10 Supreme Court decisions (from this term) that you should know

Photo credit to Mark Fischer. Used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

No single branch of our government has absolute authority. Each can check the other — and that’s a good thing.

During the Supreme Court’s most recent term, which ended earlier this month, the justices issued more than 70 decisions on a variety of issues. But there was one thing in common: whether laws were constitutional and whether other branches of government must be checked.

You’ve likely seen the names of these 10 recent cases in the news.

Now here’s what happened and what they mean:

1. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores

Two family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties, challenged the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires them to provide insurance coverage to employees for certain drugs and devices that violate their religious beliefs.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the mandate, as applied to closely-held corporations, violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).

RFRA—a Clinton-era law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support—prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless 1) it furthers a compelling government interest, and 2) is the least restrictive means of doing so.

The Court held that the mandate substantially burdened the families’ beliefs, as failing to comply would cost Hobby Lobby as much as $475 million per year.  Though the Court assumed the government had a compelling interest in requiring employers to provide such drugs and devices, it said the mandate was not the narrowest way of achieving it.

2. McCullen v. Coakley

A Massachusetts law made it a crime “to knowingly stand on a ‘public way or sidewalk’ within 35 feet of an abortion clinic.”

Individuals wishing to provide information to abortion seekers challenged the “buffer zone” law as unconstitutional.  In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Massachusetts law violated the First Amendment.

The Court explained that although the government may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on protected speech, the law restricted substantially more speech than was necessary to accomplish its stated objective of increasing public safety at abortion clinics.

3. National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning

Noel Canning, a Pepsi-Cola distributor, challenged an order by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that arose from a labor dispute.

The distributor argued that 3 of NLRB’s 5 members were invalidly appointed and the NLRB was therefore powerless to issue the order, as it lacked a quorum of validly appointed members.

The members at issue were nominated by President Obama in 2011, but were never confirmed by the Senate.  Thus, the President unilaterally appointed them to the NLRB in January of 2012, citing as his authority the Recess Appointments Clause of the Constitution.  In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held the President’s appointments invalid.

In outlining the President’s authority under the clause, the Court explained that the President is permitted to make recess appointments to fill any vacancy as long the Senate has recessed.  However, the Senate gets to decide when that occurs.

4. American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo

For a monthly fee, Aereo, Inc. offered subscribers a “service that allow[ed] them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.”

Federal law gives copyright owners “the exclusive rights to . . . perform the copyrighted work publicly.”  A group of television producers, marketers, distributors, and broadcasters challenged Aereo’s model, arguing that it infringed on this right because many of the television programs were copyrighted.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that Aereo’s practices did constitute copyright infringement, as its activities were similar to those that Congress had previously brought within the scope of copyright law.

5. Riley v. California

Two individuals whose cell phones were searched following their arrest challenged subsequent criminal charges that stemmed from data found on their phones, arguing that the searches violated the Fourth Amendment.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant before searching the cell phone data of an individual who has been arrested.

Although certain warrantless searches incident to arrest are permitted to protect police and prevent the destruction of evidence, the Court explained that cell phone data cannot harm an officer and the risk of data destruction does not increase when an individual is arrested.

In assessing the relevant privacy concerns, the Court cited the enormous storage capacity of smart phones: “a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house . . . .”

6. Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital

The Republic of Argentina defaulted on its external debt in 2001.  In restructuring, Argentina offered to exchange creditors’ old bonds (on which it had defaulted) for new ones.

One bond holder, NML Capital, declined to make the trade.  NML later brought action against Argentina to collect on its debt—approximately $2.5 billion of which had not been paid—and won.

In attempting to carry out the judgments, NML tried to locate Argentina’s global assets.  The country argued that such action was prohibited by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), which governs “claims of immunity in every civil action against a foreign state.”

In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that nothing in FSIA protected Argentina from the post-judgment discovery of information on its assets located outside the U.S.

7. Bond v. U.S.

In 1997, the U.S. ratified the International Convention on Chemical Weapons.  Congress then enacted legislation to implement the treaty, making it a federal crime to possess or use chemical weapons.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the federal law should apply to “an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water.”

In a 9-0 decision, the Court held that the law did not apply to the “purely local crime.”  Thus, the individual could not be prosecuted under the federal law.

The Court declined to address the issue of whether the Constitution, by authorizing Congress to approve treaties, also allows it to enact legislation to implement treaties.

8. Town of Greece v. Galloway

For over a decade, the Town of Greece, New York, has opened monthly board meetings with prayer.  Its prayer policy allows individuals of any faith or no faith to participate.

Two locals who attended board meetings challenged the practice, arguing that it violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause by preferring one religion over another, as most prayer givers had been Christian.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the challenge, holding that the town did not engage in an impermissible establishment of religion by opening meetings with prayers that were consistent with U.S. tradition and did not coerce observers to participate.

9. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

In 2006, Michigan voters amended the state constitution to prohibit state universities from using race-based preferences as part of the admissions process.  Students, potential university applicants, and others challenged the amendment.

In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the measure, finding that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit voters from instructing universities not to use such factors in admissions decisions.

The Court said its decision did not address the merits or permissibility of affirmative action, but rather the right of voters to address it through the electoral process.

10. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, campaign finance laws set both “base” and “aggregate” contribution limits that, respectively, defined the maximum amount an individual could contribute to each candidate and to all candidates and political committees combined.

The aggregate limit effectively restricted the total number of candidates or political committees to which an individual could donate.  Shaun McCutcheon contributed to a number of candidates and political committees, but was prevented from contributing to more because of the aggregate limits.  He and the Republican National Committee challenged the aggregate limit as a violation of First Amendment.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits as a violation of First Amendment free speech.