The Supreme Court’s 2015 Term: Inside the Key Cases and Big Issues

The Supreme Court has a number of top cases on its agenda.

— -- The U.S. Supreme Court justices took the bench Monday and like last term, this one is shaping up to be a blockbuster -- with affirmative action in college admissions, unions and legislative districts at issue. Below are a few of the most significant cases the justices have already agreed to hear; two other big cases they haven’t yet taken but almost certainly will; and a few notes on another big issue to watch this term. GRANTED CASES Fisher v. University of Texas At issue: Affirmative action in college admissions Argument date: likely December or January (date not set yet) This is the second time the court will consider this case, in which plaintiff Abigail Fisher is challenging the University of Texas’ use of race in college admissions. The first time the court heard the case, it held that the lower courts had been too deferential to school administrators in evaluating the affirmative action program. The lower court took another look and stood by its earlier decision, and the case is back before the justices, who could rule broadly on the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education. They could also write a decision that’s more limited to Texas’ unique admissions program, which first takes the top 10 percent of graduating seniors in the state and then uses race as part of a “holistic” analysis to fill the remaining spots. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association At issue: First Amendment challenge to compulsory dues in public sector unions Argument date: likely December or January (date not set yet) This case asks whether public-sector employee unions can require non-members to pay a share of the costs of collective bargaining. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the court upheld a compulsory fee scheme, but has recently expressed doubts about the correctness of the decision. A group of California teachers now asks court to overrule Abood, claiming that requiring them to subsidize union activities violates the First Amendment. A ruling in favor of the teachers could deal a serious blow to public-sector unions across the country. Evenwel v. Abbott At issue: Proper method of drawing state legislative districts Argument date: likely December or January (date not set yet) At issue in this case is a challenge to the way Texas draws its state legislative districts. Like most states, Texas uses total population, not just voting eligible population; the challengers argue that this method means that areas with higher undocumented populations get an unfair advantage in legislative apportionment. The challengers ask the court to order states to draw districts using eligible voters, not total population. If they’re successful, the case could significantly change the composition of state legislatures, shifting power to rural (and away from urban) areas. LIKELY ADDITIONAL CASES Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole At issue: Texas abortion restrictions This case features a challenge to two provisions of Texas’ restrictive 2013 abortion law: a requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and a requirement that abortion facilities comply with the requirements for ambulatory surgical centers. If these laws go into effect (they’re currently on hold) the challengers claim the number of clinics in Texas will drop by 75 percent to around 10, concentrated in the state’s urban centers. The lower court found that the legislature’s justification of promoting women’s health was sufficient; the challengers argue that there’s no evidence that these regulations promote health, and that they’re really about impeding women’s access to abortion. The fundamental question here is how much leeway states have to regulate abortion before a regulation will be deemed an “undue burden" (the language used in the court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case). If the court takes this case, it could be the biggest abortion case in over 20 years. Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell At issue: birth control under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) < The ACA requires health insurers to provide, among other things, cost-free contraceptive coverage to female employees. For employers who object on religious grounds, the government has come up with an accommodation: the employer can sign a form registering the objection, provide the federal government with information about its insurance plan, and the federal government will then make alternative arrangements to provide contraceptive coverage. A number of religious groups have objected to this process, under both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Constitution, arguing that their religious convictions prevent them from completing the form. There’s now a circuit split and a number of petitions (the best known one from the Little Sisters of the Poor) pending. It seems highly likely that the court will grant one of them, though it will most likely wait until a petition out of the most recent case is filed. ISSUE TO WATCH The death penalty. At the end of last term, two justices -– Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg –- announced in their dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross that they had concluded that the death penalty was most likely unconstitutional as a general matter. This is a very significant development -– since the court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 (between 1972 and 1976 the court imposed a de facto moratorium on the death penalty, finding that the arbitrariness of its imposition rendered it unconstitutional), very few justices have concluded that the death penalty is unconstitutional. The Glossip dissent changed that. And, although justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor did not join the Breyer/Ginsburg opinion, their separate opinion was deeply troubled by the court’s rejection of the petitioner’s method-of-execution claim. They wrote that the majority opinion “leaves petitioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.” And Justice Antonin Scalia said at an event last month that there were four votes on the court right now to hold the death penalty unconstitutional. The court has a number of death penalty cases on its docket this term, and it may yet take more. None of these cases squarely raises the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty. But there may be an appetite for engaging with the question, for the first time in quite some time.