reform law passed last year might arrive at the Supreme Court in time for the 2011-2012 term. The timing might just work out, given that the first appeals court ruling came down earlier this week: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law is constitutional. There are still 25 other federal lawsuits pending against the health care law, three of which have already had oral arguments at the appeals court level. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied the Virginia attorney general’s request to consider his state’s challenge to the law under expedited review.
- Another high-profile case that could make its way to the Supreme Court sometime next term is the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. The Reform Movement strongly believes in marriage equality and supports the repeal of DOMA.
For now, enjoy your summer vacation as much as the Supreme Court justices will! We’ll be back in October with more RACBlog coverage of the Supreme Court.