The Supreme Court is handing down some major decisions this week. It released two key rulings on Wednesday, with more expected to roll in on Thursday and Monday.
No, the nine justices aren’t just feeling extra decisive right now.
June 30th marks the end of the 2013 term, which means SCOTUS is scrambling to rule on the major cases they heard last fall and avoid postponing cases until next term. (Supreme Court terms typically run from the first Monday in October through late June or early July.)
Here’s a rundown of the two rulings that came in Wednesday, and the four other blockbuster cases we expect to hear decisions on soon:
CELLPHONE SEARCHES (Riley v. California, US v. Wurie) – DECIDED
Question Can the police search a person’s cell phone without a warrant?
Basis: Police officers have long held the right to search a suspect “in the area into which he might reach.” That phrase dates from before cell phones were a common presence in our pockets and purses, and before the devices held the vast amounts of personal information they do today. Because of the changes in technology, it wasn’t clear if law enforcement officials had a right to search all this digital content during an arrest.
Decision: The court ruled unanimously in favor of privacy rights. Police officers must get a warrant before searching a cell phone.
Implications: 1) The personal information on your cell phone is safer. 2) Law enforcement might become more difficult. Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged in his decision that cell phones “can provide valuable incriminating information” about dangerous persons and criminal enterprises.
STREAMING TV ONLINE (ABC v. Aereo) – DECIDED
Question: Can companies capture broadcast TV signals and stream them on the web for users?
Basis: A Boston-based start-up called Aereo was using warehouses full of tiny antennas to capture broadcast television signals and deliver them to paying subscribers on the web. Before, viewers were only able to watch certain programs by subscribing to cable and satellite companies, which paid the broadcasters “retransmission fees” for the right to air the content. Broadcasters said services like Aereo were cutting so deeply into their revenue streams that they might have to take their signals off the airwaves entirerly.
Decision: The court ruled 6-3 on the side of TV networks. It said Aereo was violating copyright laws by acting like a cable system and transmitting copyrighted content without paying for it.
Implications: 1) Aereo is going to lose a lot of revenue, and might have to close. 2) Some worry that putting kibosh on Aereo might stifle technological innovation in related areas, like cloud computing and remote storage.
RECESS APPOINTMENTS (National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning)—PENDING
Question: When can the President make appointments during a Senate recess?
Basis This is a battle between the executive and legislative branches. In 2012 President Obama made recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, without Senate confirmation. He says the Senate was in recess (recess appointments are allowed) but the Republican-dominated Senate says it technically wasn’t, because they were meeting every three days in “pro-forma sessions.”
Outlook: It seems likely SCOTUS will rule on the side of conservatives, using a narrow interpretation of the recess appointment power to say the President’s actions were unconstitutional.
ABORTION PROTESTS (McCullen v. Coakley) – PENDING
Question: Can states create “buffer zones” to keep protesters away from abortion clinics?
Basis: In 2000, SCOTUS upheld a Colorado law that created a buffer zone around abortion clinics, which forced protesters to stay back a prescribed distance from the clinic. Massachusetts enacted a similar law in 2007 that created a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics. Anti-abortion groups, fronted by the grandmotherly-looking Eleanor McCullen, are saying the law violates their First Amendment rights. Attorney General Martha Coakley says the law was meant to change the history of violence and harassment by protesters.
Outlook: Unclear. The makeup of the Court has changed since the Colorado decision, and has become “more receptive to some free-speech claims and some restrictions on the right to abortion,” according to the New York Times.
BIRTH CONTROL COVERAGE (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby) – PENDING
Question: Can a business refuse to provide health plans that cover contraception based on the owners’ religious beliefs?
Basis: The Affordable Care Act mandates that employers must provide health insurance that covers contraceptives, but churches and religious non-profits are exempt from the requirement. Private corporations controlled by religious families, such as the craft chain Hobby Lobby, say they shouldn’t have to comply either. Basically, it’s religious liberty pitted against women’s rights. It also raises a question of whether commercial enterprises can “get out of” complying with the law by claiming religious exemptions.
Outlook: In 2012, the Court upheld this part of the ACA by a close vote of 5-4. One possibility is that they’ll issue a really narrow ruling that strictly limits the type of corporations that can claim exemption, according to the Wall Street Journal.
UNION POWER (Harris v. Quinn) – PENDING
Question: Can unions require workers to pay union fees, even if they opt out of their memberships?
Basis: Since a ruling in 2003, home-care providers in Illinois are represented by the powerful SEIU union (before that, they had no union representation). Even if the workers don’t join the union, they still have to pay a “fair share fee,” since the union is required to bargain on their behalf regardless of whether the worker is a member or not. Eight Illinois workers, backed by the anti-union group National Right to Work, are challenging that law.
Outlook: Unclear, but if the Court sides with National Right to Work, they could severely curtail union power. The justice to watch here is conservative juggernaut Antonin Scalia, who seemed uncharacteristically sympathetic towards organized labor during the oral arguments.