10 Most Important SCOTUS Decisions of 2014


By Lester Asamoah and David Postic

U.S. Supreme Court


 

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores set the social media world (and the regular world, for that matter) on fire. Suddenly, people who usually couldn’t care less what those nine crazy old people say got all excited and started tweeting about it. In other words, Hobby Lobby was essentially the World Cup of Supreme Court rulings.

However, Hobby Lobby was not the only case the Supreme Court (or SCOTUS, for those who like acronyms) covered this term. In our opinion it wasn’t even the most important. Considering that the Court hears between 80 and 90 cases each year–on a wide range of issues–it is important to know what they decide outside of this one little case. Below we have ranked and summarized the ten most important cases from this term.

1. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Background: If you don’t know anything about the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from 2010, stop now and go learn about it. Essentially, this case (like Citizens United) is about how much an individual can contribute to a political candidate, political party, or political action committee (PAC). McCutcheon was not arguing for the right to donate more money to a single candidate; rather, he wanted to be able to donate money to more candidates/parties/PACs. However, limitations on aggregate contributions constrained his giving, supposedly violating his First Amendment right to free speech.

Holding: The Court ruled in favor of McCutcheon 5-4. The practical effect of McCutcheon is that individuals will still be subject to a limit (currently $2600) on contributions to any one candidate and higher limits on contributions to any PAC or party committee.  Now, however, donors will no longer be limited in the number of candidates or committees they may support in any given election cycle. Viewed together, Citizens United and McCutcheon strike a major blow to proponents of campaign finance reform.

2. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Background: The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) requires employers to provide their female employees with health insurance that includes no-cost access to twenty different kinds of contraceptives. Hobby Lobby, a craft store owned by a Christian family, objected to the requirement, specifically claiming that four types of contraceptives (two kinds of “morning after” pills and two kinds of IUDs–interuterine devices) are abortifacients and therefore burdensome to the free practice of their Christian religion.

Holding: The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby. The first important thing to note here is that this ruling was not one centered strictly on the Constitution. Rather it was mainly a statutory issue concerning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The decision here did not destroy Obamacare’s individual mandate; it also did not grant all businesses religious exceptions to Obamacare. The majority claims that this ruling is a narrow one that applies only to closely-held corporations and only on an issue such as contraceptives and only when it places a significant burden on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the dissenters (led by Justice Ginsburgh in what may be one of her most fiery dissents in recent years) claimed the majority established dangerous precedent that could have ramifications in racial discrimination, same-sex discrimination, and other issues.

3. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

Background: If you are unfamiliar with affirmative action, take 5 minutes to orient yourself. In 2006, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, which prevented the state’s public colleges and universities from granting preferential treatment in the admissions process on the basis of race.

Holding: In a 6-2 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself), the Court ruled that voters can end state affirmative action programs. The opinion will not prevent universities from using race as a plus-factor in admissions processes; it merely stated that voters have the power to ban the use of racial preferences. Nevertheless, the dissent and proponents of affirmative action believe that this is a major setback for racial equality. While the decision focused on race-based admissions factors in universities, it would presumably also permit voters to end race-based policies in the hiring of state and local employees and in awarding public contracts.

4. American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo

Background: Aereo invented a technology that allows subscribers to view and record television broadcasts over the Internet by swiping the broadcasts from the airwaves with thousands of tiny antennas. Because the startup did not receive permission to stream these broadcasts, broadcasting companies sued Aereo, claiming copyright infringement. However, Aereo claimed that they were not infringing on any copyrights–they were simply renting antennas to consumers and they were doing the rest.

Opposing Aereo were the broadcasting companies, as well as corporations such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which earn hundreds of millions of dollars selling their broadcasting rights. On Aereo’s side was the cable industry. If Aereo won, cable companies would be able to sell their own Aereo-esque technology and provide broadcast content without paying broadcasters a penny. Interesting to note here: When Aereo won its case on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals last year, CBS and Fox threatened to go off the air.

Holding: The Supreme Court ruled against Aereo in a 6-3 decision. The justices seemed anxious to avoid a ruling that would imperil the legal foundation of cloud computing services such as Dropbox and Amazon Cloud Music. Instead, the majority said the decision pertained only to Aereo’s system so far as it enabled its viewers to view copyrighted TV programs “live,” or after only a brief delay. In the increasingly dramatic fight between cable companies and broadcasters, Aereo affirmed in part the power of the broadcasting industry.

5. Riley v. California

Background: A California police officer stopped the petitioner, Riley, for a traffic violation that eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. When Riley was arrested, his cellphone was taken and searched. The police officer found photo and video content suggesting that he was involved a particular gang shooting. Riley moved to suppress the evidence from his phone connecting him to the gang, but the trial court denied the motion and he was convicted.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Court held that the police may not search the cellphone of an individual who is arrested. All nine justices maintained that such digital content may only be searched with a warrant. Riley does not have a direct impact on allegations of government monitoring personal information, but it is a big win for personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment by reaffirming constitutional protections in an increasingly digital world.

