WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2015 – Today is the first Monday in October, and for fans of politics, that means one thing: The Supreme Court is back in session and ready to hear oral arguments.
Writing for the Washington Post, Robert Barnes sums up the coming term:
The Supreme Court begins its new term Monday under an election-year spotlight, with a chief justice who has become a campaign issue and a docket that seems designed to remind Americans about the importance of the high court in the presidential contest.
That docket includes several new cases that are also old.
The justices will rule on cases dealing with abortion, religious liberty and racial preferences. Affirmative action shows up on the docket for the third time in four years; the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will return for the third time in four years as the justices consider the “contraceptive mandate”; and union fees charged to public sector employees will considered for the third time in five years.
The death penalty will return via yet another appeal for probably the nth time in as many years.
The court handed a string of high-profile victories to the liberal side in its last term, including rulings on same-sex marriage, housing discrimination and federal subsidies in Obamacare. Conservatives hope for more opinions to fall their way this year, and court observers generally agree that the docket for this session favors that outcome. This is because so many cases on the docket return us to old issues, the justices’ positions on those issues are already known, and in earlier iterations, they broke conservative.
Among those cases where conservatives are more likely to prevail are a number of business cases. These include several involving class-action lawsuits, one dealing with federal regulation of electricity markets and one dealing with the application of racketeering laws to the overseas operations of American firms.
The class action cases could put new restrictions on such lawsuits, following in the pattern of opinions favoring Walmart and Comcast. One involves Tyson Foods, which has appealed a $5.8 million judgment against it over worker pay. The damages were estimated by statistical methods rather than by calculating individual damages to workers involved, and Tyson’s attorneys argue that damages should be actual and individual.
A second involves Spokeo Inc., an online business, and asks whether plaintiffs can sue for violations of federal law when they can’t demonstrate harm to themselves.
The justices’ previous rulings on union fees and affirmative action are likely to predict their rulings this time around. In earlier rulings they restricted the use of race in admissions, and two majority opinions by Justice Alito restricted the so-called “agency shop” rules of public-employee unions.
The court’s decision on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association has the potential to be one of the most hotly debated of the session. It was brought by 10 non-union California teachers who oppose the requirement to pay “fair share” fees to the union on free-speech grounds.
They argue that it compels them to support an organization they politically oppose. A decision for the teachers would put public-employee unions in all 50 states on the same footing as in the 25 right-to-work states.
It would be, all sides agree, a major setback for organized labor and public-employee unions.
The real question now is whether the ruling this time around will be narrow or expansive. If it is expansive, public-employee unions could be barred from collecting any money at all from non-union members. If it is narrow, it will not have much impact on other states and the issue will return again in short order.
The current list of arguments scheduled for October has been published on the Supreme Court’s website.