This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
The Supreme Court announced today that it will decide on the constitutionality ofsevere restrictions adopted in Texas that threaten to make it virtually impossible for many women there to obtain safe and legal abortions.
Coupled with the Court's recent decision to hear cases on whether certain employers can effectively deny their female employees the contraceptive coverage they are entitled to receive under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the 2015-16 Supreme Court term could well become the most significant for women's reproductive rights since the Court upheld the right to choose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 -- and almost as significant as when the Court overturned a law banning contraception 50 years ago in Griswold v. Connecticut.
The Texas case, Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, concerns a law imposing restrictions on clinics so severe that they would reduce the number of clinics that perform abortions in the state from more than 40 a few years ago to just 10, including none at all in the 500 miles between San Antonio and the New Mexico border. The state has claimed that the limits, requiring extensive hospital-like equipment and doctors with hospital admitting privileges even for clinics that offer abortions only through oral medication, are important to protect women's health.
These claims are belied not only by the medical evidence, but also by Texas politicians'; statements, such as Governor Rick Perry's vow to "pass laws to ensure" that abortions are "as rare as possible."
That law clearly violates the 5-4 ruling of the Court in Casey, which upheld the basic right to choose of Roe v. Wade, and held that such laws must truly be important to protect women's health and not impose an "undue burden" on that right. Will the Court uphold and correctly apply Casey and continue to protect reproductive rights? Given the stark divisions on the Court, the answer may well come down to the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the last member of the five-person Casey majority who is still on the Court today.
The Court has also agreed to hear what many are already calling "Hobby Lobby II." Last year, the Court ruled 5-4 that owners of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby could use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to raise religious objections and exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage to female employees as required by the ACA. To do so, the Court suggested that the companies could use the opt-out mechanism available to religiously-affiliated colleges and other nonprofits and inform the government of their religious objections, so the government could arrange for insurers to provide the coverage without cost to the employer.
Now, however, many of these nonprofits are claiming that the opt-out mechanism itself violates RFRA. In other words, they want to not just refuse to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, they also want to make sure the government cannot make other arrangements, so that the women will be deprived of contraceptive coverage guaranteed by the ACA.
Seven out of eight lower federal appeals courts have rejected these claims, ruling that simply telling the government of their objections and the identity of their insurer is not a "substantial burden" on nonprofits' religious free exercise under RFRA and that the government has a compelling interest in providing contraceptive coverage.
Justice Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested in a concurring opinion that the opt-out was an appropriate accommodation. But if the Court upholds the nonprofits' objections in Zubik v. Burwell, the result will be devastating to the ability of women to get contraceptive coverage, especially since for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby will likely make the same claim that religion allows them also to completely deprive their female employees of contraceptive coverage. Although not as coercive as the Connecticut ban on contraceptives overruled in Griswold, the result could well be even more devastating to reproductive freedom across the country, allowing employers to transform RFRA from a shield to protect religion into a sword to harm reproductive rights.
Both the clinic and the contraceptive cases are highly likely to produce divided 5-4 decisions that will be enormously important to women' reproductive rights. With four of the justices in their 80s during the term of the president elected next year, these cases once again demonstrate the crucial stakes in the 2016 election for reproductive rights, as well as for so many other rights central to our liberty and freedom.
The Supreme Court began its 2015-6 Term earlier in October. Even though it issued no decisions, the critical issues it considered and the stark divisions on the Court illustrate why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and our rights and liberties, when America determines the president who will select Supreme Court nominees beginning in 2017.
Three cases in which the Court heard oral argument in October are good examples. As Supreme Court analyst Tony Mauro put it, the importance of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association is "hard to overestimate," since it could involve literally billions of dollars in electricity costs and determine whether the nation's power grid collapses in the case of a future blackout.
The question before the Court is the validity of a FERC rule that would have the economic effect of persuading large electricity users to cut back their demands at peak power usage times. Not surprisingly, conservative justices like Scalia and Roberts seemed to be clearly siding with big power companies, based on a narrow view of federal government authority, while moderates like Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor appeared to agree with the case for federal authority and the FERC rule.
With Justice Alito recusing himself from the case, the question is whether Justice Kennedy will side with the moderates and uphold the rule or vote with extreme conservatives and vote to affirm a lower court decision striking down the rule. A 4-4 tie would result in the lower court ruling being upheld without a controlling opinion. But if a similar issue arises in a year or so, and if Kennedy, Scalia, or Ginsburg have retired from the Court and are replaced by a nominee selected by the next president, the answer will likely depend on who nominates the new justice.