6. Town of Greece v. Galloway

Background: Town board meetings in Greece, NY open with roll call, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer and have done so since 1999. The town’s prayer program is open to all creeds, but all of the local congregations are Christian. Thus, nearly all of the prayers are Christian prayers. Respondents Galloway and Stephens argued that the prayers go against their personal religious and philosophical beliefs – they arguethe town should have “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that would not associate the government with one belief system.

Holding: In a tight 5-4 decision, the Court held that the town of Greece was not violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The prayers have Christian elements, but they also invoke a sense of spiritual and civil principles. Additionally, the majority believed that reasonable attempts were made to include clergy of different faiths. Regardless, this case is big for religious freedom. The “traditional” protections that Congress and state legislatures have for prayer are now extended to local civil entities. City of Greece 1 – Laicism 0.

7. Hall v. Florida

Background: A man (Hall) kidnapped, beat, raped, and murdered Karol Hurst, a 21 year old newlywed. After killing her, Hall and his accomplice planned to rob a convenience store but were stopped by in the parking lot by a sheriff’s deputy. The two men then killed the deputy. The State of Florida recommended the death penalty for both counts of murder. Hall argued he cannot be executed on account of his intellectual disability. Hall’s IQ score is 71, but Florida laws state that an IQ score of 70 or below is required to present additional evidence of an intellectual disability to vacate the sentence.

(Note: Highly recommend reading the opinion brief, Hall was tortured by his mother and faced other troubling circumstances. The Florida jury and appellate court opinions are also worth the read.)

Holding: The Court ruled 5-4 that the state IQ threshold was unconstitutional because it put intellectually disabled individuals at unreasonable risk for being executed. Prior case law has established that any execution of intellectually disabled individuals clearly violates the Eighth Amendment. Florida’s hard and fast IQ threshold was a problem because the law did not account for standard error.

8. NLRB v. Noel Canning

Background: Several members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were appointed by President Obama via the Recess Appointment Clause, which states that the President has the power to temporarily appoint officers without the consent of the Senate if the Senate is in recess. The NLRB members in question were appointed during a three day recess.

Holding: In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Court ruled Obama’s appointments invalid. Basically, the Justices felt that a three day recess is far too short to make appointments without Senate approval. There is no concrete definition on what is “too short” of a recess. However, it is generally regarded as a “significant interruption of legislative business” (e.g. Summer Recess). The ruling blocks the president from sneaking appointees past the Senate. Yet in a highly partisan Senate, it also slows down the appointment process of key political officials.

9. EPA v. EME Homer City Generation

Background: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through the Clean Air Act, established national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for pollutants at levels that will protect public health. Once the EPA determines NAAQS, they determine the “non-attainment areas” where a regulated pollutant exceeds the NAAQS. A state with a non-attainment area must submit a solution to the EPA within three years. If the EPA thinks an the solution is inadequate, the EPA develops a Federal Implementation Plan where the EPA takes control. A solution can be ruled inadequate if it is in violation of the Good Neighbor Provision, meaning that the plan must include provisions to prevent regulated pollutants from one state from adversely affecting another [downwind] state.

In 2005, the EPA Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) sought to regulate nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in 27 upwind states. However, the D.C. Circuit Court found fault with CAIR, so the EPA came up with a complex cost-based formula for determining how states should compensate one another. If this case sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

Holding: In a 6-2 decision, the Court reversed the D.C. Circuit’s decision. The decision is significant because President Obama announced an EPA plan last month to combat climate change. The aforementioned Clean Air Act is the source of the EPA’s authority–instead of creating a new law, the EPA regulations are interpretations of the Clean Air Act. Environmental politics are dicey, but the Court gave the EPA a victory.

10. McCullen v. Coakley

Background: The Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act made it a crime to knowingly stand within 35 feet of a public way or sidewalk of an entrance or driveway to a reproductive health care facility. Petitioner McCullen argued that he and others engaged in “sidewalk counseling” by giving women walking toward abortion clinics information about alternatives to abortion. McCullen claimed that the Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act significantly hampered his efforts of “sidewalk counseling”, and thus was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled the Act unconstitutional. Quite simply, the Justices believed that the State of Massachusetts did not do enough to address clashes between abortion opponents and advocates before passing the Act. In so deciding, the Court continued a strong trend of protecting free speech, even when it is perceived as hateful.

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Lester Asamoah is an International Security Studies senior at the University of  Oklahoma.

&

David Postic is a second-year law student at the University of Oklahoma.

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