Get ready for a front row view into the U.S. Supreme Court. This year the High Court will rule on issues as diverse as campaign finance and abortion, affirmative action, prayer, and poisoning a false friend. Their decisions could further a conservative agenda limiting civil rights protections for African-Americans.
There are two cases on the docket involving allegations of racial injustice. In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a Michigan referendum amends its constitution to prohibit race and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admissions decisions. Last term, the Civil Rights community was devastated when this Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas that, if possible, the university must replace the use of race, even as a single factor in admission.
One day after the Fisher decision, the Court ruled that the pre-clearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protected against discriminatory voting laws, was unconstitutional. Over the last 20 years, the Court has ended protections against race discrimination in education, voting, and employment. This current Michigan case may allow the Court to give States a mechanism to end affirmative action, or any civil rights laws, by public referendum, because most minority groups would be outnumbered, statewide.
In Mount Holly, NJ, African-American residents challenged that city’s redevelopment plans by bringing a case under the 1970 Fair Housing Act. Mount Holly called the homes blighted and sought to replace the community’s low and moderate income homes with new housing which would not be affordable. Historically, urban renewal policies led to a destruction of African-American communities. Under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, government may take private property by eminent domain, if there is no proven racial bias.
Although the community did not prove discriminatory intent, Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens will determine if a disparate impact case can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. Like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act was passed during the Civil Rights Movement. Nationwide, complaints about racial discrimination in housing remain high, second only to employment discrimination, according to the EEOC.
There are two abortion cases on the docket. In Oklahoma, a law prohibiting the use of drugs to induce abortions is challenged in Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice. In Massachusetts, a law establishing a buffer zone, or distance protesters must stay away from abortion clinics, is challenged in the case of McCullen v. Coakley. Protesters argue the buffer zone violates their free speech rights because it keeps them too far from intended targets of their protests.
A prayer case in Greece, NY, involves whether city meetings may open with a religious prayer. All denominations are allowed to present a prayer. However, the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing or endorsing a religion. But, “In God We Trust” is on American currency. “One nation under God” is recited in the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Senate has a chaplain named Barry C. Black, an African-American, who is Seventh-day Adventist. The Greece, NY v. Galloway case raises many concerns about religion’s role, directly or indirectly, in State, Local, and Federal government.
Politics and money are before the Court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Shaun McCutcheon is a wealthy Alabama businessman who wants to contribute more than the legal limit to Republican candidates. McCutcheon challenged the Federal Election Commission current biennial limit of $74,600 to political parties and $48,600 to political candidates. McCutcheon believes limits on contributions diminish his expression of enthusiasm for a particular candidate.
However, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.. argued financial contributions without limits will lead to a “corrosive appearance of corruption.” He says, it “creates a sense of indebtedness” on the part of politicians. In 2010, the Court ruled 5-4, in the much debated Citizens United case, that corporations have a First Amendment right to free speech in politics leading to billions of dollars spent in the 2012 Presidential election. However, Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, said he saw nothing wrong with “big money in politics.”
This Court will also decide whether a Pennsylvania wife who poisoned her back-stabbing best friend committed an international crime. Carol Bond tried to poison her best friend upon discovering the woman was in an affair with Bond’s husband and had given birth to his child. Because she used a highly toxic poison Bond was prosecuted for violating a Chemical Weapons Treaty. She argues her case belonged in State criminal court and should not have been prosecuted under an international Treaty in Federal court.
The U.S. Supreme Court begins each term in October and ends in June. Nine justices will hear about 200 appeals chosen from thousands of civil and criminal cases tried in America’s State and Federal courts. With power equal to the President and Congress, their decisions create the law of the land.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a writer covering the U.S. Supreme Court as well as major legal issues. Reach Gloria on Twitter @GBrowneMarshall.