Five cases you may have missed this SCOTUS season

3 Jul 2015

Image: Creative Commons


In the midst of a landmark Supreme Court case, some critical SCOTUS decisions have slipped under the radar of the #LoveWins blanket. Below, I’ve compiled a short and sweet list of some cases you may have missed this SCOTUS season.



1.  Zivotofsky v. Kerry (6-3)


Case: Whether American-Israelis born in Jerusalem can put Israel as their place of birth on their passports.


Conclusion: The Court held that the President has the exclusive power to recognise foreign nations, and that the power to determine what a passport says is part of this power.


Key Ruling: ‘The power to recognize or decline to recognize a foreign state and its territorial bounds resides in the President alone.’ - Kennedy


Key Dissent: ‘Today's decision is a first. Never before has this court accepted a President's direct defiance of an act of Congress in the field of foreign affairs.’ - Roberts


Consequences: At a time of strained American-Israeli relations, and Iranian nuclear talks on the horizon, Israel will feel increasingly isolated from its main ally. The troubled political status of Jerusalem is highlighted, with even the US neglecting to politically accept it as the capital of Israel. The domestic consequence is the affirmation of the President's constitutional position as the ultimate arbitrator in foreign affairs.



2.  King v. Burwell (6-3)


Case: Does the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, prohibit federal tax credits from being offered in states that use the federal health exchange?


Conclusion: The Court upheld the distribution of premium tax credits to qualifying persons, whose health insurance is subject to the Affordable Care Act, in all states.


Key Ruling: ‘Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.’ - Roberts


Key Dissent: Just because the law was previously deemed constitutional, doesn’t mean this part of it is, and thus it should not be legislated as so.



Consequences: Obamacare is here to stay... again, and once again John Roberts joins the liberals on Obamacare. It will be interesting to see whether moderate candidates in the Republican primary continue to attack Obamacare or adopt a live and let live policy towards it.



3.  Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency (5-4)


Case: Must the EPA consider costs among other factors before deciding whether to regulate hazardous air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants?


Conclusion: The Court ruled that the EPA should have taken into account the costs to utilities and companies in the power sector before deciding whether to set limits for air pollutants.


Key Ruling: ‘One would not say that it is even rational, never mind 'appropriate,' to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.’ - Scalia


Key Dissent: ‘The result is a decision that deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives.’ - Kagan


Consequences: The biggest loss for liberals. Not for the first time in history economics has been prioritised over the environment and with the highest court in the land enforcing such a view, the fight against climate change remains an uphill one.



4.  Glossip v. Gross (5-4)


Case: Is it unconstitutional to execute a prisoner on death row using a three-drug lethal injection, in which the first drug may not mask the pain from the other drugs?


Conclusion: The Court ruled that midazolam is constitutional for use as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection formula.


Key Ruling: If the constitution demanded that pain be absent altogether that would essentially outlaw the death penalty - which is constitutionally permitted.


Key Dissent: ‘It leaves petitioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.’ - Sotomayor


Consequences: Death by lethal injection remains the penalty in states which permit the death penalty. One of the biggest victories for conservatives this SCOTUS season. Debate is still ongoing about how to interpret the 8th amendment (forbidding cruel and unusual punishment).



5.  Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (5-4)


Case: Voters concerned that partisan gerrymandering is creating unfair elections are entitled to take reapportionment away from state legislatures.


Conclusion: The Court decided that a voter-approved independent redistricting commission in Arizona is constitutional.


Key Ruling: ‘Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around. The Election Clause, we affirm, does not hinder that endeavor.’ - Ginsberg


Key Dissent: ‘No matter how concerned we may be about partisanship in redistricting, this court has no power to gerrymander the Constitution.’ - Roberts


Consequences: I personally see this as the case with the widest reaching consequences of this SCOTUS season for two reasons.


Firstly, the case itself. Gerrymandering has long plagued US democracy, snatching power from the hands of the people and placing it in the hands of state legislators who manipulate it to their own advantage.


For example, in the 2012 Congressional elections in North Carolina, Republicans ended up winning nine out of 13 congressional seats even though more North Carolinians voted for Democrats than Republicans state-wide. This was due to the Republican-controlled state legislature drawing district boundaries to group large concentrations of Democrat voters in urban areas within the same boundary.


This case won’t instantly end the practice of gerrymandering, but through referenda and ballot initiatives in the coming years, we could see more states opt to have their districts independently drawn - a win for democracy – although, according to Roberts, not a win for the Constitution. This will change the face of Congress for many years to come should states adopt independent districting. Importantly, the Republican Party will also have to work hard to get minorities on side. The GOP have a lock on the house by virtue of this gerrymandering and thus will need to shape their party to win votes on merit.


On a slight tangent, many have vented frustrations through the years at the ‘undemocratic’ Electoral College - the electoral system used to determine the presidency. However, following the new ruling, depending on the steps states take, a genuine conversation could emerge entertaining a vote-by-district system to return the President.


The second consequence is more concerned with the Court itself, as Roberts eluded to in his dissent. Just because gerrymandering and redistricting are an issue and appear before the Court, constitutionally there is no explicit reason for this ruling; same goes for same-sex marriage. Conservatives are lamenting this season of SCOTUS as one of judicial activism in the vein of the Warren and Burger courts - four unelected liberals (and one persuadable conservative) entrenching political decisions which constitutionally the Court has no right to decide upon. This may point to a bigger issue of the Court taking up Congress’ legislative responsibilities in this age of partisanship and gridlock.


The key underlying issue here is that a judicial entity is playing a significant political and legislative role without constitutional basis.


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