The 4 Remaining Supreme Court Cases To Watch

By: CBS NEWS (Posted by Josh Mabry)
By: CBS NEWS (Posted by Josh Mabry)

The Supreme Court has a little more than a week left to hand down its remaining rulings from this term, including four broaching the contentious issues of race and marriage equality.

The court's most hotly-debated and complicated rulings always come down at the end of its term, which comes to a close in late June. This year, the final rulings are almost sure to be two cases hitting on the issue of same-sex marriage. Two other cases that will be decided this month address affirmative action and the historic Voting Rights Act.

Here's a look at the four big cases soon to be decided:

Affirmative action

As early as Thursday, the Supreme Court will issue a ruling that could potentially change the way schools across the nation talk about race.

Back on October 10, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which asks the court to rule on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional.

Abigail Fisher, a white woman who applied to UT Austin as a high school senior in 2008, filed suit against the school after she was rejected. Fisher argued the university's consideration of race didn't meet standards previously set by the high court. The Supreme Court set a precedent for the use of affirmative action in college admissions in 2003, when in Grutter v. Bollinger it rejected the use of racial quotas but said that schools could consider race as part of a "holistic" review of a student's application. In 2003, however, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in favor of the "holistic" approach. This year, the court's balance is tipped towards conservatives.

If the Supreme Court concludes that the university's system does meet the standards set by Grutter, then Fisher's lawyers argue that the precedent should be clarified or overruled. Even "clarifying" the ruling, however, could have a huge impact -- given that UT Austin claims it already strives to consider race as a part of the "holistic" picture, a new standard would leave schools hard pressed to defend any consideration of race.

Given that the court has waited until June to issue a ruling in this case -- even though it was argued at the very start of this term -- it's unlikely the justices will come anywhere close a consensus on this issue. There could be more than two opinions, or it could be split four-to-four since Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case. If the court splits, it would let the university system stand without setting any kind of precedent.

During the arguments, several justices seemed conflicted about the 2003 decision, with the conservative justices asking for how much longer universities should consider race in admissions. "What's the logical end point?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts.

Same-sex marriage

In March, the court heard two cases tackling the powerful issue of marriage rights -- and for the first time, it considered same-sex marriage. Both cases are profoundly important for the gay rights community and those interested in defending a "traditional" definition of marriage.

One case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, offers the court the chance to recognize marriage as a constitutionally-protected right for all couples, gay or straight -- which would be a truly monumental ruling. During the March 26 oral arguments in that case, the court considered the constitutionality of California's gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.

Voters in California passed Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, in 2008 -- after the California Supreme Court had granted same-sex couples the right to marry. That put California voters in the unique position of taking away rights granted by the court. After Prop. 8 passed, a federal court followed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said Prop. 8 was unconstitutional.

While the court could define same-sex marriage as a constitutionally-protected right, there are four other potential outcomes in Hollingsworth v. Perry. The court could uphold the ban, setting back the gay rights movement for years. Alternatively, it could issue rulings protecting the right to same-sex marriage in just California, or in the handful of states that recognize same-sex civil unions. There's one last option -- to punt on the decision and dismiss the case.

During the March arguments, the justices seemed hesitant to make any bold moves, with several indicating they believed they jumped into the issue too soon. Justice Anthony Kennedy -- considered the key swing vote in this case - -was direct, saying opponents of Prop. 8 are asking "for us to go into uncharted waters."

The following day, on March 27, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, which challenges the constitutionality of a section in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

DOMA, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Both the First and Second Circuit Court of appeals have struck down a provision of the law (called Section 3) that denies federal benefits, like Social Security benefits or the ability to file joint tax returns, to same-sex couples legally married. Because of these lower court rulings, DOMA has been declared unconstitutional in some regions of the country but not others.

During the oral arguments, a majority of the justices sounded skeptical of the law, according to CBS News' Jan Crawford. The justices, however, gave different rationales for their conclusion -- Justice Anthony Kennedy, for instance, focused on the concept of federalism. The liberals on the court, meanwhile, focused on the concept of equal protection under the law. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that with DOMA in place, states that recognize same-sex marriage "offer two kinds of marriage -- the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage."

Edie Windsor, the 83-year-old lesbian who sued the United States government for discriminatory treatment under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), expressed optimism that the Supreme Court will strike down the 17-year old law. Windsor sued the government because under DOMA, it did not recognize her marriage to her late partner, Thea Spyer.

The court is also considering whether it even had jurisdiction in Windsor's case. It may decide that it doesn't, since both sides in the case -- Windsor and the federal government -- agree the law is unconstitutional. Since the Obama administration has refused to defend the law (and, in fact, argued against it in court today), the Bipartisan Leadership Advisory Group (BLAG) is defending the law on on behalf of House Republicans.

The Voting Rights Act

For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has served as one of the government's most effective tools for rooting out discrimination against minority voters. This month, the court will rule on whether the law's methods are still constitutional.

On February 27, the court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, which calls into question one of the law's key provisions: Section 5. That section of the Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of racial discrimination to have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department's civil rights division or the D.C. federal court. Nine states are required to get pre-clearance under Section 5, as are certain jurisdictions in seven other states.

Section 5 opponents say the policy was never meant to be permanent and that it's time for the states to be treated equally under the law. "They are still using the same criteria to determine whether these 16 states that are covered, they are still using the same test that they used in 1965," said Frank Ellis, a Shelby County, Alabama lawyer at the center of the battle. "Things have changed in the South. This is a dynamic society."

Defenders of Section 5 argue the dozens of controversial measures, such as voter ID laws, passed in states across the country prove Section 5's continued relevancy. Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, for instance, were in recent years rejected after failing the Section 5 pre-clearance. Furthermore, its proponents argue, striking down Section 5 would violate the deference the court should show to the legislative branch -- Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, with overwhelming support from both parties, for another 25 years.

The arguments sharply divided the justices, with the conservative majority seemingly poised to strike down Section 5. Justice Antonin Scalia called it a "racial entitlement." The liberal justices strongly defended the law, saying Congress had thousands of pages of evidence documenting discrimination. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, "Discrimination is discrimination, and what Congress said is it continues."


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