“Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.”
— Chief Justice William Howard Taft
“You can’t fight for your rights if you don’t know what they are.”
— Chief Justice John Roberts
After a year that saw monumental decisions on health care, gerrymandering and hiring discrimination, the Supreme Court has begun its 2015-16 term, one that again has the potential to provide major decisions in a variety of areas. Among the cases to watch for:
• Hurst v. Florida, Kansas v. Gleason, Kansas v. Carr: These cases each deal with the death penalty and the court’s continued uneasiness over the manner in which the penalty is applied by individual states. The Kansas cases each deal with how the jury is instructed to decide whether or not to apply the death penalty and were argued on Tuesday of this week. The Florida case asks whether a jury’s decision to impose the death penalty must be unanimous (it was 7-5 in Hurst’s case). The Florida case will be argued on Monday.
• Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, Evenwel v. Abbott: These cases, from Arizona and Texas, address issues of gerrymandering congressional districts. They will ask the high court to decide whether those districts can be drawn in such a way that they have unequal numbers of voters and thus devalue some votes and whether the decisions on how to draw the districts can be removed from state legislatures all together. Interestingly, they do not ask the court to decide whether political gain can be a motivating factor in how the districts are drawn.
• Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: Nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that earlier decisions requiring non-union workers in agency shops to pay union dues toward collective bargaining activities of the union could be applied toward non-union workers in public sector employment. Non-union teachers in California are now asking the court to overturn that 1977 decision.
• Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin: In what may be the most closely watched case of the term, the court will re-enter the issue of the use of race in college admissions and the more general and hotly contested issue of affirmative action. An argument date has not yet been set in this matter, but the case is likely to be one of the last decided in the term.
• Heffernan v. City of Paterson: This case, accepted by the court just a week ago, asks the court to settle a conflict among the lower courts about whether a public employer may fire an employee based upon a belief — even an incorrect one — about whether the employee supports an opposition political candidate. The court will decide whether such an action violates the First Amendment rights of the public sector employee.
• Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle: In a case that arises from the odd political situation of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory, the court is here asked to decide whether a criminal defendant may be prosecuted twice — once by the U.S. government and once by Puerto Rico — for charges arising out of the same act, or whether such a prosecution would violate the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution.
• Williams v. Pennsylvania: This very odd and fact-specific case asks the high court to decide whether it is unconstitutionally inappropriate for a state supreme court justice to rule on the death penalty appeal of a criminal defendant where the same justice approved of the death penalty prosecution in his prior role as a prosecutor and then campaigned for the judiciary on the strength of his death penalty record.
• Mississippi v. Tennessee: This case will garner very little attention nationally, but it is interesting because it is one of the rare situations in which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (essentially serving as a trial court, not an appellate court) — lawsuits between two states.
Oral arguments have already begun and decisions will be issued throughout the year. The most closely watched cases are usually decided toward the end of the term, in mid to late June.