The Court was similarly divided during oral arguments in October in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That case concerns whether the Court's ruling in 2012, that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences without possibility of parole on people convicted of murder when they were juveniles, applies to people like 70-year old Henry Montgomery, who was convicted for such a crime long before the Court's ruling and has already spent more than 50 years in prison.
Far right justices Scalia and Alito sounded clearly negative on Montgomery's claim, suggesting that the Court did not even have jurisdiction to hear it, while justices like Kagan and Breyer were far more receptive. As occurred in the 2012 ruling, this case is likely to produce a 5-4 decision with the outcome depending on Justice Kennedy. The fate of a thousand or more people convicted for life while juveniles like Henry Montgomery will hang in the balance.
On its last day of oral arguments in October, the Court heard Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, one of several cases this Term that concern efforts by business to prevent consumers and others from using class actions to redress corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives on the Court have generally sided with business in such cases and have already severely limited the use of class actions, and Gomez may well be another example.
The issue in the case is whether a business can prevent a consumer like Jose Gomez from bringing a class action to get large amounts of damages and other relief for many injured consumers by offering to give him personally all the damages he can recover as an individual -- in this case, around $1,500 for violating a federal law on unsolicited telemarketing. This would be a good deal for the company, since as many as 100,000 consumers could be included in a class action because of similar violations.
As in previous class action cases, questions from moderates like Justices Kagan and Ginsburg suggested they are likely to agree with the consumer, while those from conservatives like Scalia and Roberts were in the corporation's favor, and Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote. Regardless of how this case is decided, other cases to be considered by the Court this Term -- as well as in future years -- are likely to have a significant impact on the ability of consumers and others to band together via class actions to obtain meaningful relief for wrongs committed by corporations.
It is always difficult to predict Court decisions and votes based on comments and questions at oral argument, and the Court may not even reach the merits of all the issues presented in these cases. But the importance of the issues at stake -- billions of dollars in electricity costs, the stability of the nation's power grid, the fate of more than a thousand people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles, and the ability of consumers to effectively seek justice for corporate wrongdoing -- demonstrates the importance of the Supreme Court to the rights and interests of all of us. And the close divisions on the Court on these and other issues, coupled with the fact that four will be over 80 in the next president's first term, show the importance of the 2016 election on the future of the Court -- and why November 8, 2016 truly will be Judgment Day.
If you need more convincing, stay tuned as the Court continues its 2015-16 Term -- the last term before the 2016 election.
On Monday, the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members detailing what’s at stake at the Court over the next year.
PFAW Senior Communications Specialist Layne Amerikaner moderated the call. Affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, who recently published an extensive Supreme Court term preview, and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg, lead author of the new PFAW report, “Judgment Day 2016: The Future of the Supreme Court as a Critical Issue in the 2016 Presidential Election,” were joined by PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker to brief members and answer questions.
Paul kicked off the call by discussing the critical issues on the Court’s docket right now: the rights of working people, equal representation through voting, education opportunities through affirmative action, and more. For example, Paul explained that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could “severely weaken the ability of workers to form unions” that negotiate salary, benefits, and more. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court could make it very difficult to “maintain healthy diversity at colleges and universities.”
As Paul explained, the mere fact that these and some other cases are on the docket is disturbing. These cases have been “ginned up to topple precedents that conservatives don’t like.” Affirmative action, union fair share fees to prevent free-riding, one person one vote for equality of representation: these are principles that the Court decided decades ago. It used to be that conservatives couldn’t muster up four justices to take on cases like these, but now that Justices Roberts and Alito have joined the Court, we’re seeing more and more cases and decisions that challenge fundamental rights.
Elliot detailed the importance of the ideological makeup of the Court: There have been more than 80 5-4 decisions in the Supreme Court since Roberts and Alito joined the Court. Most of these cases have been extremely harmful to our rights, in areas like money and politics, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Some, though, have protected important rights, as Justice Kennedy has at times been unwilling to join the conservatives on the Court. For example, he voted with the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges to make marriage equality the law of the land. But as Elliot reminded members, there will be four justices in their 80s by the end of the next president’s first term, and another conservative justice would be devastating for issues that PFAW and members care deeply about, such as abortion rights, worker protections, and religious liberty, just to name a few.
Both conservative and progressive groups know that the next president could very well shift the makeup of the Court and thus the outcomes of key cases. Questions from members focused on what to do to take action on this issue. Elliot and Marge encouraged members to discuss with their friends and colleagues the critical impact the 2016 election will have on how pressing issues will be decided for decades to come. They also discussed with members the possibility of attending town halls for presidential candidates, who will nominate the next Supreme Court justices, as well as Senate candidates, who must confirm the justices, in order to ask questions about the types of justices they will support.
Listen to the full briefing here: