AP Photo/The Kennedy Center, Margot Schulman

What To Expect When The Supreme Court Returns To Work Next Week

Next week marks the Supreme Court’s first conference after the Court adjourned last June. The next week marks the formal beginning of its 2014-2015 term. Much of the drama that will unfold in this coming term, however, is likely to come from cases the justices have yet to agree to hear. Marriage equality, abortion and birth control are all fairly likely to wind up on the Court’s docket before the justices go back on vacation next June. In the meantime, however, the justices will consider the rights of pregnant women who face discrimination in the workplace, they will weigh the Voting Right Act for the first time since they gutted much of this law in 2013, they will thrust themselves into the delicate foreign policy problems raised by the tensions in Israel and Palestine, and they will examine when the First Amendment protects people who make violent threats online.

Here are six major cases the justices will consider this term, as well as a short list of issues they stand a good chance of taking up before the term is over:

Pregnancy Discrimination

Peggy Young was tasked with lifting boxes as heavy as 70 pounds in her job as a United Postal Service worker. When she got pregnant, her midwife recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds, and wrote a note asking her employer to put her on light duty. Had Young been written a similar note because Young broke her arm carrying boxes, or suffered from a disability, UPS would have put her on what is known as “light duty.” But UPS wouldn’t do it for Young on account of her pregnancy.

A federal appeals court sided with UPS, finding that granting “light duty” to Young would give pregnant employees an advantage over other other employees and that Young didn’t suffer pregnancy discrimination. But other than those lone judges, UPS doesn’t have many allies in Young v. UPS. Briefs filed on behalf of state and local lawmakers, national medical associations, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Solicitor General, and even 23 pro-life organizations defend Young’s right to a work accommodation. They say the Fourth Circuit’s ruling was counter to the intent of anti-discrimination laws, that it was bad for the health of mothers and children, that it was bad for the economy, bad for business, and even could encourage women to get abortions. In all, 11 amicus briefs were filed supporting Young and none supporting UPS. Even the members of Congress who passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act explained that they intended for the act the court was interpreting to protect people just like Young, and that the court ruling against her “ignored the unambiguous mandate of the PDA requiring employees to consider only the ability or inability to work in determining a pregnant worker’s entitlement to benefits.”

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits employers from treating pregnant women differently from other employees who are “similar in their ability, or inability, to work.” The act was passed in response to rampant mistreatment and misperceptions of women workers. But these misperceptions persist, even as women now make up about half of the workforce and a large proportion of them will either leave the workforce at some point to have a child, or may be viewed as a woman with the potential to one day leave the workforce for that reason.

In fact, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging pregnancy discrimination have only increased, prompting the Commission to remind employers recently that they still can’t discriminate against pregnant women.

As a group of women’s advocacy groups and law professors point out in their brief, the ruling against Young is likely to harm the women most in need of pregnancy discrimination protection — those in “low-wage jobs and traditionally male-dominated occupations who are most likely to experience temporary conflicts between the physical effects of pregnancy and job requirements,” and already experience disproportionate discrimination, according to recent statistics.

Despite all of the support and very little public opposition for enforcing pregnancy discrimination laws, the five justices on the Roberts Court most likely to vote against Young are known for having what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to as a “blind spot” when it comes to women. In 2007, these five men rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s fair pay lawsuit, in a decision later overturned by an act of Congress. In 2011, they turned back the largest-ever class of women alleging gender discrimination by Wal-Mart. And in 2013, that same voting bloc held that many corporations get to decide when their female employees should have access to contraception. Commenting on this blind spot, Ginsburg said in an interview recently, “[T]he justices continue to think and change so I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.”

Racial Gerrymandering

When the state of Alabama redrew its legislative districts in 2012, it applied a method one judge described as “naked ‘racial quotas.'” In each district where African Americans were in the majority under the previous maps, according to testimony from one of the legislative leaders involved in the redistricting process, the legislature tried to “at least maintain” or “increase” the percentage of black voters under the new maps. The result was that black voters were packed into relatively few districts, many of which had black supermajorities, rather than having some of those voters be spread into other districts where they could potentially swing the outcome of an election away from the candidate preferred by most whites. In a state where voters are largely polarized on the basis of race — in 2008, 98 percent of African Americans voted for Obama and 88 percent of whites voted for McCain — a racial redistricting scheme that reduces minority voting power also benefits Republicans over Democrats.

The question in two cases Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama is whether this arrangement is permissible.

Alabama justifies its redistricting scheme primarily by arguing that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required each majority black district to maintain its black population levels after a redistricting. This interpretation of Section 5 is very much in doubt, however. And even if it is the correct reading, the Supreme Court largely neutered Section 5 in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, so it’s not at all clear that an appeal to Section 5 can still justify racially motivated district lines. The thrust of the Court’s recent affirmative action cases has been that “racial categories or classifications” are subject to the most skeptical level of constitutional scrutiny. If the Court treats Alabama’s racially conscious redistricting process with similar skepticism, it is difficult to see how it survives.

