What’s Left for Supreme Court? Health Reform, Immigration, Stolen Valor and the ‘F’ Word

Jun 21, 2012 6:00am

The end of the Supreme Court term is quickly approaching. Along with landmark decisions about the health reform law and Arizona’s controversial immigration law, there are interesting cases having to do with the FCC, obscenities on television, jail sentences for minors and people who lie about receiving the medal of honor.

Here’s what to look out for between now and the final decisions being handed down before the end of the month:

Fleeting expletives and partial nudity (Sotomayor recused)

The court will decide whether the federal government’s policy for regulating indecency over the public airwaves during prime time is unconstitutional.  The case stems from celebrities such as Cher and Nicole Richie cursing on live television, as well as an episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” that depicted partial nudity.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is charged with regulating the public airwaves, found that the incidents violated its prohibitions against the broadcast of indecent material before 10 p.m.

But lawyers for broadcasters such as Fox and ABC argue that the FCC’s policy is unconstitutionally vague and chills free speech. Facing daunting fines, the broadcasters argue that the government should no longer treat broadcast speech more restrictively than other media when it comes to the regulation of indecency over the airwaves.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor is recused from this case because she dealt with the issue as a lower court judge. The case is called FCC v. Fox

Stolen Valor Act

The court will decide whether the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law that makes it a crime to lie about receiving military awards, is unconstitutional. The law is challenged by Xavier Alvarez, who, while serving as a public official in California, introduced himself to an audience by saying, “I’m a retired Marine for 25 years. I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Alvarez, one of the first people prosecuted under the law,  had never even served in the military. His lawyer admits that Alvarez is a liar, but says the Stolen Valor Act goes too far and violates the First Amendment right to free speech. The government stresses the law fits into a narrow category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment. (U.S. v. Alvarez)

Life Without Parole for Juveniles?

The Supreme Court has rejected the death penalty for juveniles, and it has said that juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses can no longer receive sentences of life without parole. Now it will address whether juvenile murderers – 13 and 14 year olds – should receive sentences of life without parole.

The court heard two cases regarding sentences of life without parole applied to offenders who were 14 years old at the time of their crimes. Evan Miller beat a neighbor and then set his trailer on fire so that the man burned to death. Kuntrell Jackson took part in a murder that occurred in 1999 less than three weeks after his 14th birthday. Jackson didn’t pull the trigger, but he was charged as an adult.(Miller v. Alabama, and Jackson v. Hobbs)

Health Care

In March, the Supreme Court heard more than six hours of arguments regarding the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration. The challenge to the law is brought by 26 states, an independent business group and two private citizens.

Central to the issues before the court is the individual mandate that requires most every individual to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. But before addressing the individual mandate,  the justices will first consider whether a federal tax law, the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA), precludes a challenge to the mandate until after it goes into effect in 2014.  Neither the Obama administration nor the challengers think the AIA should apply.

Based on oral arguments, it appeared that the court was inclined to rule that the AIA does not apply. If so, the justices will move to the heart of the case: the individual mandate. If the court strikes down the mandate, it will have to decide the fate of the rest of the 975-page law.

Lawyers for the Obama administration argue that Congress was well within its authority to pass the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution. As a secondary argument, the government says the mandate is justified under Congress’  taxing power. In court,  Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli argued that if the court were to strike down the mandate, only two other provisions of the law should also fall. The rest of the law should stand.

But challengers to the law believe the mandate is unconstitutional and that Congress cannot force someone into a marketplace and require her to buy a product. The opponents argue that the claim of federal power is unprecedented and that not only should the individual mandate fall, but the entire law should be struck down.

Get more pure politics at ABC News.com/Politics and a lighter take on the news at OTUSNews.com

The justices are also considering the law’s expansion of Medicaid – a significant issue that hasn’t gotten as much attention as the individual mandate. Beginning in 2014, the law expands the reach of Medicaid to cover those with an income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.  Opponents to the law argue that the expansion amounts to a “dramatic transformation” of the federal-state partnership.

Professor Timothy Jost of Washington and Lee University, who supports the law says, “The most radical claim the states make is that the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutional.  The theory that they argue – that Congress violated the Constitution by requiring the states to expand their Medicaid programs under threat of losing program funding – has never been applied by any federal court to strike down a federal program.  If the court accepts their theory, every program under which the federal government provides funds to states that meet program conditions will be at risk, including not just health but also education, transportation and even national security programs.”

Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida (AIA)
Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida (IM)
National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius Secretary of Health and Human Services , and Florida v. Department of Health and Hs (severability)
Florida v. Depart of H&Hs (Medicaid)

Immigration: (Kagan recused)

The Supreme Court is considering a challenge to Arizona’s strict immigration law – SB 1070 – by the Obama administration. The measure was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010, but a lower court sided with the Obama administration and agreed to prevent four of the most controversial provisions from going into effect.

The most controversial provision is section 2(b), which requires officers, if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person they have stopped is in the country illegally, to ask for immigration papers. Besides the “show me your papers” provision, another section criminalizes unauthorized work, a third makes it a state crime to fail to carry immigration papers, and a fourth allows the warrantless arrests when an officer has probable cause to believe an individual has committed an offense that would result in a person’s deportation.

In court Verrilli argued that the Constitution gives the federal government authority over immigration control and that the Arizona law interfered with existing federal law. Verrilli said that while the federal government welcomes the assistance of state officers, Arizona is trying to adopt its own immigration policy while paying no heed to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) , the principal federal immigration statute that establishes the scheme for the regulation of immigration.

But Paul Clement, arguing on behalf of Arizona, argued that the law was passed because states were frustrated with the federal government’s efforts to curb illegal immigration. Clement said that the Arizona law was drafted to cooperate with existing federal law. The case is called United States v. Arizona.

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