The nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are often left out of regular partisan sniping, but they're absolutely crucial to determining policy in America. Even with coronavirus disrupting the usual procedures of the court, with oral arguments moved to the virtual realm for the first time after several cases were postponed, the justices are still poised to rule on some of the biggest issues of the day this spring, including three seminal cases on immigration, women's rights, and financial reform. Because there's no schedule for when decisions may come, court-watchers will just have to wait by their computers — but in the meantime, we've got a rundown of what to expect.
Trump v. NAACP
Three cases were consolidated and presented during one session of oral arguments that concerned the future of participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects immigrants who arrived in the United States as children from deportation. The three cases are: Trump v. NAACP, McAleenan v. Vidal, and Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California.
At issue is the announcement President Trump made 2017 stating that his administration would be dissolving the DACA program, which was established in 2012 by the Obama administration to protect young immigrants. The program, established by executive order, allowed these people to work legally and live without fear of deportation for renewable two-year periods.
The legal question around the DACA case is not whether the Trump administration has the legal authority to end the DACA program, but rather whether the proper avenues to do so were taken. In other words, the Court is essentially deciding whether or not the Trump administration filed the right paperwork.
Nearly 700,000 immigrants are currently enrolled in the DACA program and enjoying its protections. If the court upholds the Trump administration's reversal of the program, these people may be vulnerable to prosecution and deportation to a country they may not know at all, and where they may not even speak the dominant language.
If the court rules in favor of the Trump administration, a few things will happen. First, stripping the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients of their legal protections will likely force them back into the shadows and make it difficult for them to find employment or live without fear. Second, they may be targets for harassment and discrimination with their legal status no longer protected. It's unlikely that 700,000 people will be deported wholesale, but undocumented immigrants aren't eligible for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, Medicare, or other federal protections, like the $1,200 coronavirus stimulus check.
June Medical Services v. Gee
June Medical Services v. Gee is the court's latest foray into reproductive rights. The issue at hand is whether or not a Louisiana state law demanding that abortion providers retain admitting privileges to a hospital nearby imposes an undue burden to receiving abortion care.
A near-identical case out of Texas, Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, made its way to the Supreme Court in 2016. Then, the justices ruled that the elements of the state law that made it more difficult to obtain clinic-based abortions were unnecessary and didn't actually help protect women's health. Though Whole Women's Health is considered binding precedent, June Medical Services is the first abortion case that will be heard by the high court since the addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated to the bench by Trump in 2018 and skewed the court to the right with a 5-4 conservative majority.
Proponents of abortion access say that targeted restrictions on abortion providers like those in Louisiana and Texas have the opposite effect, instead putting patients at risk rather than protecting them. These restrictions, known as TRAP laws, tend to impose burdens for doctors that are costly and time-consuming, which can result in clinics closing and thus patients needing to travel farther and longer for access to care.
The idea behind admitting privileges in particular is that if something goes wrong with an abortion, the patient can be transferred to a hospital fully equipped for emergency surgeries, but this thinking belies the evidence that fewer than 1% of patients require treatment at a hospital. Other forms of TRAP laws that regulate structural elements of clinics, for instance, often require costly renovations that can put a clinic out of commission.
There is no medical basis for requiring admitting privileges, and the Guttmacher Institute believes the true reason for these laws is to "cause delays and threaten access to quality abortion care." Abortion is one of the safest and most common medical procedures in the U.S. — safer than birth itself — and experts say that shuttering clinics does not stop abortions, but rather stops clinic-administered abortions as patients turn to other, less safe means.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Louisiana law, then the precedent set by the Texas decision will be overturned, paving the way for other states hostile to abortion access to institute their own restrictions under the guise of patient protection. This would effectively gut the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made it unconstitutional for the government to impose an undue burden to accessing abortion care.
Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
This court case challenges the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the agency that Sen. Elizabeth Warren helped create in the wake of the 2008 recession. The agency was born in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, which intended to hold banks and corporations accountable and to ensure the rights of everyday consumers. The justices will consider whether the CFPB violates the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution, which declares that that no one branch should have an outsized amount of power.
At issue is whether or not Trump can fire the head of the bureau, a position that's typically held for five years. The law says that a president can only fire the head of an agency in specific circumstances relating to "malfeasance, inefficiency, or neglect of duty." The case questions how much power an independent and non-elected official should have over the direction of a governing body that has the potential to impact the lives of millions of Americans.
The case was brought by a firm, Seila Law LLC, that was actually being investigated by the CFPB for violating federal telemarketing laws. They brought the case as a counter to the investigation, arguing that the agency's structure renders it unconstitutional.
If the court decides that the agency is unconstitutional, then it's likely that its doors will be shuttered. The CFPB was intended to counter the lack of market regulation that plunged the country into recession, and if the court rules against the agency and its ability to hold banks accountable, the pendulum may well swing the other way. SCOTUSBlog also notes that if the justices rule against the CFPB, then "their ruling could potentially unravel all the CFPB’s decisions in the nine years since its creation."