By Brandon Bub
Oct. 12, 2014
The Supreme Court officially began its 2015 term on Monday (incidentally, there is a Fantasy Supreme Court website where you can make predictions about case outcomes, but it takes a special kind of law geek to want to sign up). It’s hard for me to think of any other term that began with so many newsworthy events, so here’s a rundown of some of the Court’s most significant proceedings.
This one is definitely important. This week, the Supreme Court effectively extended marriage rights in 11 states when it decided not to hear an appeal from federal appeals courts about the legality of state laws banning same sex marriage. It’s definitely a victory for LGBT activists, but the result was a bit surprising to some Court watchers like me. It’s not that I expected the Court to go the other way on this one; it’s that I expected the Court would agree to actually hear the case and, by the end of the term, offer a decision that would grant same sex marriage rights the nation over. The Court appears more reluctant to go that route, however, because there’s been very little disagreement by lower courts on this issue; marriage laws are consistently and almost without exception being struck down by lower courts. It looks like for the time being, gay marriage advocates will have to continue this game of litigious whack-a-mole. The Supreme Court continues to move in a gradualistic manner on this issue, perhaps hoping not to embolden opposition by giving a more broad decision on the matter (Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said this might have been the reason why Roe v. Wade generated so much controversy).
The Court has also intervened in a series of decisions that will prove especially important given that election day is coming up in less than a month. The Court blocked lower court rulings in Ohio and North Carolina that would have made early voting easier, but it also blocked a ruling in Wisconsin about the legality of its new Voter ID restrictions. While these conflicting outcomes might suggest a confused jurisprudence on voting rights, the important thing to remember is that blocking a lower court ruling often has nothing to do with whether or not the Court actually agrees with the ruling’s rationale. As Richard Hasen explains in Slate, the Supreme Court holds to the principle that “lower courts should be very reluctant to change the rules just before an election, because of the risk of voter confusion and chaos for election officials.” It’s likely that many of these cases will be decided by the Court either this term or next, so how these voting laws stack up constitutionally will be another matter entirely.
On Tuesday, the Court heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case involving an inmate at a prison in Arkansas who is alleging that the prison’s regulations banning inmates from growing half-inch bears violates his right to freely exercise his Islamic faith. The prison alleges that the rule about beards is for security reasons: inmates might escape and shave off their beards, confounding attempts to apprehend them, or they might use the beards to hide contraband. Technically, this is not a First Amendment case–Douglas Holt is suing under a federal law that requires prisons to give a compelling reason for restrictions that place a “substantial burden” on an inmate’s religious practice. It’s highly likely that Holt will prevail on this one; in fact, some of the justices during oral argument suggested that this case is too easy, and ought to be dismissed in favor of a more difficult religious liberty case down the line. After all, the prison could always just take or ask for pictures of inmates without their beards–Justice Alito suggested that it would be hard to fathom a situation where a prisoner’s beard could cause such a problem to warrant this kind of regulation.
The Court also heard arguments in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. In this case, the plaintiffs are a group of workers at a warehouse in Nevada. At the end of each work day, they are required to stand in line for as a long as 25 minutes to go through security screenings to ensure that the employees had not stolen anything. The plaintiffs believe that this time adds up to such an extent that they ought to be compensated with overtime pay, but attorneys for Integrity Staffing argue that security screenings aren’t a compensable form of work. It might seem like a minor issue, but this Nevada warehouse contracts with the online retailer Amazon, and depending on how the Court rules here, we could see a series of class action lawsuits against CVS and Apple that deal with similar issues. The case raises a lot of interesting questions, including a more metaphysical one about what exactly “work” is, in the first place. Scotusblog’s Lyle Denniston has a great take on the issue.