Supreme Court soon will rule on 13 important cases

BY DAVID G. SAVAGE
TRIBUNE WASHINGTON BUREAU/TNS

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is heading into the final month of its annual term.

In a potentially historic ruling, the court will decide whether same-sex couples have a right to marry nationwide, culminating a two-decade legal and political fight for marriage equality.

Pro and anti-gay marriage demonstrators rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments on the question of same-sex marriage on April 28 in Washington, D.C. (BRIAN CAHN/ZUMA PRESS/TNS)
Pro and anti-gay marriage demonstrators rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments on the question of same-sex marriage on April 28 in Washington, D.C.
(BRIAN CAHN/ZUMA PRESS/TNS)

Another much-anticipated decision will be whether the Obama administration may continue to subsidize health insurance for low- and middle-income people who buy coverage in the 36 states that failed to establish an official insurance exchange of their own and instead use a federally run version.

If the court rules against the Obama administration, about 8.6 million people could lose their subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Between now and late June, the court will hand down more than two dozen decisions on matters such as politics, civil rights, free speech and air pollution. Several of these cases have been pending for months, suggesting the justices have been sharply split.

Here are the major cases due for decision in the coming weeks:

Marriage and gay rights
The court has said the right to marry is a basic liberty protected by the Constitution. Same-sex couples, some of whom are raising children, say that as a matter of equal rights, states may not deny them a marriage license. In their defense of laws banning gay marriage, the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee say the decision should be left to them and their voters. (Obergefell vs. Hodges)

Health insurance and tax subsidies
The Affordable Care Act said Americans must have health insurance, and the law promised to help pay part of the cost for low- and middle-income people. One clause said these subsidies go for insurance bought through an “exchange established by the state.”

But only 14 states established an exchange of their own, and the rest rely on exchanges set up by federal authorities. A small conservative group sued, alleging that subsidies in the 36 states are illegal.

Supporters of the law say Congress clearly envisioned that subsidies would be offered in all states. (King vs. Burwell)

Passports and foreign policy
A seemingly minor case involving the passport of a 12-year-old American boy born in Jerusalem raises a major question: Does Congress or the president have the final word on foreign policy?

Congress in 2002 passed a law giving U.S. parents a right to have “Israel” listed as the birthplace for a child born in Jerusalem, but Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama refused to abide by it, noting that both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital. They say the law interferes with a president’s “exclusive authority to recognize foreign states” and handle a sensitive matter of foreign policy. The case of Zivotofsky vs. Kerry was argued in November, so the decision is overdue.

Facebook threats and free speech
It is illegal to transmit “any threat” on the phone or the Internet, but it is unclear what the government must prove to win a conviction. Anthony Elonis was sent to prison after he boasted on Facebook of how he could kill his ex-wife, hide her body and “slit the throat” of an FBI agent who was on his case. He now says he was just ranting, and prosecutors did not prove he intended to threaten anyone. Elonis vs. U.S. has been pending since early December.

Race and housing bias
One of this term’s most important civil rights cases will decide the reach of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It forbids refusing to sell or rent to people because of their race, religion, sex or national origin.

Judges have said it forbids more than blatant acts of bias, but also zoning, lending rules and housing policies that have a discriminatory effect based on race. However, the court’s conservatives are skeptical of bias claims based on statistics. The case of Texas vs. Inclusive Communities Project was heard in January.

Politicians and redistricting
The court will decide whether the voters or politicians can set the election districts for members of Congress. At least once a decade, new census data prompt states to redraw their districts. Party leaders can use this power to draw safe seats for their members.

Upset by gerrymandering, voters in Arizona and California opted to create an independent commission to draw congressional districts. Arizona’s Republican legislators want the Supreme Court to strike down these commissions and rule the Constitution reserves this power for “the legislature.” The case of Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was heard in March.

Toxic air and power plants
The Environmental Protection Agency is set to force power plants to sharply reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous air pollutants. The coal and power industries, backed by Republican-led states, say the nearly $10 billion a year required to abide by the rule is too high. The case of Michigan vs. EPA offers a test of whether the high court will uphold the Obama administration’s most ambitious clean air rules, including proposed climate change standards.

Head scarves and religious liberty
The case of a 17-year-old Muslim girl who wore a black head scarf and was turned down for a sales job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store calls on the court to clarify the rules for religion in the workplace.

Must a job applicant ask for a religious accommodation, or does an employer have a duty to ask her whether workplace rules conflict with her religion? (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie & Fitch)

Raisin growers and private property
The court will decide whether it is an unconstitutional taking of private property for a government-backed raisin board to seize as much as one-third of a farmer’s annual crop. The case could unravel one of the last New Deal-era programs that allows farmers to band together with government backing to prop up prices. (Horne vs. U.S. Department of Agriculture)

License plates and Confederate flags
The court will decide whether specialty license plates speak for the state or its motorists. At issue is whether the First Amendment forbids states from refusing to produce plates because of their message, such as a Confederate battle flag. (Walker vs. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans)

Motel registers and police searches
The court will decide whether Los Angeles may require motel owners to keep a guest registry that is always available for immediate inspection by the police. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city’s ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment and its ban on unreasonable searches. (City of Los Angeles vs. Patel)

Death penalty and lethal injection
The justices are sharply split on how states such as Oklahoma carry out executions. They will decide whether prison authorities, lacking access to sodium thiopental, may use a less effective sedative, midazolam, which has been blamed for several botched executions. (Glossip vs. Gross)

Child victims and trial testimony
The court will decide whether a child abuse suspect can block the trial testimony of a preschool teacher who reported what a 3-year-old told her. Usually, young children are shielded from testifying. But the Sixth Amendment gives the accused the right to be “confronted with the witnesses against him.” The court has struggled to decide when others, like a teacher, can testify in place of the witness to a crime.

The case of Ohio vs. Clark, heard in March, could have a far-reaching effect.

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