This term’s key Supreme Court rulings, in the justices’ own words

July 6

We have scrutinized and analyzed the actions of the Supreme Court in the term that began on the first Monday of October 2013. So we’ll give the last word to the justices themselves.

Members of the court like to say that they are the only government officials required to explain why they made a decision. The excerpts below, from majority opinions, concurrences and dissents, are intended to show the point-counterpoint nature of their exchanges, the conversations to which some cases lend themselves and the individual voice that each justice brings to the job.

Included is the beginning of the news story for each decision discussed.

BURWELL v. HOBBY LOBBY; CONESTOGA WOOD SPECIALTIES v. BURWELL , decided June 30

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court struck down a key part of President Obama’s health-care law Monday, ruling that family-owned businesses do not have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage that conflicts with the owners’ religious beliefs.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority:

We must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the dissenters:

Would the exemption the Court holds RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] demands for employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)? According to counsel for Hobby Lobby, “each one of these cases . . . would have to be evaluated on its own . . . apply[ing] the compelling interest-least restrictive alternative test.” Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

The Court, however, sees nothing to worry about.

McCUTCHEON v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION , decided April 2

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court’s divisive decision Wednesday striking down a Watergate-era limit on campaign contributions was the latest milestone for conservative justices who are disassembling a campaign finance regime they feel violates free-speech rights.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority:

Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.

The Government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance. We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the Government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them.

TOWN OF GREECE v. GALLOWAY , decided May 5

The Washington Post: A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers said before meetings of an Upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion; the justices cited history and tradition.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters:

For centuries now, people have come to this country from every corner of the world to share in the blessing of religious freedom. Our Constitution promises that they may worship in their own way, without fear of penalty or danger, and that in itself is a momentous offering. Yet our Constitution makes a commitment still more remarkable — that however those individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth) — each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.

I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.

NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD v. NOEL CANNING , decided June 26

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that President Obama exceeded his constitutional authority in making high-level government appointments in 2012 when he declared the Senate to be in recess and unable to act on the nominations. . . .

But the court stepped back from handing Obama — and those who will follow him in the Oval Office — a more substantial loss. A bare majority of the justices upheld, in theory at least, the president’s ability to make recess appointments when the Senate is indeed on extended break, saying history weighs in favor of a broad power.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority:

There is a great deal of history to consider here. Presidents have made recess appointments since the beginning of the Republic. Their frequency suggests that the Senate and President have recognized that recess appointments can be both necessary and appropriate in certain circumstances. We have not previously interpreted the [Recess] Clause, and, when doing so for the first time in more than 200 years, we must hesitate to upset the compromises and working arrangements that the elected branches of Government themselves have reached.

SCHUETTE v. BAMN , decided April 22

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court on Tuesday made clear that states are free to prohibit the use of racial considerations in university admissions, upholding Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning affirmative action.

By a vote of 6 to 2, the court concluded that it was not up to judges to overturn the 2006 decision by Michigan voters to bar consideration of race when deciding who gets into the state’s universities.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the controlling opinion:

History demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process.

Justice Antonin Scalia, agreeing with the judgment but wanting to go further:

It has come to this. Called upon to explore the jurisprudential twilight zone between two errant lines of precedent, we confront a frighteningly bizarre question: Does the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbid what its text plainly requires? Needless to say (except that this case obliges us to say it), the question answers itself. “The Constitution proscribes government discrimination on the basis of race, and state-provided education is no exception.” . . . It is precisely this understanding — the correct understanding — of the federal Equal Protection Clause that the people of the State of Michigan have adopted for their own fundamental law. By adopting it, they did not simultaneously offend it.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting:

In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.

BOND v. U.S ., decided June 2

The Washington Post: The Supreme Court on Monday threw out the conviction of a woman who had been prosecuted for trying to poison her husband’s mistress under a federal law banning chemical weapons.

But the unanimous court sidestepped a broader constitutional question about the power of Congress to pass laws implementing international treaties. This question had elevated Carol Anne Bond’s case from a soap opera to the latest chapter in the nation’s long-running political debate over the limits of federal power.

Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring:

In an appropriate case, I would draw a line that respects the original understanding of the Treaty Power. I acknowledge that the distinction between matters of international intercourse and matters of purely domestic regulation may not be obvious in all cases. But this Court has long recognized that the Treaty Power is limited, and hypothetical difficulties in line-drawing are no reason to ignore a constitutional limit on federal power.

The parties in this case have not addressed the proper scope of the Treaty Power or the validity of the treaty here. The preservation of limits on the Treaty Power is nevertheless a matter of fundamental constitutional importance, and the Court ought to address the scope of the Treaty Power when that issue is presented. Given the increasing frequency with which treaties have begun to test the limits of the Treaty Power, that chance will come soon enough.

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