Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Supremely Blockbuster New Term?

For much of the last two terms, the United States Supreme Court was short one Justice. The vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2016 remained unfilled until the appointment of Neil Gorsuch late last term. During that interim period, the eight sitting Justices came to a 4-4 draw in several cases; in other cases, the competing ideological sides obviously compromised in order to render some decision; and in still other cases, the Justices either declined to grant review or they did grant review in cases that would be heard when there would be a full complement of nine Justices.

For the 2017-18 term of Court that is to begin Monday, October 2--the iconic First Monday in October--the cases that are already on the Court's docket strongly suggest that this will be a year of blockbuster decisions. It is always possible, of course, that the Justices will bob and weave and avoid confronting some of the hot-button constitutional questions at the heart of these cases. But with four Justices who lean very politically conservative, and four very politically liberal--oftentimes leaving Justice Anthony Kennedy to cast the deciding vote-- the Court can be expected to resolve some very ideologically-contentious issues with some very ideologically-charged rulings.

Here are several of the most significant issues the Court will tackle this term:

Partisan Gerrymandering
As in extreme gerrymandering. As in extreme mathematical efficiency to virtually guarantee that the political party in power remains in power. As in making it extremely difficult for that party to lose elections.
So, for example, in the case to be heard by the Court this week, Gill v. Whitford, the Republican party in power in Wisconsin has carved up voting districts in the state in ways that severely dilute the effect of Democratic votes. This gerrymandering has, in fact, produced a near certainty that the Republicans retain control of the legislature. Indeed, even when the Democratic party has won a substantial majority of the statewide vote in recent years, the Republicans have still won a substantial majority of the voting districts.
[Yes, Democrats have done the same thing when they can.]
Racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But what about partisan gerrymandering? Is it just another "political question" which the majority of the Court believes should be resolved in the political process? Or is partisan gerrymandering, at least in extreme cases, a fundamental violation of our democratic voting process that calls for a judicial redress?

Gay Rights/Religious Liberty
What happens when equal rights for gays and lesbians competes with religious objections to supporting their life choices? In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, a baker refused on religious grounds to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Colorado ruled that this refusal was a violation of the state's public accommodation law which, among other things, prohibits sexual-orientation discrimination.
There are many legal and constitutional ingredients relevant to this case. Nevertheless, it is a pretty sure bet that predetermined positions on LGBT rights will be reflected in the voting of most, if not all, of the Justices. For example, it is very very difficult to conceive of Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor siding with the religiously objecting baker against the same-sex couple. It is at least as difficult to imagine Justices Thomas and Alito and Gorsuch siding with the same-sex couple against the baker. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see Justice Kennedy--or even Chief Justice Roberts--actually balancing the competing interests and determining the outcome of the case.
There are a few wrinkles that may affect the Court's decision. One has to do with the requested design of the cake in question--would the baker be required to include a message on the cake that expresses support for same-sex marriage, perhaps infringing on the baker's free speech?
Another wrinkle involves the current state of 1st Amendment religious liberty under which any "otherwise vaild law" defeats religious objections--thanks to the 1990 Scalia-authored decision, in Oregon v. Smith, derogating the religious freedom of Native Americans. [See Justice Scalia's Record (Part 1), New York Court Watcher, Feb. 18, 2016; The Fall of Free Exercise, 70 Alb. L. Rev. 1399 (2007).]
One last wrinkle to mention is that Colorado apparently does allow exemptions from its public accommodations law--e.g., an African-American baker need not include a white supremacy message. That raises the question of whether the state is discriminating against religious requests for exemptions.

Technology-Enabled Searches
When seeking a cell phone company's location records on a cell phone user, must law enforcement first obtain a warrant? Or as the Court has often styled the issue in other cases, when the government seeks to obtain and examine such records, is that a "search" within the meaning of the 4th Amendment? If it is, then a warrant supported by probable cause is required. If it's not a "search," then no warrant is required. This is the question presented in Carpenter v. U.S.
Whether or not the Court will view obtaining and examining cell phone location records as a "search"--thus triggering the warrant requirement--depends upon whether or not a majority of the Justices adhere to some search and seizure doctrines it has applied in the past. Some of these doctrines were, until recently, thought to have been permanently rejected by the Court. Others have never been explicitly rejected, but seem to have been weakened in Court decisions involving technology.
One of these doctrines is that a search is not a "search" unless there is a "trespass"--some illegal entry or contact--by the government on one of the things mentioned in the 4th Amendment. Sooooo, since the location records kept by a cell company do not belong to the cell phone user, there is no "trespass" upon something he owns and, thus, there is no "search." Additionally, cell phone location records are obviously not mentioned or even implicated by any of the items listed in the 4th Amendment which was ratified in 1792 (or its state government application via the 14th Amendment of 1868). 
Then there's the 3rd party doctrine. Since the cell phone company--the 3rd party--has access to the cell user's location, there is no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in such records and, thus, the government's examining of those records is not a "search" under the 4th Amendment.
[Hey, those aren't my doctrines. Like others--other courts, other judges and justices, other rulings--I disagree with those doctrines and, indeed, believe they are preposterous and were developed to approve very questionable, warrantless searches. See Is a Search a Search.]
We might see whether the Court abandons or at least further undermines those doctrines--or sticks to them.

