The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016-17 term will commence today, and experts agree that with the court one justice down, some hot-button issues may not be so hot this year. The court’s docket is by no means set, and while there are issues of race, religion and immigration to be reviewed, the 40 cases justices have agreed to hear are, for the most part, very technical.
The court appears to be avoiding extremely partisan cases because of its hobbled state since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and its current 4-4 ideological split among justices, which could lead to deadlocks. That will soon be tested though when a decision is handed down about whether the court will take up Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., a bathroom policy issue involving a transgender student in Virginia.
ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook said the organization is paying particularly close attention to that case.
“That has some implications for our challenges to HB2,” he said.
In what appears to be the most recent example of the court avoiding a potential deadlock, it declined Monday to rehear arguments in United States v. Texas, delivering a blow to millions of immigrant families.
The case challenges the legality of two initiatives (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) programs) that would together allow many undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. with their families and work temporarily without fear of deportation.
“Once again, the judiciary has allowed the politics of obstruction to prevail over justice,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. “Legal experts across the board agree that a rehearing was not only appropriate, but necessary, in U.S. v. Texas. And yet, the Justices failed to do what’s best for the country by allowing this case to be reconsidered once the Supreme Court is fully staffed.”
There are a number of other cases the high court is likely to consider, but here are a few noteworthy ones they’ve already agreed to review:
The court is set to hear two cases that deal with accusations of racial discrimination in the form of gerrymandering – one out of North Carolina and the other out of Virginia.
A three-judge panel ruled in February that the North Carolina Congressional District map (specifically districts 1 and 12) was drawn with racial bias. Challengers of the map argue that African American voters were packed into already primarily black districts, while GOP leaders claim the original map was drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
After the District Court’s ruling, the state was ordered to quickly redraw the map, which was used in a June 7 primary race.
There are a number of questions before the Supreme Court, but Andrew Hessick, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said the two main points would be whether race, rather than politics, was in fact the primary motivation in drawing the map, and if so, was it legal to avoid diluting a particular race in a particular area?
“It’s going to really get into the weeds of the evidence,” Hessick said. “What’s going to matter is the end result.”
In the Virginia case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the state’s Republican leaders gerrymandered electoral maps to decrease African American voting influence.
The court will hear argument Wednesday in Buck v. Davis, in which it will consider whether death row inmate Duane Buck should have been denied a “Certificate of Appealability” based on the ineffectiveness of a trial attorney, who knowingly presented an expert who testified Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.
Buck was convicted of killing his former girlfriend in 1995 and a man he believed she was romantically involved with. He was convicted of the killings in Texas, where future dangerousness was a prerequisite for the death penalty and a core issue at the sentencing hearing.
In Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court will examine intellectual disability and decide whether or not to prohibit the use of current medical standards and thereby to require the use of outdated standards to determine if a person may be executed.
The ACLU’s Brook says that this is another case his organization is keeping an eye on because it could change the way death penalty decisions are made in the future when it comes to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Should a court be able to consider evidence of racially biased comments during juror deliberations when deciding whether to grant a new trial?
That’s the question in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado. Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez was convicted by a jury near Denver of attempted sexual assault involving two teenaged girls, and after the trial, two jurors told his attorney that another juror made derogatory statements about Mexican men during deliberations.
Jury deliberation, by federal and most state laws, is secretive to prevent jurors from worrying about being questioned on the process in which they reach a verdict. Justices will decide whether that no-impeachment rule outweighs evidence of racial bias that could violate a person’s right to an impartial jury.
The court will also consider whether to allow a malicious prosecution claim based on allegations of police misconduct.
In Manuel v. City of Joliet, Elijah Manuel is seeking damages after he was arrested and held in jail for 48 days on a charge of unlawful possession of the drug ecstasy. The charge was dismissed after a state lab showed the pills he had did not contain not any illegal substance.
Manuel, who is black, has alleged that the cops who stopped him, who are white, had a history of harassing him, knew the pills he had weren’t ecstasy and lied in a report about it.
Other important questions the high court will take up include whether cities can sue under the Fair Housing Act; if the exclusion of churches from otherwise secular and neutral aid programs violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses; and whether illegal immigrants are entitled to bond hearings and release if detention lasts six months.
Hessick said this term is important, but not as exciting as years past with issues like same sex marriage and abortion. The fireworks will come, he expects, with the appointment of a new justice, likely after the presidential election.