Politics

06.16.14

From Smartphones to Abortion, the Supreme Court Is About to Decide on Several Major Cases

Four cases remain on the docket this summer that will decide if “religious freedom” trumps Obamacare, the limits of free speech vs. abortion, whether your phone can be searched without a warrant, and whether Obama can appoint people without the Senate.

Over the coming weeks the Supreme Court will issue a series of opinions as it winds down its yearly term, with broad implications for the Affordable Care Act; for protesters near abortion clinics; for one’s right to smartphone privacy after being arrested; and the power of the president to make appointments when Congress is in recess.

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores: Religious freedom, contraception, and Obamacare

Perhaps the most prominent of the Court’s coming decisions is one that strikes at the heart of the Affordable Care Act’s effort to set a minimum level of insurance coverage for Americans. Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain owned by evangelical Christians who argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 allows them to deny health insurance coverage of contraceptives that they view as sinful.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act states that the government should not “substantially burden” a person who is exercising their religion unless it can be proved that a compelling government interest is at stake, and that the burden is the least restrictive way to fulfill that interest.

The Hobby Lobby owners have argued that emergency contraceptives are equivalent to an abortion, which they have religious objections to, while the government has argued that contraceptives such as Plan B are not medically considered pills that facilitate abortion.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on this case could have wide political implications, especially for the evangelical right—could challenges to minimum wage laws, or even denial of services to gays and lesbians, be made on a religious basis, for example?

McCullen vs. Coakley: Buffer zones near abortion clinics

In another case that touches on the volatile issue of abortion, the Court could rule on the constitutionality of buffer zones around abortion clinics. A Massachusetts state law currently holds that individuals other than clinic staff may not “enter and remain” within 35 feet of a reproductive health care facilities.

The law, anti-abortion advocates argue, violates the First Amendment rights of “sidewalk counselors” who are trying to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies. Pro-choice advocates, meanwhile, argue that the buffer zones are necessary for public safety.

The Court’s ruling will be the latest in the long-running debate over the parameters that pro-choice and pro-life advocates must follow as they protest around health care facilities that provide abortion services, with implications not only for protesters but those seeking services.

Riley vs. California: Police searches of smartphones

This case deals with a new legal question prompted by the proliferation of smartphones—can the police search the smartphone of someone they’ve arrested without a warrant, or does this violate the arrestee’s Fourth Amendment rights?

The federal government and the state of California have argued that smartphones should be subject to searches just like a wallet is subject to search once someone is put under arrest. But a complicating matter is the large amount of personal information that individuals now keep on smartphones: from health records to appointments to their network of contacts.

The eventual ruling on this case may be a good indication of where the Supreme Court stands on issues relating to technology and privacy—particularly relevant in an age of National Security Agency metadata collection.

NLRB vs. Noel Canning: Presidential recess appointments

This case speaks to the breadth of presidential power over recess appointments. The dispute is over whether the President Obama’s 2012 appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were constitutional. The president has the power to make appointments while the Senate is in recess, but Republicans were trying to limit the president’s authority by holding pro forma sessions every few days.

Obama’s decision to make appointments despite these pro forma sessions plays to a decades-long tug of war between the White House and Senate over who gets to determine when the Senate is actually in recess.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could have repercussions on hundreds of NLRB cases decided since 2012—if the president’s appointments were invalid, then the decisions made by his appointees could be invalidated as well.