DemDaily: Supreme Court Rolls Out Consequential Cases

June 20, 2024

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is rolling out the decisions of its 2023-2024 term -- among the most consequential in modern history.

The US Supreme Court's term begins, by statute, on the first Monday in October and usually goes through late June or early July before recessing for the summer. Over the course of a full term, the Court hears more than 60 cases and normally sits in May and June only to announce orders and opinions.

In the past six weeks, the High Court released its decisions in a number of prominent cases, with some of the highest-profile rulings yet to come.

Garland v. Cargill
Decision: 6-3, June 14, 2024. Issue: Power of Administrative Agencies

In 2019, the Trump administration, and specifically the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, passed a ban on bump stocks -- an attachment for semi-automatic weapons that allows them to fire bullets at nearly the same rate as a fully automatic weapon.

Last Friday, SCOTUS struck down the ban, 6-3, along ideological lines. The decision was based not on Second Amendment rights, but on the ruling that classified bump stocks as machine guns. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said, “We hold that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machine gun’ because it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger.”

In her dissent from the bench, a practice reserved for profound disagreements, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, stated, “The majority puts machine guns back in civilian hands...A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires ‘automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.’ Because I, like Congress, call that a machine gun, I respectfully dissent.”

Food and Drug Administration v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine
Decision: 9-0, June 13, 2024. Issue: Abortion/Reproductive Rights

In the wake of the SCOTUS' June 2022 decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization overturning federal protections for abortion under Roe v. Wade, the reproductive rights battleground shifted to medical abortion or the abortion pill.

In April 2023, SCOTUS temporarily stayed, while on appeal, a sweeping decision by US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk -- a conservative Trump appointee with longstanding ties to the anti-abortion movement -- which suspended the distribution of the medical abortion pill mifepristone.

Kacsmaryk had sided with the conservative Christian Alliance Defending Freedom, a coalition of pro-life medical associations and doctors, who challenged the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) 23-year approval of the medication -- claiming they have been harmed by “being forced, contrary to their most deeply held ethical, medical and religious convictions, to participate and finish elective abortions.”

On June 13, the High Court unanimously rejected plantiff's appeal, upholding FDA guidelines for regulating and distributing the pill, and finding that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. The technical ruling, however, does not impact restrictions on the pill in more than a dozen states that have passed near-total abortion bans since Roe was overturned.

Starbucks Corp v. McKinney
Decision: 8-1, June 13, 2024. Issue: Labor Rights

In a blow to workers' rights last Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with mega coffee company Starbucks in a labor organizing case that could open the door to greater corporate union-busting and retaliatory measures against workers who are attempting to unionize a company.

Under US labor law, there are no sanctions for firing employees for organizing; instead, the law offers remedies in the form of reinstatement and backpay to workers who are unfairly terminated -- which often takes years to litigate and remedy. In urgent cases that require immediate intervention, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may petition for a preliminary 10(j) injunction to a US District Court.

Since 2021, Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has organized more than 440 stores representing some ten thousand workers. In February 2022, SBWU filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB regarding the firing of the “Memphis Seven,” workers fired by Starbucks during their store’s organizing drive in 2022.

A district court ordered a temporary injunction, demanding the reinstatement of the terminated employees. On appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that the NLRB satisfied its burden of showing “‘reasonable cause’ to believe that employers engaged in unfair labor practices."

On appeal, SCOTUS ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that lower courts must be stricter when deciding whether to grant 10(j) injunctions presented by the NLRB. In the majority opinion, Justice Thomas cited the traditional four reasonable-cause factors established in 2008 Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. Justice Jackson filed an opinion concurring in part, dissenting in part.

National Rifle Association v Vullo
Decision: 9-0, May 30, 2024. Issue: First Amendment Rights for Organizations

In October 2017, following a referral from the New York County District Attorney's Office, New York Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo initiated an investigation into NRA-endorsed insurance programs suspected of violating New York law. The scrutiny resulted in three insurance companies acknowledging their fault through consent decrees in 2018.

Concurrently, after the February 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting, Vullo issued guidance and statements encouraging banks and insurers to assess and potentially end their affiliations with gun promotion organizations like the NRA, citing reputational risks.

The NRA filed suit in district court against Vullo and other state officials, asserting violations of its free speech and equal protection rights. While the lower court dismissed most of their claims, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the previous ruling based on the precedent set by the 1963 Bantam Books v. Sullivan decision, and that Vullo violated that right as an elected official.

In May 2024, writing for a unanimous court, Justice Sotomayor ruled that Vullo was within her rights to “share her views freely and criticize particular beliefs,” however, government officials are not permitted to “use the power of the state to punish or suppress disfavored expression.”

Alexander v South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP 
Decision: 6-3, May 23, 2024. Issue: Racial Gerrymandering

Following the 2020 Census, South Carolina's Republican-led legislature configured new 2022 congressional district maps, drawn to the advantage of the GOP, while heavily diluting the representation of black residents, which accounted for 26% of the state's population.

The local chapter of the NAACP sued, claiming the map was racially gerrymandered and unconstitutional, and In January 2023, a three-judge District Court panel agreed. The court's ruling, however, was put on hold while South Carolina Republican lawmakers filed an appeal to SCOTUS. Both parties urged the high court to rule on the case before January 1, 2024, so redistricting could occur before the 2024 elections.

The Supreme Court nevertheless delayed, and when no decision was issued by mid-March, a district court panel ordered the contested map to be used in this November's election.

SCOTUS' May 23 ruling along ideological lines overturned the district court's ruling, finding there was not sufficient evidence that race had predominated in the legislature's decision, and remanding the case to the district court for further consideration.

Justice Thomas, in writing for the majority, said, "Drawing political districts is a task for politicians, not federal judges." In the dissent, Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Jackson and Sotomayor, wrote “The proper response to this case is not to throw up novel roadblocks enabling South Carolina to continue dividing citizens along racial lines.”

Still to Come: More than a dozen decisions are still expected in cases involving gun rights, social media disinformation, homelessness, the opioid crisis, emergency abortion care, executive agency power and presidential Immunity.

Among the most eagerly awaited decisions are two involving former President Donald Trump and the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

SCOTUS will decide the question of whether and to what extent a former president enjoys presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.

In a separate case, the Justices will determine whether federal prosecutors can use obstruction charges against January 6 defendants.

In March, in Trump v. Anderson, the court unanimously ruled that states are unable to prevent Trump from running for office due to his involvement in the events of January 6. The majority wrote that "states have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the presidency.”

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: SCOTUSBlog, New York Times, CNN, USAToday, US Supreme Court, Oyez, WorldPopulationReview, USNews


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