The Supreme Court is heading into the final month of its term, facing decisions on gerrymandering, unions, gay rights, abortion and President Trump’s travel ban.
This term’s best-known case is a culture wars clash that pits equal rights for gay customers against a claim of religious liberty from a Christian store owner. It is one of three major cases that feature a “compelled speech” claim from conservatives who object to liberal state laws. The others involve union fees and California’s required disclosures for crisis pregnancy centers.
The justices are expected to announce decisions on the first day of every work week between now and the end of June, and then adjourn for the summer.
Major pending cases:
Partisan gerrymandering: The court will decide a political line-drawing dispute that could determine which party controls Congress and many state legislatures in the decade ahead. At issue is whether state lawmakers may deliberately redraw election districts to ensure that a particular party controls most of the seats, even when most voters cast ballots for the other party. In the past, the court has struck down districts drawn along racial lines, but it has never struck down an election map because it was unfairly partisan. The justices are set to decide two cases on the issue. One from Wisconsin (Gill vs. Whitford) challenges a statewide map that assured Republicans at least 60% of the seats in its state House. The other, from Maryland (Benisek vs. Lamone), challenges a successful Democratic scheme to transform a Republican-held congressional district into a solidly Democratic one by shifting tens of thousands of voters.
Gay rights and religion: The court will decide whether certain store owners are entitled to an exemption from a state’s anti-discrimination law because of their religious beliefs. It began when Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker and a conservative Christian, refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Colorado, like California and 20 other states, requires businesses that are open to the public to provide “full and equal” service to all customers regardless of sexual orientation. Phillips appealed on free-speech grounds, arguing that designing a custom cake is a form of expression. The court’s conservatives, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, suggested during arguments that the owner may have been a victim of bias against religion. (Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission)
Unions and public employees: The court will decide whether teachers, police and other public employees in California, New York and 20 other mostly Democratic states can be required by law to pay a “fair share fee” to cover the cost of collective bargaining even if they don’t belong to a union. The justices upheld such contracts in 1977, but said then that employees did not have to pay for the union’s political spending. Anti-union advocates say the court now should go further and rule that forced fees violate the 1st Amendment because they require some employees to support a group whose views they may oppose. The conservative justices signaled they are likely to rule for the challengers in a case from Illinois and deal a blow to the public sector unions that traditionally support Democrats. (Janus vs. AFSCME)
Trump and the travel ban: The court will decide whether President Trump has the power, acting on his own, to bar most visitors and immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations. The controversy over Trump’s travel ban erupted during his first week in the White House, and his orders were repeatedly blocked by judges on the West Coast and East Coast. They ruled his orders were unconstitutional because they discriminated against Muslims. Others said he overstepped his authority under U.S. immigration laws. But the Supreme Court allowed the latest version of Trump’s order to go into effect in December, and the justices sounded ready to uphold it during arguments in April. (Trump vs. Hawaii)
Cellphones and privacy: The court will decide whether police must obtain a search warrant based on “probable cause” before they obtain data from a cellphone company that would allow them to track a suspect’s movements for days or weeks at a time. Privacy advocates on the right and the left agree on the need for warrants, and California law already includes such a requirement. But investigators say they sometimes need the data to identify a crime suspect or a terrorist. (Carpenter vs. United States)
Pregnancy centers and abortion: The court will decide whether California can require faith-based crisis pregnancy centers to notify their patients that the state provides free or low cost “prenatal care and abortion for eligible women.” State lawmakers said these posted disclosures were needed because these centers use “deceptive advertising” to confuse or misinform women. But the challengers say the required notifications are “compelled speech”that violates the 1st Amendment and “drowns out the centers’ pro-life messages.” (National Institute of Family and Life Advocates vs. Becerra)
Online merchants and sales taxes: The court will decide whether internet merchants can be required to collect sales taxes for all the states and thousands of municipalities where their customers live. It is a $10-billion-dollar-a-year issue for states, a potential headache for small-scale merchants and a matter of basic fairness for traditional retail stores, who must collect such taxes. In 1992, in the era of mail-order catalogs, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose such a tax-collecting duty on merchants who had no stores or “physical presence” in a state. In South Dakota vs. Wayfair, the states say the justices should overturn that ruling.
Voting rolls and purges: The court will decide whether states can remove people from the voting rolls if they fail to cast a ballot for two years and do not respond to several notices in the mail. Ohio says it wants to clean up its voting rolls, but civil rights lawyers said the state has wrongly removed thousands of registered voters. And they point to a federal law that says voters may not be dropped simply because of a failure to vote. (Husted vs. A. Philip Randolph Institute)
Decisions already announced:
Workers rights and group arbitration: In Epic Systems vs. Lewis, the court ruled that employers can require workers to resolve all complaints through one-on-one arbitration, including allegations that the company was violating federal wage and hour laws. By a 5-4 vote, the justices rejected the argument that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the right to join together to sue in court or bring group claims before an arbiter. The ruling is a victory for employers and the Trump administration, and it will limit the rights of more 60 million private sector workers whose companies rely on private arbitration.
Sports betting: In Murphy vs. NCAA, the court by a 6-3 vote struck down the federal law that prohibited the states from sponsoring or licensing betting on sports. The ruling in favor of New Jersey was based on the principle that the Constitution does not allow Congress to give the orders to the states. The justices said Congress was free to make sports betting a federal offense, but there is no sign such legislation is in the works.
Deportation and home burglaries: In Sessions vs. Dimaya, the justices, by a 5-4 vote, struck down part of a federal law that called for deporting noncitizens for a “crime of violence,” but failed to describe which crimes qualify. The disputed provision referred to “a substantial risk that physical force” may be used, but the justices said that was too vague. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch cast a key vote for the majority. The California defendant, a long-time legal immigrant, was slated for deportation because he pleaded guilty to the burglary of an unoccupied home.
Jail and deportation: In Jennings vs. Rodriguez, the court ruled that U.S. immigration law permits long-term jailing of legal immigrants who are fighting their deportation. By a 5-3 vote, the justices rejected the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ view that these detainees had a right to a bond hearing after six months. The ruling dealt only with federal law and left open whether the Constitution puts a limit on such a detention. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.