The 8 Most Important Cases in the New Supreme Court Term

These are the term's biggest issues, with a gay marriage case probably still to come.

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SUPREME COURT
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Supreme Court term that starts Monday could be one of the most significant in modern history, with gay marriage in particular offering the possibility of a landmark ruling. The justices have considered five cases in which marriage bans were ruled unconstitutional during their private conference on September 29, but haven't yet announced whether they will accept one of the cases. 

The court also will have a chance to consider the  legality of Obamacare subsidies in states using the federal exchange, and might review Texas's abortion clinic laws and affirmative action.  

The justices already are scheduled to consider free speech in the context of violent rap lyrics; whether the police can conduct a search due to a reasonable mistake of the law; whether fish count as a “tangible object” under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act; and how broadly religious freedoms apply in the aftermath of the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Here are eight cases the Supreme Court justices have decided to hear that will garner significant attention during the term.

1. Religious freedom in prison

Case: Holt v. HobbsNo. 13-6827

Arguments scheduled: October 7

Rundown: Gregory Holt, an Arkansas inmate serving a life sentence, was prevented from growing a beard in observance of his faith by the state's Department of Corrections. Holt, who also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, argued that the department violated his First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The basis of his argument lies in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents the government from placing an undue burden on a person's ability to practice his religion, unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” The state argues that a beard is a security concern because it can hide contraband or dramatically change a prisoner's appearance.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had met its requirements because Holt was allowed to observe religious holidays and had access to the proper diet and a prayer mat, among other things. The court also agreed that enforcing the prison's safety procedures was a compelling enough interest. 

Why it matters: In its Hobby Lobby ruling, the court supported the religious freedoms of Christians when it decided that Obamacare's contraception mandate placed an impermissible burden on closely held corporations whose owners oppose certain forms of birth control for religious reasons.  Now some are arguing that this case that will determine whether the justices are willing to protect other religions.

As Dawinder S. Sidhu at The Atlantic argued, “the idea that Hobby Lobby creates robust protections will be credible only if the justices are willing to recognize the religious freedom of marginalized religious minorities—not just the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

The United States filed a brief supporting Holt. And while the Eighth Circuit agreed with the Department of Corrections's security concerns, 40 other states allow prisoners to grow small beards. 

2. Can a rap lyric be a real threat?

Case: Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983

Argument: December 1

Rundown: Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania was sentenced to 44 months in prison after issuing several threats against his former co-workers, his ex-wife, an unnamed elementary school, the state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations over Facebook. Elonis was fired from his job soon after his wife of seven years left him, and started posting rap lyrics in which he threatened to harm people. One count Elonis was found guilty of involved a post stating:

Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

It's illegal.

It's indirect criminal contempt.

It's one of the only sentences that I'm not allowed to say.

Now it was okay for me to say it right then because I was just telling you that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife.

That was based off of a skit from the sketch comedy show “Whitest Kids You Know,” in which the actor says it's against the law to kill the President of the United States.  Tara Elonis said she took this as a threat and “felt like I was being stalked.” At the end of the post, Anthony Elonis wrote “Art is about pushing limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?”

The jury was asked to decide whether a reasonable person would find the comments threatening, but Elonis argues that the standard should be whether he meant the comments as threats. For that, there's a legal justification — while several courts use the reasonable person standard, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia v. Black that burning a cross didn't count as intimidation because it wasn't an explicit threat. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the “reasonable person” standard applied.

Why it matters: The question is how courts should determine whether a comment is a threat — when it causes a reasonable person to fear for her safety or when the speaker subjectively meant the comments as threats. It's also a matter of whether rap lyrics are art, which is new terrain for the justices. “Rap lyrics have been used as evidence in hundreds of prosecutions around the country, and jurors and judges tend to reflexively view rap less as an art form than as a confession,” Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate

3. Workplace accommodations for pregnant women

Case: Young v. United Parcel Service, No. 12-1226

Argument scheduled: December 3

Rundown: Peggy Young worked as an air driver for UPS, picking up and delivering packages. In 2006 Young took a leave of absence to undergo a successful round of in vitro fertilization. Her doctor recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds. Because the description for Young's job required her to be able to lift up to 70 pounds, UPS told her she couldn't return to work until she was no longer pregnant.

Young said she could do light work, an accommodation often given to people who had been injured on the job, but UPS considers pregnancy to be an off-the-job limitation, meaning the company didn't have to accommodate her. When Young's leave ran out, she continued on unpaid leave without health insurance until she gave birth and was able to return to work.

Young sued UPS on the grounds that it violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires that employers treat pregnant women the same as other employees. Both a district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her, arguing that “where a policy treats pregnant workers and nonpregnant workers alike, the employer has complied with the PDA,” as the Fourth Circuit opinion reads. In other words, she wasn't treated any worse than any other employee with an off-duty limitation.

