4 Supreme Court Decisions That Could Threaten Our Civil Liberties This Month


After the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling on DNA swabs for non-convicted persons and the recent confirmation that the National Security Agency is collecting Americans’ phone records, it seems as if our Constitution that promises liberty and justice for all, is becoming unfulfilled. The public’s opinion on the country’s course is teetering back and forth since this week’s news stories.

The confidence in the country may be restored, however, with the Supreme Court rulings to be announced throughout the month. Political junkies like myself are anxiously waiting on the results because whether you know it or not, the verdicts have the power to shape our lives by challenging our liberties. Yes, there are other Supreme Court cases coming out this month that are just as controversial as DOMA and the Voting Rights Act — including one that went under the radar a couple months ago. 

1. Voter Identification

Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona questions the legality of Proposition 200, a law passed in Arizona that requires voters to bring an identification card to polling booths. Those defending Prop 200 claim that many unauthorized voters are signing registration forms, which the National Voting Registration Act considers perjury. Yet, key election states have only reported a few infractions throughout the years, so small that only 0.001% of 11.4 million Floridian voters have been accused of doing so, for example.

If the justices consider Prop 200 constitutional, many worry this could give too much deciding power to states. On the other hand, a majority of the court might decide that having a federal act in place makes the voting registration process equally accessible to all, without the burden of states implementing strict and unfair regulations. Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee have similar laws to Prop 200 and 12 states are considering implementing some.

2. Genetic Patents

As scientific discoveries become more interesting, so do their subsequent court cases. Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics asks whether “products of nature,” in this case genes, can legally be patented by those who discover them. Myriad Genetics claimed that if the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes have a specific mutation, it could indicate hereditary links between an ancestor who suffered from breast or ovarian cancer and their descendants. A patent could hinder others from receiving the procedure from their local doctor for at least 20 years.

The Supreme Court’s oral arguments were quite entertaining. Justices alluded to tree sap and cookies in order to explain science in human terms. Justice Sotomayor summarized the issue best, stating that just because a baseball bat is physically different from the tree it originated from, the bat’s creators cannot patent the tree because it could hinder others from creating other products with it. It seems the court will rule in favor of Molecular Pathology, because if they did not, it could slow the product's availability to a majority of people and decrease the push for research. 

3. Affirmative Action

10 years after Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, it is once again analyzing an affirmative action case. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin, claiming that the school gave her admission spot to another student based on racial preference (Fisher is white). Texas law currently grants the top 10% of all public high school graduates a spot in their state colleges, a statute Fisher believes gives enough opportunity for a diverse student body.

Considering the Court has taken seven months to decide, it is hard to predict how the Judges will rule. While the most conservative justices were visibly opposed to the 10% rule, the liberal wing sought more information, asking for clear definitions and examples of the university’s application process. In an overall consensus, all judges realized that Grutter could be considered outdated. Yet if they rule in favor of Fisher, it is possible that this could be the beginning of the end for affirmative action.

4. Electronic Surveillance and National Security

In February, the Courts ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International USA barely made national headlines. In question was whether “non-U.S. persons” living abroad could legally sue the American government for intercepting their messages, a statute granted to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence (James Clapper) by the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 (FAA). Justice Alito announced that a non-U.S. person could not claim injury from being spied on because they did not know at the exact moment in which the interception was happening that they were being wiretapped. Thus, they technically have no solid evidence for a case to stand trial. 

If the Supreme Court were to rule on a case involving the NSA’s power to compile bulks of phone records from American citizens, it would most likely rule similarly to Clapper. While the administration claims the identity of the phone user is not disclosed to them, which was the case in FISA of 2008, the statutes are contextually the same. Thus, American citizens' Fourth Amendment rights and their liberty to sue for infringement would be ignored. That is the frightening part.

The Supreme Court will continue to meet weekly throughout June to announce decisions.