Hot-Button Issues for the Supreme Court in January

With two emergency applications regarding gay marriage and health care, potential decisions, and new cases, January has the potential to be a big month for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Emergency Applications: Gay Marriage and Health Care

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a very busy woman on New Year's Eve. Not only was she tasked with helping to ring in 2014 at Times Square, she was also called upon to act on two hot button issues: gay marriage and the so-called contraceptive mandate. Both cases are playing out in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Sotomayor has jurisdiction over emergency applications.

Gay Marriage: In the waning hours of 2013, Utah filed a request with Justice Sotomayor asking her to put on hold a district court ruling from mid December that struck down the state's ban on gay marriage. Since the lower court decision was issued, clerks in the state have issued hundreds of licenses to gay couples. Utah's attorney general wants the Supreme Court to block gay marriages from going forward in his state while he appeals the decision. Although Sotomayor can decide the issue on her own, she is likely to refer it to the full court. The ruling could come as early as Monday.

Health Care: Also on New Year's Eve, Sotomayor granted a temporary injunction to some religious nonprofits - led by an order of Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor - who are challenging the contraceptive mandate.

The groups say the part of the health care law that requires some group health plans to cover a full range of contraceptive methods violates their religious beliefs.

The government responds that the Little Sisters are already eligible for a "religious accommodation" set out in the regulations that exempt them from directly providing the coverage. The government says that all the groups have to do is sign a form certifying that they have objections to providing the coverage and then provide the form to a third-party administrator.

"Applicants have no legal basis to challenge the self-certification requirement or to complain that it involves them in the process of providing contraceptive coverage," says Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

But lawyers for the Little Sisters say that even having to sign the form violates their religious freedom because it makes them complicit in the decision to provide the coverage. Other religious nonprofits have won an injunction in lower courts.

Sotomayor (or the full Court, if she decides to refer the matter ) will now decide whether to allow the temporary injunction to stay in place while the merits of the case are appealed in the lower court. The order could come as early as Monday.

Decisions and Possible New Cases

Although the Justices have certainly been working during the winter recess, they will take the bench again on Jan. 13. It might be a little early, but the Court could be ready to release opinions in closely watched cases including campaign finance. In McCutcheon v. FEC, a Republican donor is challenging overall contribution limits imposed on individuals who wish to contribute to federal candidates and committees.

The court is also taking a look at Michigan's ban on race-conscious admissions policies at public universities.

The Court will undoubtedly add new cases to its docket. The Justices are scheduled to meet behind closed doors on Jan. 17 and talk about two cases that pit privacy rights against emerging technology. The cases concern whether police, after seizing a cell phone during a lawful arrest, can search the phone's data without a warrant.

Upcoming Arguments:

In January the Court will hear a major case regarding the scope of the president's recess appointment power. At issue are recess appointments made by President Obama last year to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent agency that enforces employee and employer rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Another scheduled case concerns abortion protests. The case involves so called "buffer zones" regulating where a protestor can stand outside of an abortion clinic.