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What happened in the Supreme Court today

Spectators line up to enter the Supreme Court on Monday morning. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

No, we didn't get any big decisions from the Supreme Court today. But that doesn't mean there wasn't any news. Here's what you should know.

Abigail Fisher, who challenged the University of Texas' admissions process, outside the Supreme Court in October. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Affirmative action: In a 7 to 1 ruling, SCOTUS sent Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin back to a federal appeals court. The lower court needs the university to prove that the use of race in admissions is "narrowly tailored" to the goal of diversity and that "no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity," Justice Kennedy wrote. It's a compromise that leaves the issue of race-based college admissions unsettled. In a concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas argued for overturning all race-based admissions. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued to uphold the lower court's ruling in the university's favor, writing that "only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious."

The Supreme Court will weigh in on President Obama's recess appointments. (AP Photo/ Paul Faith)

Recess appointments: The Supreme Court will review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that deemed President Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board unconstitutional, a decision that upset decades of understanding about the president’s recess appointment power.

A coal-fired power plant in Brilliant, Ohio. (Michael Williamson/Washington Post)

The EPA: In a victory for environmentalists, the Court will review the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to reverse one of the Obama administration’s signature air quality policies, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. The rule would have forced coal-fired power plants to install stricter pollution controls; the lower court called it costly, burdensome and arbitrary.

The Court also rejected a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of fuel containing more ethanol. The oil industry charged that regulators did not properly test the new fuel blend.

Job seekers wait in line to meet with employers at a New York job fair. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Employment discrimination: In two 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court made it harder to sue employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In Vance v. Ball State, the Court restricted who counts as a supervisor to those who have power to "take tangible employment actions" against a victim of harassment. That matters because the Court previously ruled that the employer is only liable for discrimination by a supervisor, not a co-worker, unless the discrimination by a co-worker was reported to management and no action was taken.

In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Court ruled that under the retaliation provision of Title VII, a plaintiff must prove that retaliation was the "but-for" reason for an action against an employee (the decisive reason, rather than just one motivating factor).

The liberal wing of the court dissented in both cases; Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to "correct" the Court through new legislation.

Pharmaceutical companies are protected on generic drugs. (Bigstock)

Generic drugs: In Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, the Court held that federal law preempts state law in design defect claims against generic pharmaceutical products, overturning a 1st Circuit decision. That means a drug company can't be sued in state court over defects in a generic drug if the name-brand version has federal approval and the generic complies with federal design and labeling requirements. Karen Bartlett, a woman in New Hampshire who lost her sight and two-thirds of her skin after she took a generic version of the drug Clinoril, had won a $21 million judgement against Mutual Pharmaceutical.

James Womack, director of Hand Up Ministries, a nonprofit organization that houses sex offenders in Oklahoma City. (Associated Press/Sue Ogrocki )

Sex offenders: The Court overturned a lower court decision in United States v. Kebodeaux, ruling that a sex offender who had served his sentence when the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act was enacted still has to register under that law.  Kebodeaux was serving in the Air Force at the time of his conviction and was already subject to federal sex offender registration guidelines for military members under the Wetterling Act that were simply modified by SORNA, the Court ruled.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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