Rulings in Review



Supreme Court building


Supreme Court decisions on some important cases this year will be felt in the states for quite some time.

By Lisa Soronen

The U.S. Supreme Court decided six—arguably seven—“big” cases this term. All but one directly affects the states. In some cases, the absence of a ninth justice—the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia remains vacant—made all the difference. But in a few cases it made no difference at all.


Evenwel v. Abbott

Since 1964, when the Supreme Court established the principle of “one person, one vote” in Reynolds v. Sims, states have been required to apportion legislative districts “equally.”

Although the court has refused to decide this issue at least three times in the last 25 years, that changed this year with Evenwel v. Abbott. The question the high court chose to address in this  case was, what populations do you include in apportionment calculations, the entire population or just registered voters? It makes a big difference. The maximum total-population deviation between Texas Senate districts is about 8 percent; but the maximum voter-eligible population deviation between districts exceeds 40 percent. The court concluded unanimously that Texas may redistrict using total population “based on constitutional history, this court’s decisions and longstanding practice.”


Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

The justices held 5-3 that requiring doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals and abortion centers to meet the requirements of surgical centers creates an unconstitutional “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion. Texas argued the two requirements would “protect the health of women who experience complications from abortions.”

But according to the court, nothing in the record indicated that the admitting-privileges requirement advanced women’s health, because very few women who receive abortions need to be hospitalized. Instead, the requirement placed a “substantial burden” on a woman’s ability to get an abortion because about half of Texas’ clinics closed as a result.

Likewise, the court concluded the surgery-center requirement does not benefit patients. For those who have abortions via medication, if complications arise, they almost always occur after the patient has left the facility. Also, Texas does not require that much riskier procedures, like childbirth and colonoscopies, be performed in facilities meeting surgery-center standards.

The surgery-center requirement places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion, the court said, because it will further reduce the number of clinics (initially about 40) to seven or eight.

Affirmative Action

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

In this case, the court ruled 4-3 that the university’s race-conscious admissions program is constitutional.

Texas’s Top 10 Percent Law, passed in 1997, guarantees high school students who finish in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes admission to any of the state’s public universities. The rule was later amended to guarantee admission to UT Austin to students graduating in the top 7 or 8 percent, filling up to 75 percent of the freshman class. Other students are admitted based on a combination of their grades, test scores and their “personal achievement index.” Race is considered as a factor in one of the two components of an applicant’s personal achievement index.

The court rejected Abigail Fisher’s argument that the university’s use of race is unnecessary. This is the first affirmative action victory for an educational institution since Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). 


McDonnell v. United States

The court unanimously reversed former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s federal bribery conviction in McDonnell v. United States.

While in office, McDonnell accepted more than $175,000 in loans, gifts and other benefits from Jonnie Williams. Williams wanted a Virginia state university to test a dietary supplement, Anatabloc, his company had developed.

The federal government claimed McDonnell committed at least five “official acts” of bribery, including arranging for Williams to meet with Virginia government officials and hosting and attending events at the governor’s mansion designed to encourage Virginia university researchers to study Anatabloc.

The court held that setting up meetings, calling other public officials and hosting events do not alone qualify as “official acts.”

A lower court will decide whether to dismiss the charges based on the new definition of official acts, or give McDonnell a new trial.


United States v. Texas

The court split 4-4 in United States v. Texas on whether the president’s deferred action immigration program violates federal law. As a result, the Fifth Circuit’s nationwide temporary stay of the program remains in effect.

The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, program allows certain undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years, and either came here as children or already have children who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, to lawfully stay and work temporarily in the country.

At least four justices agreed that Texas had “standing” to challenge DAPA, presumably based on Texas’s argument that the cost of issuing driver’s licenses to program participants is a particular harm states face.


Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

In this case, the Supreme Court issued a 4-4 opinion affirming the lower court’s decision to not overrule Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977). The decision leaves laws in place in 25 states and the District of Columbia that allow “agency fees,” in which public employees who do not join a union are still required to pay their “fair share” of union dues for collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment.

In two earlier cases, both decided 5-4, opinions written by Justice Samuel Alito and the other conservative justices, including Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, were very critical of Abood. The justices heard oral arguments in Friedrichs in January, a month before Scalia died, and the five more conservative members seemed poised to overrule the earlier decision. Scalia, who ultimately didn’t participate in the case, likely would have joined them.

What else? 

Beyond the blockbusters, more than half the court’s docket affects the states in some way. Because there were so many big cases, few of the less significant ones stand out.

This term, the court decided an unusual number of redistricting and death penalty cases, though none of them significantly changed existing laws.

Also, for the first time in many terms, the court decided several pre-emption cases. All involved technical topics ranging from energy to health-care claims. The justices also ruled on a number of bread-and-butter issues for states, including qualified immunity, public employment and the Fourth Amendment. All of these cases raised specific, narrow issues.

It is possible that a ninth Supreme Court justice will not be appointed until well into next year. Despite being down one justice, the court carries on. It has already agreed to hear 30 cases next term.

Supreme Court decisions on some important cases this year will be felt in the states for quite some time.

Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

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