Supreme Court Term 2013: 5 Cases You Need to Know


Monday marks the beginning of a new season for the Supreme Court, which has a profound docket of controversial issues to consider for the next nine months. While there are fewer "super cases" like the same-sex marriage and health care decisions that characterized the last two years, there won't be any shortage of drama. Chief Justice John Roberts and his four conservative counterparts Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas and (maybe) Kennedy have a slight upper-hand in influencing the outcomes of home-hitting issues pertaining to limits on campaign finance, abortion, discrimination, and the president's executive power. Left-learning Justices Sotomayor, Bader Ginsberg, Kagan, and Breyer have a lot of work ahead of them in order to maintain a little more balance in a court that functions, by composition, more conservatively. Here are the top five cases being considered this year:

1. Campaign Limits: McCutcheon vs. FEC

In McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, made "an excessive contribution to the Alabama Republican Party's federal political committee last year." As a result of so much of his money being put into the system, McCutcheon, along with the Republican National Committee, is challenging the $123,200 limit individuals can make to federal candidates and political party committees in any two years. Echoing the 2010 Citizen's United decision that allows unlimited giving to super PACs, McCutcheon challenges the limit for being unconstitutional as it hampers the First Amendment right of free speech and inhibits people's participation in the system. On one hand, candidates and committees stand to benefit for a striking of this cap. On the other, a rise of ultra-influential elites will squash the average voter by the weight of their purses.

2. Affirmative Action: Schuett vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

Schuette vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is related to an approved 2006 state ballot that prohibits public entities from making employment or school admission selections based on race. Depending on how the Supreme Court decides, the support or strike down of this case could partly determine whether or not future practices of affirmative action will be constitutional. In a previous June 2013 case, Fisher vs. University of Texas, students argued that the University of Texas could not use race as a determining factor if there were other race-neutral factors that could produce the same diversity. However, the court ruled 7-1 against overturning affirmative action generally, but insisted that such practices should be stringent. This may hint at how the Court may rule this time around.

3. President Recess Appointees: National Labor Relations Board vs. Noel Canning

The Supreme Court finds itself squarely in the middle of a heated dispute between the two other branches of government. National Labor Relations Board vs. Noel Canning pertains to a case that questions the validity of certain presidential appointments to the National Labor Relations board because they were made during a Senate "pro forma" session. Typically, presidential appointments require the Senate's approval, but in this special session, the GOP opposition claims there was not a proper quorum for approval. Implicated in this decision are a number of nominees including Richard Cordray, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

4. Privacy: U.S. vs. Wurie and Riley vs. California

U.S. vs. Wurie and Riley v. California are similar cases from the last decade that received mixed results from lower courts pertaining to the Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure. In 2007, Brima Wurie was arrested for allegedly participating in a cocaine deal. After his arrest, police noticed incoming calls from his home and used the opportunity to look into his call-log, review his pictures, and identify his girlfriend's and his home address. That information led to an investigation of his home to compile evidence that was later used against him. In this case, the court ruled that the police violated the Fourth Amendment. Conversely, this year, David Riley was stopped by police for expired car tags. His cellphone was confiscated and investigated, which lead the police to discover Riley's participation in a 2009 gang shooting. Here, the Supreme Court of California ruled that this was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

5. Abortion Rights: Cline vs. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice

Cline vs. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice is associated with an Oklahoma law that regulates a doctor's ability to prescribe a treatment program that terminates early pregnancies. The so-called RU-486 pills are a safer and less-expensive alternative to surgical abortions. A ruling supporting this law essentially keeps the "woman's right to choose" premise alive, but makes the means of getting an abortion much, much more difficult through "health and safety rules."