The Supreme Court convenes for its new term Monday, the first Monday in October. It is hard to imagine how the coming term could possibly compare with the highly contentious and high-profile decisions of the last two: Obamacare in 2012, and the same-sex marriage cases this June. Yet there are several cases among the 52 already on the court's docket that have landmark potential and will certainly be contentious, covering subjects such as abortion, campaign finance, legislative prayer and affirmative action. The court seems increasingly to be at the center of every national controversy.
On the second day of oral argument, for example, the court will consider in McCutcheon vs. FEC the constitutionality of aggregate donation caps on political donors. This is somewhat of a follow-on case to Citizens United, so all of the controversy still swirling around that case is likely to be repeated here.
Federal law limits contributions to candidates to $2,500, which the Supreme Court has previously upheld because of the important governmental interest in preventing quid-pro-quo corruption, but it also imposes an aggregate cap of $46,500 on total donations to all candidates, which does not further that interest at all (or at most only marginally). The aggregate cap simply prevents a donor from providing maximum $2,500 contributions to 20 or more candidates. The goal seems to be to lessen the political speech of wealthy donors, a "level-the-playing-field" purpose that has been repeatedly rejected by the Supreme Court, and rightly so; the 1st Amendment does not allow government to restrict the speech of some to enhance the relative weight of others' speech.
Two abortion cases may make this one of the most significant terms for the issue in decades. One, Cline vs. Oklahoma Center for Reproductive Justice, challenges Oklahoma's law requiring that abortion-inducing drugs be administered only according to the guidelines on FDA-approved labels. That case is on hold pending a request to the Oklahoma Supreme Court about the proper interpretation of the Oklahoma law.
Another, Horne vs. Isaacson, was filed last week. It asks the court to review the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision holding unconstitutional Arizona's decision to regulate non-emergency abortions after 20 weeks because of legislative findings that a fetus feels pain by that point in a pregnancy. If the court accepts the case, we'll have oral argument in the spring and perhaps a dramatic abortion decision by June; the petition asks the court to revisit Roe vs. Wade, if existing precedent does not permit a state to protect against fetal pain.
The establishment clause is also again on the docket. Town of Greece vs. Galloway explores whether an invocation before a city council meeting that mentioned Jesus Christ violates the church/state separation. The Supreme Court has previously upheld legislative prayer but cautioned against prayer that proselytizes. The lower court in this case found that the mere mention of the name of Jesus Christ crossed that ephemeral line, contrary to a long historical tradition. The Supreme Court is poised to make significant revision of its establishment clause jurisprudence, which has become increasingly hostile to religion in recent years. This case provides a suitable vehicle to start moving away from that hostility, and the notorious case that engendered the hostility, Lemon vs. Kurtzman, may be on the chopping block. One can only hope.
And after the somewhat stillborn decision last term in the University of Texas affirmative action case, Schuette vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action will give the court another opportunity to confront race-based admissions, albeit from the other side of the coin. After a University of Michigan Law School race-based admissions plan was upheld a decade ago as barely constitutional, voters in Michigan decided to ban the use of race in admissions altogether. The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary — its name reveals a lot about its tactics — contended that the state's requirement that every student be treated equally without regard to skin color violated the Constitution's requirement that everyone be treated equally. The 6th Circuit agreed with that "impeccable" logic, and it is now up to the Supreme Court to restore some semblance of sanity to its equal protection jurisprudence.
Finally, there are two cases dealing with constitutional clauses that do not get a lot of adjudication. NLRB vs. Noel Canning confronts the president's power to make "recess" appointments, without Senate confirmation. The lower court held that President Obama's 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional, and its inquiry on the original meaning and purpose of the clause has called into question executive branch practices that, through mission creep, have become commonplace.
Truth be told, the recess appointment power is no longer necessary. Its original purpose was to let the president fill vacancies in an emergency, when the Senate was out of session. It was never intended as the end-run of the Senate confirmation process it has become, and the Supreme Court needs to affirm the lower court here, in order to protect the Constitution's important checks and balances in the appointments process.
And then there is Bond vs. United States, which addresses whether the president can, by entering into a treaty, expand the constitutional powers that have been assigned to Congress. The correct answer in a Constitution that purports to establish a limited government is most certainly no, but a brief sentence in a century-old opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes has been interpreted as answering yes. With so many domestic policy disputes now spilling over to the international law arena, putting that genie back in the bottle is crucial for limited government. We shall see whether the court can manage that feat.
John C. Eastman is a professor and former dean at Chapman University's Dale E. Fowler School of Law. He is also the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, which has appeared as amicus curiae in most of the cases discussed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun