January 7, 2016 | Commentary on Legal Issues, Rule of Law, Judicial Activism

Supreme Court Docket Promises Dramatic Decisions This Year

The Supreme Court’s 2016 calendar promises plenty of excitement for court aficionados and profound “real-world” implications for the rest of society.

The Affordable Care Act comes before the court — again — in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell. The sisters are a group of nuns who care for the elderly poor. They believe that the administration’s requirement that they use a health care plan providing their employees with contraceptives and certain abortion-inducing drugs places a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion.

In June 2014, the court held that a closely held, for-profit corporation (Hobby Lobby) could assert rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Unlike the plaintiffs in that case, the sisters have been offered what the administration refers to as an “accommodation” requiring them to fill out a form and submit it to the government, which will prompt a third-party organization to provide the coverage instead. The sisters believe that filling out this form makes them complicit in carrying out an act that the Catholic Church teaches is a mortal sin.

Abortion is also on the court’s docket. Whole Women’s Health v. Cole involves a challenge to a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet the same health and safety standards applied to other outpatient surgical facilities and requiring doctors in those clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

Texas claims that this law advances its legitimate interests in maternal health and improved quality of care, while the challengers assert that it unduly burdens a woman’s right to get an abortion in that state. If the law is upheld, one could reasonably anticipate that like-minded states will enact similar laws.

Another important case — Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — involves public unions and the First Amendment. In 1977, the court held that public employees who decline to join a union can still be required to pay union fees on the theory that the union represents every employee when negotiating collective bargaining agreements. Such fees, however, cannot be used to fund “ideological activities unrelated to collective bargaining.”

A group of California teachers is asking the court to overrule that precedent. The teachers argue that public-sector collective bargaining is, by its nature, political speech and that compelling them to subsidize speech they disagree with violates the First Amendment. In a recent case, the court noted that it is “impossible to argue that state spending for employee benefits in general is not a matter of great public concern.”

In Evenwell v. Abbott, the court is being asked to clarify the “one person, one vote” principle established in 1964 in Reynolds v. Sims. The plaintiffs argue that the Texas Legislature’s use of total population in drawing the state’s Senate districts significantly dilutes their votes when compared with neighboring districts that have a large number of illegal immigrants and others who are not eligible to vote. A decision in favor of the challengers could have a major effect on redistricting, shifting power from urban districts, which tend to have larger numbers of noncitizens, to rural districts.

Racial preferences are back, too. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the court will consider — again — whether Texas can continue to use its “holistic” race-based undergraduate admissions policy to achieve “qualitative diversity” on college campuses.

In 2013, the court held that schools must prove — with actual evidence, not mere assertions of good intentions — that their use of race in admissions decisions is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest. On remand, the lower court again deferred to the university’s perceived wisdom rather than requiring it to articulate its compelling interest and produce evidence that putting a thumb on the race scales was necessary to achieve that interest. The court will now consider whether this was enough to satisfy strict scrutiny review.

So who needs politics? The Supreme Court calendar alone assures that 2016 will be an exciting and consequential year.

John G. Malcolm is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times.

About the Author

John Malcolm Director, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and the Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies