The Supreme Court's nine-month term ended Monday, marking a historic period of time for the judicial branch as the justices set a modern record for reaching consensus. Because the court operated with just eight justices for the majority of its term, the breakdown "probably required having a lot more discussion of some things and more compromise and maybe narrower opinions than we would have issued otherwise," said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The term had the highest share of unanimous cases ever after 2013, but it also had the highest share of votes in the majority opinion in at least 70 years, The New York Times reports. Additionally, the share of cases decided by a margin of 5-3 or 5-4 was well below the court's average.
"It has been a quiet term, and that is a good thing for the country," said University of Chicago law professor William Baude. "Overall, this year the court was the least dramatic, and most functional, branch of government."
That could soon change. Notably, the 2016-2017 term did not have the same high-profile cases of terms past, like recent gay rights, health care, and abortion rulings. "We got used to the idea that every year the court decides several of the biggest national political issues — six or seven consecutive 'terms of the century' — but this year saw a regression to the mean," said Cato Institute lawyer Ilya Shapiro.
That won't last, though. The court has agreed to hear cases on "a clash between gay rights and claims of religious freedom, constitutional limits on partisan gerrymandering, cell phone privacy, human rights violations by corporations, and the ability of employees to band together to address workplace issues," The New York Times writes.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a major First Amendment debate between religious freedom advocates and anti-discrimination groups, The Associated Press reports. The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, will test if a bakery had a constitutional right to break Colorado's anti-discrimination law when it refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. The cake shop owner believed "he would displease God by creating cakes for same-sex marriages."
The bakery's owner, Jack Phillips, claims that forcing Masterpiece Cakeshop to make cakes for same-sex weddings is the equivalent of "compelled speech," which is banned under the First Amendment. The Colorado Civil Rights Division and Administrative Judge Robert Spencer of the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts disagreed, ruling that the bakery illegally discriminated against David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012, when they sought, and were refused, a cake for their wedding.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ultimately "ordered Masterpiece Cakeshop to change its company policies, provide 'comprehensive staff training' regarding public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years regarding steps it has taken to come into compliance and whether it has turned away any prospective customers," the ACLU reports. The cake shop then appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, and when it was refused, turned to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court ruling on 'disparagement clause' means Washington Redskins are likely to keep their name
In a unanimous ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court decided that the government cannot refuse to register trademarks that disparage "individuals, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols," Politico reports. The case centered on an Asian-American rock band that calls itself "The Slants"; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had refused to register the name, citing a 71-year-old federal "disparagement clause" that was ultimately found to be in violation of the First Amendment.
"The commercial market is well stocked with merchandise that disparages prominent figures and groups, and the line between commercial and non-commercial speech is not always clear, as this case illustrates," wrote Justice Samuel Alito. "If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social 'volatility,' free speech would be endangered,” he wrote.
In addition to having potentially amusing consequences, the ruling could also "doom legal challenges to other trademarks many consider offensive, such as that for the Washington Redskins football team," Politico adds. The Redskins trademark was canceled in 2014 on grounds that it too is disparaging, in that case of Native Americans. Read more about The Slants' case and what the ruling could mean for the Redskins' trademark at The Week. Jeva Lange
The Supreme Court confirmed Monday that it will debate the constitutionality of drawing election maps in favor of one party over another, CNN reports.
While the Supreme Court has previously ruled on maps that were drawn to suppress the voices of racial minorities, the court has never decided if partisan gerrymandering is likewise unconstitutional. For decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have redrawn oddly-shaped districts in order to benefit their respective parties, although Republicans currently hold the advantage due to their majority control during the redrawing of districts following the 2010 census.
In the extreme Wisconsin case being heard by the Supreme Court, three federal judges said the state's Republican Party violated the Constitution's First Amendment and equal rights protections by drawing severely partisan district lines and stifling Democratic votes.
The Supreme Court's conclusions could signal a "potentially fundamental change in the way American elections are conducted," The Washington Post reports. "If the court is not willing to draw a line here, it would suggest the court is unlikely ever to feel comfortable setting a limit," Richard Pildes, an expert in election law at New York University, told The Associated Press.
The court will hear the case in its autumn term, which begins in October. Jeva Lange
The Supreme Court has declined to weigh in on a controversial North Carolina voter ID law, thereby leaving in place a federal appeals court ruling against certain portions that were criticized for targeting "African Americans with almost surgical precision," The New York Times reports. While it is not customary for the court to explain why it has declined to hear a case, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. indicated the issue had to do with a question of who was authorized to file the appeal on behalf of the state.
Still, "the rebuff was a surprise because four conservative justices previously tried to revive the measure before the 2016 election," Bloomberg Politics writes. "That effort failed because it was an emergency request that required five votes, but the court could have accepted the latest appeal with only four votes."
The Obama administration and civil rights activist groups brought the challenge to the North Carolina law after the state's Republican-controlled legislature enacted it in 2013. Initially a judge rejected the argument that the law violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, but the Fourth Circuit later struck down certain parts of the law for "disproportionately" affecting African-Americans with policies including ID requirements, a smaller window for early voting, and an end to preregistration for some teenagers. Jeva Lange
Justice Neil Gorsuch expressed focus, irritation, humor during his first day of Supreme Court arguments
Justice Neil Gorsuch heard his first arguments from the Supreme Court bench Monday after having been formally sworn in a week ago. Gorsuch was not shy during his debut, asking questions early and often; it took just 11 minutes for him to pipe up during his first of the three cases.
"He employed a bit of humor, expressed a modicum of humility, showed a hint of irritation, and even channeled Justice Antonin Scalia, the man he replaced, with a touch of sarcasm," The Associated Press reports. And "while some of the other justices slouched, rocked back in their chairs, or leaned their chin or forehead on their hands, Gorsuch sat straight in his high-backed chair, to the far left of Chief Justice John Roberts."
Fox News additionally notes that throughout the arguments Gorsuch "remained focused — not even chatting with his 'bench neighbor,' Justice Sonia Sotomayor," and that he "repeatedly pressed lawyers from both sides with his positions."
Gorsuch's first argument was fairly complicated, having to do with determining which court federal employees go to with some discrimination claims. But the new justice got a laugh when lawyer Christopher Landau said, "I think I am maybe emphatically agreeing with you," and Gorsuch interrupted to say, "I hope so."
As he is now the most junior member of the Supreme Court, Gorsuch will relieve Justice Elena Kagan of duties such as answering the door when the court meets for closed-door conferences and taking notes at the meetings. He will also vote last, which puts him in the position to be a tiebreaker in cases that fall along ideological lines. Jeva Lange
The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on President Trump's nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Monday. The committee currently seats 11 Republicans to just nine Democrats, so Gorsuch is expected to easily prevail.
This committee ballot is an important step toward Gorsuch's main confirmation vote, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday on Fox News will happen by Friday. "He will ultimately be confirmed," McConnell said, though "exactly how that happens," he added, "will be up to our Democratic colleagues."
Republicans need eight Democrats to cross the aisle for a filibuster-proof confirmation vote; so far, two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — have said they will give Gorsuch their support. Bonnie Kristian
Ted Cruz claims there is 'historical precedent' for blocking all of Hillary Clinton's Supreme Court nominees
Just days after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) vowed that the Republicans in the Senate would refuse "any Supreme Court nominee" proposed by Hillary Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) has suggested that there is "historical precedent" for doing do.
When asked how he feels about holding a vote on Clinton's nominees, Cruz told The Washington Post that, "You know, I think there will be plenty of time for debate on that issue. There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices. I would note, just recently, that Justice Breyer observed that the vacancy is not impacting the ability of the court to do its job. That's a debate that we are going to have."
Republicans are generally split on the issue — McCain ended up walking his own comments back after he made them. "As a matter of constitutional law, the Senate is fully within its powers to let the Supreme Court die out, literally," Cato Institute legal scholar Ilya Shapiro wrote for The Federalist. "I'm not sure such a position is politically tenable — barring some extraordinary circumstance like overwhelming public opinion against the legitimacy of the sitting president — but it's definitely constitutional."
Cruz added: "I think for those of us who care passionately about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, who care about free speech and religious liberty and the Second Amendment, the best way to protect those rights is to win on Election Day so that we see strong conservatives nominated to the court, and maintain a Republican majority in the Senate to confirm those strong conservatives. And that's what I'm fighting to do."
With eight current Supreme Court Justices, down from nine after the death of Antonin Scalia last winter, ties defer to the ruling made by the lower courts and will continue to do so until a ninth judge is confirmed. Jeva Lange