5 Issues to Watch in the Supreme Court This Year

The Supreme Court Statue

Photo credit: The Supreme Court Statue by Davis Staedtler. Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

October 30, 2014

It’s obvious, but it’s easy to forget: Courts matter. Federal courts determine the scope of workers’ rights and the constitutionality of civil rights laws. The U.S. Supreme Court is the final stop when it comes to many of the most important legal challenges our country faces. On October 22, AAUW members across the country joined a members-only call to hear AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund staff analyze some of the pivotal cases the Supreme Court will hear in its upcoming term. If you missed the call, you can listen to a recording. Here’s a summary of what to expect as the Supreme Court’s term gets underway.

1. Fallout from Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby homepageIn this past summer’s disappointing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations can’t be required to cover contraception through their employee health insurance plans. Despite Justice Alito’s assurance that the Hobby Lobby ruling would have limited reach, fallout from the decision could seriously threaten many more employees’ access to preventative health care. The first Hobby Lobby fallout on the horizon concerns religiously affiliated nonprofits.

When the Affordable Care Act was first passed, the government created (and AAUW supported) an exemption to the contraceptive care requirement for religious organizations and an accommodation for religiously affiliated nonprofits. Under the accommodation, religiously affiliated nonprofits, including religiously-affiliated private colleges, could avoid having to pay for contraceptive insurance coverage. All the nonprofit needed to do was to fill out a form that explained its religious objections to contraception and give that form to the company that provided their employee health care plans.

But some nonprofits now argue that the accommodation isn’t enough. Some filed lawsuits claiming that the accommodation itself — having to fill out the form notifying the insurer of the nonprofit’s religious objections — substantially burdens religious beliefs. Days after the Hobby Lobby ruling, a majority of the Supreme Court voted to allow a religiously affiliated college to avoid having to use the accommodation while lower federal courts considered its lawsuit. Over the strong objections of Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, the court granted the college an intermediate injunction to temporarily avoid even the simple process of notifying its insurer of its religious objections.

The injunction isn’t a final order, and we don’t know yet how the lower courts will rule in that case or any of the similar cases that are also underway. Whatever the rulings, the cases will probably end up at the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby’s legacy could mean that even more employers will be able to restrict their employees’ access to contraception.

2. Restricting Choice: TRAP Laws

Image by thecrazyfilmgirl, Flickr Creative Commons

Image by thecrazyfilmgirl, Flickr Creative Commons

In the last few years, a number of states across the country have passed so-called TRAP laws in an attempt to restrict and even eliminate women’s access to legal abortion. TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. While many anti-choice laws impose restrictions on patients, TRAP laws are designed to prevent doctors from performing abortions altogether. TRAP laws are passed under the guise of protecting women’s health, even though the provisions generally do nothing to increase the standard of care — the laws only make it more difficult for women to find good reproductive health care.

Challenges to several of the newer TRAP laws are just now making their way to the Supreme Court. Most recently, the Supreme Court prevented Texas from enforcing its very restrictive TRAP law while the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals considers the case. If the law had gone into effect, most of the state’s reproductive health care clinics would have been forced to close, leaving women in large portions of the state with essentially no access to abortion.

By partially granting the plaintiffs’ request to stop Texas from enforcing parts of the law, the Supreme Court ensured that at least some of the clinics in Texas will be able to stay open while the 5th Circuit considers the case. Depending on the 5th Circuit’s ruling, the Texas law could be back before the Supreme Court soon, and a number of similar challenges to laws in other states are also close to a Supreme Court appeal. We don’t know when, and we don’t know which case, but it seems likely that the Supreme Court will see a significant reproductive rights case very soon.

3. Pregnancy Discrimination: Young v. UPS

Peggy Young, a UPS driver, requested temporary light-duty work because of medical complications during her pregnancy. UPS refused to provide light-duty work, even though it allowed several other categories of workers to be assigned such work when they were temporarily disabled. Because UPS refused to accommodate her restriction, Young was forced to leave her job, losing her income and health care coverage at a critical time. Young eventually sued UPS under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Unfortunately, both the federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sided with UPS.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 in order to prevent employers from discriminating against women simply because they are pregnant. The PDA requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Based on that language, it seems clear that the PDA requires an employer to provide the same accommodation to a pregnant worker that the employer provides to a similarly-limited worker who isn’t pregnant. But the 4th Circuit ruled that UPS’ policy passed muster because it was “pregnancy blind” — the policy didn’t expressly exclude pregnant workers. And despite the clear instruction of the PDA, the court refused to compare Young to other workers because her limitations stemmed from pregnancy. If the Supreme Court sides with UPS, it could leave pregnant workers vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace.

4. Voting Rights at Risk

This November, voters in nearly half the country are expected to face new voting restrictions at the polls — restrictions that weren’t there during the last midterm election four years ago. The exact number of voters who will be impacted depends on the outcomes of pending court challenges, but one thing is clear: These voting restrictions will hurt women, minorities, young voters, and the elderly the most. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to stop states from passing these kinds of voting restrictions. But the court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder weakened the law, gutting the spirit but leaving the name.

Because the challenges are still being litigated in lower courts, so far the Supreme Court has only been asked to rule on requests to keep the laws from going into effect for the 2014 elections. The Supreme Court’s responses have been a mixed bag, allowing significant restrictions to stay in place in states like Texas but lifting restrictions in states like Wisconsin. Those cases will likely return to the Supreme Court once they have gone through circuit court.

5. Marriage Equality Surging

Marching for Marriage Equality

In the best news of the new term, marriage equality is increasing across the country as one same-sex marriage ban after another is struck down. All but one federal judge to consider the question have ruled that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Several states whose bans had been rejected by lower courts asked the Supreme Court to review their cases. So far, the court has declined to hear any of the cases, making marriage equality a reality in many states. In a year with so many high-stake cases, it’s exciting to tally the marriage equality victories we’ve won so far. But much is left to be decided, and the court’s term is far from over.

Stay tuned to our e-newsletter LAF Express for updates on these cases and more.

By:   |   October 30, 2014

1 Comment

  1. […] and read a summary of our discussion at http://www.aauw.org/2014/10/30/supreme-court-preview/. We’ll keep you updated on the cases as the court’s term progresses. Look for information about […]

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