Five SCOTUS Cases Worth Watching

The new U.S. Supreme Court session started this month. Here are a few cases with racial justice implications

By Brentin Mock Oct 09, 2013

After a U.S. Supreme Court summer session this year that will go down in history for controversial decisions that gutted voting rights, affirmed marriage equality and kinda did nothing for affirmative action, the court begins anew this week. This session doesn’t include the kind of high-stakes, hypertension-inducing cases involving civil rights as the last one, but there are some interesting petitions this fall that people of color might want to follow in their feeds over the next few months.

1. #CampaignFinance | Shaun McCutcheon, et al. v. Federal Election Commission: This case, heard yesterday, has been billed as the sequel to Citizens United, the SCOTUS case four years ago that counted corporations as people with free speech rights and thus removed restrictions on how much they could donate to political action committees during elections. Citizens United resulted in corporations and wealthy individuals giving copiously to political campaigns last year. With McCutcheon, what’s at stake is whether limits on contributions made directly to candidates, political parties and committees are constitutional. If the court decides they are not, then we may see elections straight sold to the highest bidder, making a mockery of "one woman/man, one vote." 

2. #AffirmativeAction | Bill Schuette Attorney General of Michigan v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN): Though SCOTUS didn’t really decide definitively on affirmative action’s legal merits this summer, they’ll have another stab at it next week. Under Schuette, the court will decide if Michigan violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause when it amended its state constitution to ban race-based affirmative action in public universities. It’s a different case than the previous one, Fisher, which was about a white woman challenging a university policy that she believed discriminated against her because of her race. Schuette focuses on whether equal protection rights were violated when race-based university admissions decisions were shifted from the university to the state.

3. #ReproductiveJustice | McCullen v. Coakley: This case is about a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot "buffer zone" around women’s health clinics where protestors are forbidden. The buffer zones protect clinic workers and patients from aggressive anti-choice activists. The court already upheld a similar law in Colorado in 2000, saying buffer zones strike a balance between free speech and those who don’t want that kind of speech shouted in their face as they approach a clinic. But the party advocating to get rid of the buffers want that 2000 decision overturned as well as the Massachusetts law. The SCOTUS that upheld the buffer zone law in Colorado is a quite different one reviewing the case this fall.

4. #HousingDiscrimination | Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action: In this case, SCOTUS will consider whether the department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair housing policy on "disparate impact" is constitutional. (Disparate impact focuses on the discriminatory results of a policy as opposed to intentional discrimination.) But this case has broader implications for civil rights laws in general. Whether we’re dealing with housing, voting rights, labor laws or environmental justice, much of the strength undergirding civil rights protections in these areas lies in the disparate impact clause. Meaning, if people of color are losing work, housing, ballot access or protection from pollution due to a law, they don’t have to prove that lawmakers discriminated on purpose when devising the law. They only need to prove that the effects of a law have led to discriminatory results. Some of the SCOTUS judges, including Chief Justice John Roberts, don’t like disparate impacts, so this will be one worth observing.

5. #NativeRights | Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community: This case will determine whether a state (in this instance, Michigan) can sue a Native tribe or nation (in this case, the Bay Mills Indian Community) for operating an off-reservation casino. A lower court ruled that tribal sovereign immunity remains in effect even when a tribe operates a casino off of federal trust land, but the state is arguing that tribal sovereign immunity doesn’t apply. The Supreme Court will be deciding whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act makes it so that the state cannot sue the tribe. Additionally, the Supreme Court is also being asked to directly weigh in on–and perhaps cut away at–the question of tribal sovereignty immunity.