When What You Say On Facebook Lands You In Jail

It’s always been difficult to assess when one person is truly threatening another. But it’s especially difficult on the Internet and social media. If someone tells us they’ll kill us, we may take them at their word out of fear. But what if a similar threat is broadcast to a much broader audience, on social media? Is the threat directed at that person, or is it a form of expression or therapy, directed at a much broader, now-readily available audience? That question has big implications, and it is at the center of the case that is likely the most prominent to assess how we view constitutional principles like free speech in light of evolving cultural and technological norms. In Elonis v. United States, plaintiff Anthony Elonis made some seriously violent comments on Facebook about his wife, who left him and took their children. He said in one status post, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it’s not your fault you liked your daddy raped you. So hurry up and die, bitch, so I can forgive you.”

Unsurprisingly, his wife perceived the comments as threatening, particularly after she filed a protective order against him. But the comments also read like rap lyrics. And Elonis says they were not meant to be literal. In fact, he posted on his Facebook page several comments that could be perceived as disclaimers, including one that says, “Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?” In another comment, he mimics a sketch from the satirical troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know, saying, “Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?” Elonis has spent three years in prison for the posts.

The question before the court gets to the heart of how we decide what is known as a “true threat.” The lower court that convicted him decided based on whether an objectively reasonable person would perceive his comment as a threat. But the criminal law often assesses the intent of the person committing the crime. So Elonis argues that the standard should instead whether he intended the statements as threatening.

That’s the debate over the legal standard. But there’s also a cultural and racial one. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick writes, this case has also become “something of a referendum on the question of whether rap lyrics are an art form.” This isn’t the only case in which communication that is or resembles rap has been used against a defendant in court. There are many other criminal cases in which defendants’ rap lyrics have been used against them, without what rap music scholars say is a proper appreciation for the standard use of “exaggeration, metaphor, and, above all, wordplay” that are common in rap.

“Without an understanding of the history and traditions of hip hop culture, its artistic elements are vulnerable to misinterpretation,” scholars Erik Nielson and Charis E. Kubrin assert in their amicus brief. The term “body bagged” in rap, for example, means a victory over a rapper’s opponent in a rap battle. Likewise, when the Wu Tang Clan says “I’ll hang your ass with this microphone,” they are asserting their metaphorical, lyrical dominance.

Interestingly, this case, too, has united unlikely allies. In another amicus brief filed in the case, several pro-life groups and anti-abortion protesters joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to also endorse a subjective interpretation of true threats, reasoning that an objective standard infringes on the First Amendment right to protest. And several free press organizations also warned that the inherently provocative content of some journalism could be chilled by an objective standard of what constitutes a true threat. No domestic violence or other groups have weighed in to defend the objective standard.

Religious Liberty in Prison

There’s no question that Abdul Maalik Muhammad, an Arkansas inmate and the plaintiff in a lawsuit called Holt v. Hobbs, is a very dangerous man (the briefs in this case identify him as “Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad”). He once pled guilty to charges that he threatened to “kidnap and harm the two daughters of President George W. Bush.” A few years later, he “broke into the home of his ex-girlfriend, slit her throat, and stabbed her chest.” Muhammad is undoubtedly a security concerns for the guards in the prison where he is currently incarcerated.

But the fact that Muhammad has a history of violent behavior does not strip him of his right to practice his religious faith. To the contrary, a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) gives inmates broad religious liberty protections, and permits the government to impose a “substantial burden” on their exercise of religions only when they have an exceptionally good reason to do so. In Mr. Muhammad’s case, he wishes to grow a beard that he believes to be required by his religious faith. In an acknowledgement of the prison’s legitimate security concerns — a too-long beard can be used to conceal contraband or weapons — Muhammad has agreed to limit the length of his beard to only a half-inch.

In their brief, Arkansas officials argue that even the short beard Muhammad wishes to grow presents a security problem. A bearded inmate might hide a piece of a razor blade in their facial hair, or they could hide contraband in their mouth and the resulting “subtle bulge in the cheek” would be disguised by the beard. They might also shave the beard to quickly change their appearance and prevent guards from recognizing them. Yet Muhammad’s attorneys have a fairly convincing response to these objections — “at least forty-four American prison systems would permit [Muhammad’s] half-inch beard, either for all prisoners or for prisoners with religious reasons to grow a beard.” If so many prison systems are indeed capable of managing the security concerns raised by a short beard, it is unclear why Arkansas’ prison system cannot.

Israel and Palestine

Every president since Harry Truman, the president who was in office when the State of Israel was formed, has maintained a policy of neutrality over the question of whether the city of Jerusalem is part of Israel — or, indeed, whether it is part of any other nation. During the Truman Administration, the State Department explained that “the United States cannot support any arrangement which would purport to authorize the establishment of Israeli . . . sovereignty over parts of the Jerusalem area.” More recently, during the George W. Bush Administration, the State Department explained that “[a]ny unilateral action by the United States that would signal, symbolically or concretely, that it recognizes that Jerusalem is a city that is located within the sovereign territory of Israel would critically compromise the ability of the United States to work with Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region to further the peace process.”

Nevertheless, in an apparent effort to undermine this policy of neutrality regarding which nation may lay claim to Jerusalem, Congress enacted a law in 2002 laying out what purports to be the “UNITED STATES POLICY WITH RESPECT TO JERUSALEM AS THE CAPITAL OF ISRAEL.” A provision of this law provides that U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem may have their birthplace listed as “Israel” on their passport, and the plaintiff in Zivotofsky v. Kerry now wants to invoke this law. Both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration countered that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the president’s exclusive authority over American foreign policy.

The Constitution’s text provides little clear guidance on whether Congress or the president should prevail in this dispute. Nevertheless, in resolving this case in the president’s favor, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit pointed to a history stretching back to the Washington Administration suggesting that the president has “exclusive power to recognize foreign nations.” It also quoted several prior Supreme Court decisions establishing that the President is the “sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations,” or that if “the executive branch . . . assume[s] a fact in regard to the sovereignty of any island or country, it is conclusive on the judicial department[].” The question presented by Zivotofsky is whether Congress can, in effect, trump the president’ s judgment on a matter of foreign policy such as this one, or whether the executive branch’s authority in this area is truly exclusive.

When Cops Stop You By Mistake

Every first year law student learns the fundamental criminal law concept that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” What this means is that, when someone violates the law, it doesn’t matter whether or not they knew what the law said. If it’s a crime, and they are found to have committed the elements of that crime, they are guilty.

The same rule may not apply to cops enforcing the law, however. Nicholas Heien was pulled over on a North Carolina interstate for having a broken tail light. But it turns out that one broken tail light is not a violation of North Carolina law so long as one of the two lights are working. Nonetheless, the cops used that purported violation as a reason for pulling Heien over, and then found cocaine once they searched his car.

Heien argued that because the officers made what is known as a mistake of law, the police had no basis to stop him in the first place, and the later search was invalid. The North Carolina Supreme Court nonetheless upheld the stop 4-3, reasoning that officers in this case made a “reasonable” mistake because the text of the law was not explicit. The case gives the Supreme Court the chance, for the first time, to consider when stops, searches, and seizures are ok even if police misunderstand the law.

As Heien’s lawyers argue, “if motorists were subject to seizures based on mistaken interpretations of arguably imprecise laws, it also would be much more difficult –indeed, sometimes downright impossible – for people to avoid being exposed to traffic stops.” It’s unclear whether drivers can avoid stops anyway. As legal scholar Orin Kerry puts it, “if an officer can’t find a traffic violation to stop a car, he isn’t trying very hard.”

As far as test cases go, Kerr points out that this one case has very good facts for the state of North Carolina, because the traffic law was ambiguous and it is far easier for the officers to say they were acting reasonably when they made a mistake. But the ruling gives the justices an opportunity to re-examine the leeway of officers to make traffic stops, at a time when stops continue to fall disproportionately on African Americans and other minorities. Underlying this case is a larger question: Will justices draw the line?

What Is Yet To Come

In addition to these cases, which the Court has already agreed to hear this term, there are three other high-profile issues that could come before the justices in the coming months, including whether the justices will agree with nearly every single federal judge who has considered the issue that the Constitution forbids marriage discrimination against same-sex couples. It is also fairly likely that the Court will need to clarify just how far its recent Hobby Lobby decision cuts into the ability of workers to obtain birth control coverage. Although the Hobby Lobby decision itself suggested that the government has some leeway to ensure that workers whose employers object to birth control on religious grounds may still obtain contraceptive coverage through a somewhat complicated process, an order the court handed down shortly after Hobby Lobby suggests that the justices may apply much broader limits on the rights of workers.

There is also an unusually high chance that the justices could take a major abortion case this term. Several cases examining so-called TRAP laws — sham health regulations enacted by lawmakers seeking to restrict access to abortion — are winding there way through the federal court system. Additionally, last term the Court agreed to hear a case concerning whether a state may enact a law that restricted access to medication abortion which was justified by a questionable appeal to women’s health. The Court eventually dismissed the medication abortion case without reaching the merits. It is fairly likely, however, that the Court will want to hear another abortion case as soon as this term which presents the question of when states can use doubtful appeals to women’s health in order to restrict abortion.

Finally, there is a small-but-not-zero chance that the justices could take a lawsuit seeking to gut the Affordable Care Act by cutting off subsidies to millions of Americans who currently enjoy subsidized health insurance under the law. It would be highly unusual for the justices to take this case, as there is not currently a disagreement among the lower federal courts regarding whether the subsidies may be paid to all Americans who qualify (although two federal appellate judges did rule against the subsidies earlier this year, their decision was later withdrawn by the full appeals court). Given the extraordinarily partisan environment surrounding all things Obamacare, it is possible that four of the Court’s Republican members — and it only takes four votes for the Court to take up a case — could allow their desire to undermine this law to cloud their legal judgment. Nevertheless, such a decision would open the justices to legitimate concerns that they are placing politics before the law and potentially diminish the prestige of an institution which depends upon its reputation as a neutral arbiter of the law to maintain its legitimacy. That should deter the Court even further from taking this case.

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