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High court's big cases
Summaries of some big cases decided by the Supreme Court this term:
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary
Issue: Whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admissions decisions. Involves Michigan's controversial voter-approved law.
Ruling: 6-2 for the state, upholding a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions. The majority said a lower court did not have the authority to set aside the measure approved in a 2006 referendum supported by 58% of voters. It bars publicly funded colleges from granting "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."
Impact: A key decision in an unfolding legal and political battle nationally over affirmative action. The debate in recent years has centered around whether and when such programs -- while constitutionally permissible now -- would eventually have to be phased out as the goal of obtaining diversity is met.
McCutcheon v. FEC
Issue: Constitutionality of a two-year ceiling on campaign donations to federal candidates.
Ruling: 5-4 for McCutcheon, eliminating limits on how much money people can donate in total in one federal election season. The appeal comes from Alabama businessman and donor Shaun McCutcheon, supported in court by the Republican National Committee. They object to a 1970s-era law restricting someone from giving no more than $48,600 to federal candidates, and $74,600 to political action committees, during a two-year election cycle. McCutcheon says he has a constitutional right to donate over that amount to as many candidates as he wants, so long as no one candidate gets more than the current $2,600 limit. But the law's supporters worry millions of dollars could easily be funneled by a single well-heeled donor to his or her party and candidates of choice, reviving a system of "legalized bribery."
Impact: This decision left intact the current $5,200 limit on how much an individual can give to any single candidate during a two-year election cycle. Until now, an individual donor could give up to $123,200 per cycle. The ruling means a wealthy liberal or conservative donor can give as much money as desired to federal election candidates across the country, as long as no candidate receives more than the $5,200 cap. While most people lack the money to make such a large total donation to election campaigns, the ruling clears the way for more private money to enter the system. In effect, it expands the loosening of campaign finance laws that occurred with the high court's Citizens United decision in 2010 that eased campaign spending by outside groups.
Church and state
Town of Greece, N.Y., v. Galloway
Issue: Public prayer in town meetings. A federal appeals court found the practice an unconstitutional mix of church and state, but local officials call it highly inclusive, allowing practicing Wiccans and atheists to offer "civic prayers."
Ruling: 5-4 for the town, citing the country's history of religious acknowledgment in the legislature, which include local citizen-participation meetings.
Impact: Another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena. It was confined to the specific circumstances and offered few bright-line rules on how other communities should offer civic prayers without violating the Constitution.
NLRB v. Noel Canning
Issue: The validity of President Barack Obama's recess appointments to a federal agency. A U.S. appeals court panel concluded three people named to the NLRB lacked authority, because the presidential appointments were made while the Senate was technically in a "pro forma" session during the winter holiday break. That board had ruled on a Washington state labor dispute, but the canning company claims its members did not have a proper quorum.
Ruling: 9-0 for the company, that officials named in a brief "pro forma" session were not proper, but that recess appointments would be valid if those breaks lasted 10 days or more.
Impact: Surprising unanimity in a narrowly drawn opinion. The court's opinion will not have an immediate effect, since Democrats controlling the Senate imposed rules making it harder for Republicans to block Obama's nominees. But a change in Senate control after November's midterm elections could renew the disagreements.
Health care reform-contraception
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.; and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell
Issue: Do the religious owners of a family business, or their closely held, for-profit corporation, have free exercise rights that are violated by the application of the contraceptive-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act? Does federal law allow a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the contraceptive coverage?
Ruling: 5-4 for companies, a legal and political setback for a controversial part of Obama's health care reform law.
Impact: The immediate practical result will likely be an administrative fix by the Obama administration that subsidizes the contraceptives at issue, but further legal challenges over the employer mandate continue working their way through the lower courts. Also likely to set off a frenzied partisan debate that will continue through the November congressional elections and beyond over religious and reproductive rights.
U.S. v. Wurie; and Riley v. California
Issue: Whether police must obtain a warrant to search data on the cellphone of a person under arrest. Criminal suspects in Massachusetts and California were convicted, in part, after phone numbers, text messages, and addresses obtained from personal electronic devices linked them to criminal drug and gang activity.
Ruling: 9-0 for defendants, a sweeping endorsement for privacy rights.
Impact: Surprisingly strong unanimity from the court, and a setback for law enforcement and the federal government. A January Pew Research Center survey found more than 90 percent of Americans now own or regularly use a cellphone, and 58 percent have a more sophisticated smartphone. They have become the most quickly adopted technology ever. It's estimated that most of the world's 7 billion people have access to mobile devices, according to the United Nations.