Union Dues
May a state require non-members of a public employees union to pay some reduced dues (aka "agency fees") to help defray the expenses of collective bargaining and other services that the union provides for all the covered public employees, whether members or not?
The Court approved such dues in its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Bd of Ed. But since then, some of the Justices have made clear their disagreement with Abood. Then, in 2016, following Scalia's death, the Court split 4-4 on that issue in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Assn.
Now, in Janus v. American Federation of St, Cnty, and Munic Employees (AFSCME), which the Justices just granted review last week, that question is back before the Court.
The issue pits the need of public employee unions in representing the rights of the workers against the counter claims of free speech and association of non-members who do not wish to support the positions of the unions--bargaining or otherwise.
Gorsuch would seem to be the tipping vote, ending the 4-4 tie, and that should not give comfort to the unions. But will both Roberts and Kennedy agree to actually overturn Abood? Stay tuned.

Anti-Gay Employment Discrimination (possible case)
Is discrimination against gays and lesbians a violation of the civil rights laws? The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals--the federal appellate court that sits in Atlanta, GA--recently ruled, in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, that discrimination against a worker because she is a lesbian does not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Law. That 1964 law prohibits sex discrimination, but it does not explicitly prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination.
The Obama administration took the position that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sexual discrimination. Among other things, it is based on discriminatory sexual stereotyping--e.g., a man may partner with a woman, but a woman may not; a woman may partner with a man, but a man may not. By contrast, the Trump administration has argued that sex discrimination covers no such thing.
The 7th Circuit, the federal appeals court that sits in Chicago, recently took the position in Hively v. Ivy Tech that prohibited sex discrimination does include discrimination based on sexual-orientation. Notably, that court's position was supported by several of the federal judiciary's well-recognized heavyweights, including Judges Diane Wood, Frank Easterbrook, and Richard Posner--the latter authoring a separate concurring opinion arguing the irrational bigotry of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and even listing some gays throughout history who have contributed immensely to civilization. 
With this split among the circuits, and the challenge of Posner to any legitimate defense of sexual-orientation discrimination, it seems very likely that the Supreme Court will grant review to address the issue.

Gun Rights (possible case)
Does it violate the individual right to bear arms to require a license to carry a concealed weapon, based on some actual need for self-protection? The D.C. Circuit recently held that the D.C. law requiring such a license was invalid. That the law was contrary to the Supreme Court's 2008 decision, in D.C. v Heller, that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.
This D.C. Circuit decision, in Wrenn v. D.C., seems to conflict with the 9th Circuit's 2016 decision in Peruta v. San Diego County, upholding a similar concealed-carry licensing requirement. Adding to the intrigue, the Supreme Court, just this past spring, declined to review that 9th Circuit's decision. Adding to that, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissented from the Court's decision not to review that case. Those dissenters argued that the Supreme Court was disparaging gun rights.
So it's pretty clear how Thomas and Gorsuch would vote if the Supreme Court now granted review in Wrenn in order to resolve the conflict among the circuits. But how the others would vote--especially after denying review in Peruta--is another question.

Trump's Travel Ban (moot?)
President Trump's original travel ban was replaced by a second. And last term, by a  6-3 majority in Trump v. Int'l Refugee Asst Project, the Court partially upheld the orders of the courts below that had temporarily barred enforcement of that executive order. The Court did, however, unanimously reverse the lower courts "with respect to foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States"--i.e., the Trump ban could be enforced against them. At the same time, the Court agreed to hear the case this term.
However, on the way to the hearing, which had been scheduled for this week, the Trump administration promulgated travel ban 3.0. That certainly seemed to make the case involving travel ban 2.0 moot--i.e., no longer an ongoing case or controversy in need of judicial resolution. So the Court cancelled oral arguments and asked for briefing on the question of mootness.
In short, the original case involving travel ban 2.0, which had been granted review, is no longer on the Court's schedule.

There are surely other significant cases which the Court has already accepted for review, and others which it will accept. But the foregoing six--which have been granted review or are very likely to be granted soon--are certainly among the most hot-button and ideologically-charged among the cases that promise to make this 2017-18 term a blockbuster one.