Why it matters:  The question is “whether, and in what circumstances, an employer that provides work accommodations to nonpregnant employees with work limitations must provide work accommodations to pregnant employees who are ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’” Members of Congress, some of whom helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, nearly two dozen pro-life and evangelical groups and the American Civil Liberties Union have all filed briefs arguing that the Fourth Circuit ruling misinterprets the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

4. Racial Gerrymandering in Alabama

Case: Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, No. 13-895, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, No. 13-1138

Argument: November 12

Rundown: In 2010, after Democrats lost their majority in the Alabama legislature, Republican lawmakers redrew the state's districts. The state's majority-black districts were previously underpopulated, and lawmakers moved more black voters into those districts to even out the population. 

Why it matters: Democrats argue that by packing majority-black districts with more black voters, Republican lawmakers diluted the influence of the black vote in other districts. The Legislative Black Caucus argued that the current plan  “increases the political segregation of African-Americans and reduces their ability to influence the outcome of legislative elections in the rest of the state.”

The state argues that they were focused on maintaining the number of majority-black districts in the state while also keeping the populations of districts even. Alabama also argues that, given that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was in effect at the time, it justified the way the districts were redrawn. A three-judge panel of a Federal District Court dismissed claims of racial gerrymandering and dilution of the black vote.

5. Religious Discrimination at Abercrombie & Fitch

Case: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86

Argument: Sometime in 2015

Rundown: In 2008, 17-year-old Samantha Elauf applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch and was denied the job on the basis that her hijab, worn for religious reasons, didn't fit the company's East Coast prep style. The EEOC filed a suit in 2009 arguing that Elauf was denied employment on the basis of her religion, and a federal judge ruled in the EEOC's favor. But a year ago, the 10th District Court of Appeals ruled that because Elauf didn't tell the company that she needed a religious accommodation during her interview, the company didn't discriminate against her. 

Why it matters: According to the court, the question is whether an employer can be found liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “only if the employer has actual knowledge that a religious accommodation was required and the employer's actual knowledge resulted from direct, explicit notice from the applicant or employee.” A ruling in favor of Abercrombie would mean that it's up to potential employees to explicitly state their need for a religious accommodation. 

6. Reasonable mistake of the law? 

Case: Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604

Argument: October 6

Rundown: North Carolina officers pulled over Nicholas Heien under the mistaken impression that it was against state law to drive with one broken tail light. Heien consented to a search by the officers, who found cocaine in his vehicle. At his trial Heien argued that, because North Carolina law requires only that a car have one working tail light, there was no basis for his stop, and the cocaine was discovered through an illegal search. He also argued that ignorance of the law isn't a defense for criminals, so it shouldn't be a viable defense for officers, either.

The other side of that argument is that this was a reasonable mistake of the law — it makes sense that it would be against the law to drive with a broken tail light, so the officer's mistake shouldn't invalidate the legality of the search. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the search was not illegal. 

Why it matters: Amicus briefs filed by 19 states and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (in support of North Carolina) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Gun Owners Foundation (in support of Heien) show who thinks they'd be affected by the ruling. A ruling in Heien's favor would protect people from technically groundless searches, but also make it easier for people to invalidate evidence due to officer error.

7. Legislative vs. Executive Branches on Jerusalem

Case: Zivotofsky v. Kerry, No. 13-628

Argument: November 3

Rundown: The Executive Branch does not recognize either Israel or Palestine's claims of sovereignty in Jerusalem. That's why the State Department has refused to enforce a law passed by Congress that would require it to list “Israel” as the country of birth for American children born in Jerusalem on their passports upon request.

In 2002 Menachem Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem to parents working in Israel, and his parents asked the department to list Israel as his place of birth. The department refused and the Zivotofskys sued. The Supreme Court heard the case in 2011, but at the time it was debating whether this was a political question that should be worked out between the Legislative and Executive branches — or a matter that should be decided by the courts. The court ruled that it was not a political question, and now it has agreed to decide the matter once and for all. 

Why it matters: Politically, this case was used in 2011 to paint the Obama-administration as anti-Semitic. But the real issue here is which branch of government has the power of recognition. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president has ultimate say over whether the U.S. recognizes another country, not Congress. It's important to note that the court, in its words, will decide on whether the law passed by Congress “impermissibly infringes on the President's exercise of the recognition power reposing exclusively in him,” not on who controls Jerusalem. 

8. Are fish a tangible object?

Case: Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451

Argument: Nov. 5, 2014

Rundown: In 2007, a Florida game warden boarded John Yates's fishing ship and observed that some of the fish the team had caught were undersized. The officer set aside 72 fish that were under the legal limit of 20 inches, but when the ship came to shore, there were only 69 undersized fish. A member of Yates's crew later admitted that Yates ordered them to throw some of the fish overboard and replace them with larger fish.

In an essay for Politico published in April, Yates maintained his innocence but argued that even if he was guilty the charge should have been a financial penalty. Instead, he was charged with destruction of evidence under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Sarbanes-Oxley is usually applied to white collar crimes but specifically goes after anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.“

Why it matters: The court will decide whether the phrase “tangible object” should be taken literally, or whether it specifically refers to record keeping items. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “unambiguously applies to fish.”

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