The U.S. Supreme Court begins its fall term on the first Monday in October. Only time will tell whether the 2015-2016 term will yield landmark cases such as those that pronounced a right to same-sex marriage and upheld the tax provisions of the Affordable Care Act. But potential blockbusters already are on the docket and others are in the pipeline. The court is scheduled to hear cases regarding the death penalty, redistricting, free speech, affirmative action, tribal court jurisdiction and state water rights. The court also may take on appeals related to abortion rights and religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage. Here is a short explanation of just a few noteworthy cases.
Death Penalty and Life Imprisonment
This past June, the Supreme Court paved the way for future executions by refusing an Eighth Amendment challenge to the use of midazolam as part of a lethal injection cocktail. The court will hear three death penalty cases and one life imprisonment case within the first month it is in session, but other cases may be added as states set execution dates for death row inmates.
In 2002, the court declared that imposing the death penalty on persons with intellectual disabilities constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In 2014, a Florida law that relied solely on an IQ score to determine intellectual disability was struck down by the court, and in June 2015, the court held that a sentencing judge must hold an evidentiary hearing whenever there is reasonable doubt regarding a defendant’s intellectual abilities. Now another case brought by a Florida inmate with alleged intellectual disabilities is before the court, but the specific question presented is whether death sentences require a unanimous jury decision.
Foster v. Chatman, a case on review from the Georgia Supreme Court, will decide whether the removal of all the black members of a jury pool was unconstitutional racial discrimination when the prosecutor articulated non-racially motivated reasons for his actions, but kept private notes indicating jurors were removed based on their race. Regardless of the outcome of the case, its facts demonstrate the need for constant vigilance in the application of constitutional principles. The underlying crime in this case occurred in 1986 and the evidence presented against the defendant may have been strong at the time, but, if the prosecutor’s racially discriminatory actions result in the need for a new trial, it may be difficult to re-convict. Nevertheless, the Sixth Amendment requires that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to trial...by an impartial jury.” The constitution values procedural fairness over individual convictions and prosecutors should do the same. Indeed, eight former federal and state prosecutors, including noted novelist Scott Turow, filed an amici curiae brief disavowing the prosecutor’s actions.
The final scheduled death penalty case, which comes from Kansas, will decide narrow yet important issues related to the joint sentencing of co-defendants and jury instructions regarding factors that may weigh against imposing a death penalty.
The case regarding mandatory life sentencing for juveniles is legally complex because it hinges on the allocation of judicial authority between the states and the federal courts. On its face, the case asks whether Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment, is retroactive. But the real question is who decides its retroactivity—the state or federal courts—and how that decision is made. While commonsense would dictate that no one in the country should be subjected to what has been deemed unconstitutional punishment, the legal issues are jurisdictional and procedural in nature and, thus, not prone to commonsense analysis. It may seem a waste of judicial resources, but, if the U.S. Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction over this appeal from a state Supreme Court’s procedural decision, the inmate may be required to refile his petition with a federal trial court and, potentially, appeal it all the way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Voting Rights and Redistricting
The two scheduled redistricting cases, one from Arizona and another from Texas, will not be heard before the November elections, but they are of great importance as they get to the heart of our democratic process and the “one-person, one-vote” principle that was established by the court during the 1960’s. The case from Arizona challenges U.S. Congressional districts drawn by the state’s redistricting commission. In June, the court upheld the authority of that commission to delineate districts. This term the court must decide whether their method was constitutional. The case is unusual as the commission redistricted in order to comply with portions of the Voting Rights Act the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declared unconstitutional. The case also will consider whether redistricting designed in part to maintain a political party’s majority within a district is constitutional.
The Texas case challenges state rather than federal election districts and will decide whether states must use the number of registered voters rather than their general populations to determine geographic electoral lines. A decision that requires the use of registered voters is anticipated to hurt lower income and immigrant communities, but it could have the alternative impact of sparking voter registration and citizenship application drives and renew zeal for the democratic process.
In Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the court will decide an important issue for tribal independence. If the Choctaw Indians win, nonmember individuals and companies that do business on tribal lands will be subject to tribal courts for civil damages even regarding issues that are not necessary to protect self-governance or important to internal tribal relations. The case involves a store manager who allegedly molested a tribal member employed at a store located on tribal lands. The tribal member brought a lawsuit against the manager and corporate owner of the store in tribal court; the defendants contend the tribal court has no authority over them.
Labor Law and Free Speech
A case brought by California public school teachers threatens to undermine collective bargaining for millions of government workers. Although the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered this challenge to the mandatory and automatic payment of agency fees “insubstantial,” the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case may indicate it is ready to ban involuntary payments. The teachers allege that agency fees—union costs assigned to non-member employees covered by the collective bargaining contract—infringe upon their free speech rights because the fees force them to subsidize union lobbying efforts with which they disagree. The union asserts the fees are necessary costs of representation services rendered to all employees and are not spent for political purposes. If the Court rules in favor of the teachers and declares automatic non-union payroll deductions an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights, the ability of public sector unions to represent government employees would be seriously impaired.
As fires rage and the record drought worsens throughout the northwest, water rights cases may gather increased attention. Last term the court decided a tri-state dispute between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. This term it will hear cases that pit Florida against Georgia in a dispute over river water usage, and Mississippi against Tennessee in a controversy regarding ground water.
The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to hear religious freedom challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, but it is likely they will as the lower courts of appeals now are split on whether Health and Human Services regulations place too great a burden on religious objectors.
The court also may take a case from the Ninth Circuit that denied a religious objector’s challenge to Washington State’s requirement that pharmacies fill prescriptions for abortifacients.
In addition, cases regarding state health requirements for abortion clinics and religious objections to same-sex marriage brought by both government officials and private business owners may find their way to the justices who work at 1 First Street, NE, Washington, D.C.