The Supreme Court Continues to Hear Important Cases: Here’s Five of Them

TRUMP v. MAZARS

The issue: Whether President Trump has to hand over private financial records in accordance with a subpoena from the House Oversight Committee. 

Facts of the case: Ever since then-candidate Trump refused to release his tax returns during the campaign, there has been an effort to obtain them by Democrats. Last year, the newly Democratic House issued a subpoena for President Trump’s tax returns, along with other financial information regarding his business dealings before becoming president. Another case, which is strongly associated, involves a Manhattan district attorney issuing a subpoena in order to prosecute Trump and bring him in front of a grand jury.

The arguments: Lawyers for the House are claiming the power to subpoena any of the president’s personal records as part of their oversight responsibilities, a check on the executive branch. They also assert that there should be less protections of the documents in question than if they were part of Trump’s role in the government, creating a higher standard for the subpoena. They argue that because these documents are not needed for legislative purposes, the House has no need for them. In the linked case, the president’s attorneys are claiming that he is broadly exempt from grand jury proceedings, a claim not well received by the court. Chief Justice Roberts’ first question was skeptical, saying “you don’t argue that the grand jury cannot investigate the President, do you? … In other words it’s okay for the grand jury to investigate except it can’t use the traditional and most effective device … which is the subpoena.”

Possible outcomes: There are four ways that the court could handle these two connected cases. Two are decisive rulings that decide the matter, either the conservative majority (and possibly liberal-leaning Justice Breyer) protecting the president, or at least one conservative justice siding against Trump. The next is a split ruling, likely siding with the New York attorney but against the House, which would mean a delay of Trump’s tax returns being available to the public—in accordance with grand jury rules. 

CHIAFALO v. WASHINGTON; COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF STATE v. BACA

The Issue: Many states have laws that somehow penalize members of the electoral college who don’t vote along with the state, rogue actors known as “faithless electors.” Are these laws constitutional?

Facts of the case: Six of these electors, in both Colorado and Washington state, are suing to overrule such laws. In Washington, three electors voted for former Secretary of State Colin Powell rather than Hillary Clinton, and in Colorado three electors attempted to vote for someone other than Clinton but were prevented from doing so.  

The arguments: Hinging on originalism (attempting to judge based on the founder’s intent), the argument of the electors is that they were never supposed to represent the popular vote; they were meant as a check against it, in fact. The states present a more practical view. They point out how chaotic presidential elections would be if all electors were free agents. The justices seemed receptive to concerns about tumultuous elections, all signalling that even if they ruled against the states, they would outline systems that secure elections from bribery or blackmail. 

Possible outcomes: Sonia Sotomayor, due to a personal relationship with an elector in Colorado Department of State v. Baca, is recusing herself from that case. Because of this, the question of faithless electors might come down to Chiafalo v. Washington. All the justices agreed that there would be significant consequences if they ruled in favor of the electors. However, whether or not they allow states to control electors will fall to the judicial philosophies of the judges, even more so given that this is not a particularly partisan issue. 

TRUMP v. PENNSYLVANIA

The issue: Whether religious organizations are exempted from the requirement to include contraceptive coverage for their employees. 

Facts of the case: The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, required that health plans must cover contraceptive care. This “birth control mandate” was put to the test in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, when the court decided that religious employers could be exempted from the law. In 2017, President Trump issued an order that all employers with religious or moral opposition to providing contraceptive coverage could deny their employees such care, greatly expanding the Hobby Lobby exemption.

The arguments: Lawyers representing the states who are challenging Trump’s order (New Jersey and Pennsylvania) object on the grounds that it denies women “seamless coverage,” thus adversely affecting their health. They also worry that objections don’t even need to be religious but can also be moral, significantly lowering the bar to deny women “seamless” contraceptive care. Attorneys arguing for Trump, as well as a Catholic charity group Little Sister of the Poor suing to defend the exception order, claim that contraceptive coverage is not legally necessary, and that Obamacare’s birth control mandate was a violation of religious freedom. 

Possible outcomes: Many of the justices were clear about what their vote would be. Ginsberg and Sotomayor signalled their intention to vote against the exemption, whereas Alito and (especially) Thomas indicated that they would vote to uphold. One of the attorneys defending Trump’s order asked the court to bring this issue to a “durable end,” which appears likely. Which way the justices will vote is still up in the air. 

GOOGLE v. ORACLE

The issue: Whether copyright protection includes software, and whether using that software to create programs is justified under the fair use doctrine.

Facts of the case: Google used the programming language Java (owned by Oracle) as a base for their operating system Android OS. Google was then sued by Oracle for copyright infringement, but lower courts have ruled that such a reading of copyright law would severely limit innovation. 

This case was postponed in March due to health concerns and has not been argued yet. 

JUNE MEDICAL SERVICES LLC v. RUSSO

The issue: Can states require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to nearby hospitals?

Facts of the case: A new Louisiana law shuts down abortion clinics where doctors cannot admit patients to a hospital within thirty miles. A very similar law in Texas was ruled unconstitutional by the court in 2016.

The arguments: On behalf of doctors who perform abortions, lawyers argue that the law is not different enough from the Texas law struck down in 2016 to result in a different decision. On the other side, lawyers representing Louisiana argue that similar laws could have different effects and more merit depending on what state they apply to. 

Possible outcomes: The real question in this case is whether the new conservative majority created by President Trump will be enough to reverse a significant ruling on abortion access. The deciding vote in 2016 was Kennedy, a moderate conservative who has since retired. So the decision will come down to whether Roberts and Kavanaugh respect the precedent set by the court four years ago. If not, abortion regulation would become more common and more significant in many states. 

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