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Teachable Cases from the 2013-14 SCOTUS Term

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Teachable Cases from the 2013-14 SCOTUS Term

March signals the home stretch of the Supreme Court’s oral argument calendar. Since October, the Court has been hearing oral arguments in this Term’s cases—more than 60 so far—and they have just a few weeks left. By the end of April, the justices will have heard all the oral arguments and reviewed all the written briefs. This Term, while lacking some of the blockbuster cases of the past two years (think Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and the Voting Rights Act) still brings several important, teachable issues before the Court. Here, we highlight some of 2013-14 Supreme Court Term’s most noteworthy, and classroom-worthy, cases. A decision in each of them is expected by the end of June.

First Amendment

The Court is diving into several cases exploring the boundaries of the First Amendment—from prayer at government meetings, to the First Amendment rights of protestors, political donors, and businesses or business owners. One of the earliest cases of the term, Town of Greece v. Galloway, was argued back in November, but to date has not yet been decided. This case asks whether the town violated the Establishment Clause when it opened its board meetings with a prayer—usually Christian. Supporters of the prayer argue that the United States has a long history of legislative prayer, and that state and federal legislative sessions often begin with a prayer. Opponents say there is something fundamentally different about a town board meeting, where zoning and other decisions are made with applicants present, which makes the prayer a violation of the Establishment Clause. This case provides an interesting forum for discussing the differences between local, state, and federal legislative practices, while examining the Court’s history of rulings regarding government and prayer. (See Street Law’s case study materials)

In other religious freedom cases, to be argued on March 25, for-profit businesses and business owners assert that they have religious freedom rights that allow them to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for certain contraceptives to their employees, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The government says the requirement only regulates the corporation, not its owners, and the regulation applies equally to all businesses, so there is no discrimination. These cases raise interesting issues about whether a business can “exercise” religion, and whether a business owner can exercise his or her religion through the business. These cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga v. Sebelius

On the free speech front, the Court is considering whether protest “buffer zones” around abortion clinics violate the free speech rights of the protesters. The people who want to protest at the clinic say that they are being targeted for the content of their speech and the mandate to stay at least 35 feet from the door makes them less effective in the individual conversations they want to have with the patients. The government argues that the 35-foot zone is an allowable restriction on the time, place, or manner of the speech. Studying this case with students provides a good opportunity to review the boundaries of free speech and public protests and look at the government’s authority to mandate the time and place of speech as opposed to its content. A deliberation would be a particularly effective strategy to use with this controversial and emotional topic. More information on McCullen v. Coakley at SCOTUSblog.

Fourth Amendment

The Court is also poised to decide some very timely issues about the privacy of information contained in a cell phone. In Riley v. California, which will be argued on April 29, a man was convicted of a crime based on evidence—photos, messages, and calls—found in his smartphone. The catch is, the police seized and examined the phone, without a warrant, after stopping the man for driving with expired plates. The Court is considering whether the man’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the police not only seized the phone during his arrest, as they are allowed to do, but also searched its contents.

In other Fourth Amendment territory, the Court is poised to refine a very teachable case from a few terms ago about whether one co-tenant can allow the police in to search a home when the other co-tenant has said “no.” In the earlier case, Georgia v. Randolph, the Court ruled against the search. This case, called Fernandez v. California, the tenant who first refused the home search was no longer physically present, having been arrested and removed from the scene on suspicion of domestic violence. When police returned later, the co-tenant granted permission to search and the police found evidence leading to Fernandez’s conviction.

Recess appointments

Government teachers may also be interested in the Court’s consideration of the president’s capacity to make recess appointments. In National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, President Obama appointed several members to the National Labor Relations Board during a break between sessions after the Senate had refused to act on the nominations. For years, the Senate had been holding very brief, pro forma sessions (where they conducted no business) during breaks in order to never take an official recess. They argue that the president cannot make “recess” appointments if the Senate is not formally on recess. It’s a case of good old-fashioned constitutional interpretation: what do the words in the Constitution really mean? The Recess Appointments Clause authorizes the president “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” Does this mean that the president may only fill vacancies that come about during a recess? What about the longstanding practice of using recess appointments to get around political intransigence? On another matter, does the difference between availability of lawmakers during the 18th century—when Senators took long recesses, scattered across the country with no telephones or internet—and today matter? What did the framers intend this clause to mean, and does that matter? For help teaching about this tension between the branches and the question of how to interpret the constitution, see our materials on Judicial Interpretation.

Affirmative action, political donations

In addition to these, the Court is also set to decide whether Michigan’s state constitutional ban on affirmative action violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action), whether the government can place an aggregate limit on political donations without violating donors’ free speech rights (McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission), and whether police can stop motorists based on certain anonymous tips (Navarette v. California).

Street Law resources

We’ll be following all of these cases, and featuring many of them at the Supreme Court Summer Institute. Visit Street Law’s Resource Library in July to download teaching materials and case studies of many of these. In the meantime, we recommend SCOTUSblog’s Plain English summaries to learn more and keep up with the Supreme Court as it enters this exciting time!

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