The U.S. Supreme Court’s recently completed term was once again filled with fireworks. In its previous term, the Court shocked many observers by upholding the Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). This term, ACA supporters (who previously lauded the Court’s ruling) were apoplectic over the Court’s ruling on yet another issue regarding the President’s signature legislative accomplishment.
The Hobby Lobby case was not, however, the only major decision of the Court this term. Major cases involving the President’s use of so-called “recess appointments”, warrantless cell-phone searches and limits on union’s powers to compel contributions were all on the docket.
First, however, let’s review just what the Supreme Court does. The Supreme Court of the United States (or “SCOTUS” for short) was established pursuant to Article III of the United States Constitution in 1789 as the highest federal court in the United States. It has ultimate (and largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over state court cases involving issues of federal law, plus original jurisdiction over a small range of cases. In the legal system of the United States, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of federal constitutional law, although it may only act within the context of a case in which it has jurisdiction.
The Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, justices have life tenure unless they resign, retire, take senior status, or are removed after impeachment (though no justice has ever been removed). In modern discourse, the justices are often categorized as having conservative, moderate, or liberal philosophies of law and of judicial interpretation. Each justice has one vote, and while many cases are decided unanimously, many of the highest profile cases often expose ideological beliefs that track with those philosophical or political categories. The Court meets in the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
During my law school days, I learned in my Constitutional Law class that there is so much more to a Supreme Court ruling than just the ruling in that particular case. The Court takes on cases with far reaching applications for our rights as citizens. Also, the Court is not ignorant of the overall political mood of the country, and some of its decisions in this term tend to reflect the growing uneasiness of the size and scope of the government’s intrusion into our lives.
With that being said, let’s look at the “big four” cases:
National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning:
Ordinarily the President must obtain “the Advice and Consent of the Senate” before appointing an “Officer of the United States.” U.S. Const., Article II, §2, cl. 2. But the Recess Appointments Clause creates an exception which gives the President alone the power “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” Art. II, §2, cl. 3.
In NLRB v. Noel Canning, a Pepsi distributor asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside an order of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) on the grounds that the NLRB lacked a quorum when issuing the order. The grounds? Three of the five NLRB members were “invalidly appointed” because the Senate was in session at the time the President made the alleged “recess appointments.”
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 decision (including President’s Obama’s own appointees to the court, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor) held that the President overstepped his authority in making the appointments when the Senate was not technically in recess. This decision calls into question the validity of all NLRB decisions made following the President’s improper exercise of his authority.
Riley v. California:
What do a pair of cases brought by individuals arrested for traffic, weapons and drug charges have to do with limits of federal power under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? More than you would think.
The Fourth Amendment provides:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Riley (which was considered together with a related appeal entitled United States v. Warie) has been held up as a harbinger of what may come with cases winding through the various circuits related to the National Security Agency’s digital surveillance programs. In Riley, the Court held that searching digital information on an individual’s cell phone without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. With legal challenges to the NSA’s surveillance programs winding through the Federal court system, the Riley decision may have a more significant impact in the years to come.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.:
And then there is the case everyone is talking about. Much has been said and written about the Hobby Lobby decision and, by most accounts, the information is being provided by folks who may not have read a word of the actual decision.
The Hobby Lobby case concerns a possible conflict between the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). At issue is whether certain exemptions from the ACA’s contraceptive mandates which have been made for the benefit of religious employers (i.e., churches and religious nonprofits) should be extended to closely-held corporations whose owners have similar religious beliefs. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative.
Most commentators on the Hobby Lobby case fail to discern the Court’s reasoning in extending the exemption. The RFRA prohibits the Government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless the Government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C. §§2000bb-1(a), (b).
The business owners’ objections related to four of the twenty contraceptives which they were required to provide coverage for under the ACA. These four types have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. The business owners’ religious beliefs were such that they were opposed to abortion, and hence they did not wish to provide these four types of contraceptives.
The Court did not, contrary to what many have claimed, prevent employees of businesses such as Hobby Lobby from obtaining the contraceptives at issue, nor does its decision require the employees to pay out of pocket for them. Instead, the Court cited to the program in place for religious employers whereby the insurance provider funds 100% of the cost of these contraceptive types instead of sharing the cost with the employer. Thus the employee is not adversely affected in the exercise of her rights to obtain these contraceptives.
Hobby Lobby will not be the last word on the ACA. In fact, two federal appeals court rulings decided after Hobby Lobby put the issue of ObamaCare subsidies in limbo, with one court invalidating some of them and the other upholding all of them. The first decision came from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The panel, in a major blow to the law, ruled 2-1 that the IRS went too far in extending subsidies to those who buy insurance through the federally run exchange, known as HealthCare.gov. A separate federal appeals court — the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — hours later issued its own ruling on a similar case that upheld the subsidies in their entirety. When circuits issue conflicting rulings on an issue such as this, guess where these cases head? That’s right, the Supreme Court of the United States. Will the SCOTUS further chip away at the law which it only two years ago ruled was constitutional? Stay tuned.
Harris v. Quinn:
Truth be told, the Hobby Lobby case was not the most significant decision from the Supreme Court this term. That distinction is held by Harris v. Quinn, a case which has direct implications for the ongoing fight in Minnesota over Governor Dayton’s attempts to allow day care workers to unionize.
The Harris case involved the Illinois Home Services Program which allows Medicaid recipients who would normally need institutional care to hire a “personal assistant” to provide homecare services. Given that the State of Illinois was involved in compensating these personal assistants, the State thus justified its allowing personal assistants to join a labor union and engage in collective bargaining under Illinois’ Public Labor Relations Act (“PLRA”). Sound familiar? Yes, it does, as Governor Dayton recently signed into a law an act that will allow day care workers to organize.
In Harris, the Court struck down in a 5-4 decision an attempt by the State of Illinois (more particularly, the Governor of Illinois) to require all “bargaining unit members” who did not wish to join the union to pay a fee for the cost of certain activities, including those tied to the collective bargaining process.
With union employment down other than in the public sector, the Harris case has significant political consequences as pro-union officials seek to shore up a key area of support for their re-election bids. Further, with a challenge to the Minnesota law pending in the courts, Harris could curtail ongoing efforts to unionize Minnesota’s day care workers.