Supremes set to tackle abortion, immigration, LGBT rights

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Abortion rights as well as protections for young immigrants and LGBT people top an election-year agenda for the Supreme Court. Its conservative majority will have ample opportunity to flex its muscle, testing Chief Justice John Roberts’ attempts to keep the court clear of Washington partisan politics.

Guns could be part of a term with plenty of high-profile cases and at least the prospect of the court’s involvement in issues revolving around the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump and related disputes between the White House and congressional Democrats.

The court also could be front and center in the presidential campaign itself, especially with health concerns surrounding 86-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Its biggest decisions are likely to be handed down in late June, four months before the election.

If last year was a time for the court to maintain a collective low profile following Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s stormy confirmation, the new term marks a return to the spotlight.

“The court seemed to do everything it could to rise above the partisan rancor,” said David Cole, the national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “This term, it’s going to be harder for the court.”

How far the court is willing to go in any case that is likely to divide the liberal and conservative justices probably will come down to Roberts. He is essentially the court’s new swing justice, a conservative who is closest to the court’s center. He also has spoken repeatedly against the perception that the court is a political branch of government, much like Congress and the White House.

Last term, on the same day in late June, Roberts joined the conservatives in ending federal court challenges to partisan electoral maps and sided with the liberals to block the administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The new term might pose the sternest test yet of Roberts’ stewardship of the court. Roberts also would preside over any Senate trial of Trump, if the House impeaches the president.

The justices return to the bench Monday with cases about whether states can abolish an insanity defense for criminal defendants and allow non-unanimous juries to convict defendants of some crimes.

The next day, they will take up two cases about whether federal civil rights law protects LGBT people from workplace discrimination. They are the first rights cases since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote for and wrote the court’s major gay rights decisions.

With Kavanaugh in Kennedy’s place and Trump’s other appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, also on the bench, the outcome is far from certain. The Trump administration also has reversed the Obama administration’s view that LGBT people are covered by the Title 7 provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.

“It would be huge for the LGBT community to have protection in the private sector from employment discrimination,” said Paul Smith, a veteran Supreme Court litigator who has argued past gay rights cases.

Legislation is pending in Congress that would remove any doubt about Title 7′s application in cases of sexual orientation and gender identity, but is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

In November, the justices will hear arguments over the Trump administration’s plan to end the Obama-era program that has protected roughly 700,000 young immigrants from deportation and provided them with permits to work in the United States legally.

Lower courts have so far blocked the administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

As in the LGBT rights cases, the court fight over DACA could be made irrelevant by congressional action authorizing the program. But Congress seems unlikely to do anything before the court rules.

The abortion case probably will be argued during the winter and is another test of whether the change in the court’s composition will result in a different outcome. The Louisiana law that forces abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is virtually the same as a Texas law the court struck down in 2016, when Kennedy joined the liberal justices to form a majority.

Roberts dissented in 2016, but he voted with the liberals in February to block the Louisiana law, at least temporarily. It was a rare vote against an abortion restriction that could point up the tension between Roberts’ legal views on abortion and his institutional interests in upholding even prior decisions with which he disagrees.

Apart from its lineup of big cases, the court itself could be an issue in the unfolding presidential campaign. Some Democrats and liberals are talking about structural changes to increase the size of the court or limit the terms of future justices.

The 2016 campaign played out amid a Supreme Court vacancy following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. While Senate Republicans blocked any consideration of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump released a list of potential nominees and about one-quarter of Trump voters said the Supreme Court was the most important factor in their vote for him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said Republicans would confirm a Trump nominee to the Supreme Court, even if a vacancy arose during 2020.

Election-year retirements are very unusual, and the two oldest justices, Ginsburg and 81-year-old Stephen Breyer, would not want to give Trump a third high court seat to fill. Both were appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

But Ginsburg has had two bouts with cancer in less than a year, including radiation treatment in August for a tumor on her pancreas. She has kept up a steady stream of public appearances to signal that she is still here. The events, she said, energize her. “When I am active, I am much better than when I am just lying about feeling sorry for myself,” she said at an appearance in New York.

She’s hardly alone on the lecture circuit. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Gorsuch have been out trying to drum up sales for their new books. Even the newest justice, Kavanaugh, will raise his profile somewhat. He is scheduled to be the principal speaker at the Federalist Society’s November dinner in front of more than 2,000 people.

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

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Supremes block citizenship question but leave partisan redistricting alone

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In two politically charged rulings, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow Thursday to efforts to combat the drawing of electoral districts for partisan gain and put a hold on the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

On the court’s final day of decisions before a summer break, the conservative justices ruled that federal courts have no role to play in the dispute over the practice known as partisan gerrymandering. The decision could embolden political line-drawing for partisan gain when state lawmakers undertake the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census.

Voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court.

The court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.

The decision was a major blow to critics of the partisan manipulation of electoral maps that can result when one party controls redistricting.

The districting plans “are highly partisan by any measure,” Roberts said.

But he said courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes.

In dissent for the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” Kagan, in mournful tones, read a summary of her dissent in court to emphasize her disagreement.

Federal courts in five states concluded that redistricting plans put in place under one party’s control could go too far and that there were ways to identify and manage excessively partisan districts. Those courts included 15 federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents reaching back to Jimmy Carter.

But the five Republican-appointed justices decided otherwise.

The decision effectively reverses the outcome of rulings in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, where courts had ordered new maps drawn, and ends proceedings in Wisconsin, where a retrial was supposed to take place this summer after the Supreme Court last year threw out a decision on procedural grounds.

Proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering still have several routes open to them, including challenges in state courts. There is a pending North Carolina lawsuit.

The North Carolina case has its roots in court decisions striking down some of the state’s congressional districts because they were illegal racial gerrymanders.

When lawmakers drew new maps as a result, Republicans who controlled the legislature sought to perpetuate the 10-3 GOP advantage in the congressional delegation. Democratic voters sued over the new districts, complaining that they were driven by partisan concerns.

The voters won a lower court ruling, as did Democrats in Wisconsin who challenged state assembly districts. But when the Supreme Court threw out the Wisconsin ruling on procedural grounds that did not address the partisan gerrymandering claims, the justices also ordered a new look at the North Carolina case. A three-judge court largely reinstated its ruling.

In Maryland, Democrats controlled redistricting and sought to flip one district that had been represented by a Republican for 20 years. Their plan succeeded, and a lower court concluded that the district violated the Constitution.

The high court agreed to hear both cases.

In the census case, the court said the Trump administration’s explanation for wanting to add the question was “more of a distraction” than an explanation. The administration had cited the need to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

There was no immediate response from the White House on either Supreme Court decision Thursday.

It’s unclear whether the administration would have time to provide a fuller account. Census forms are supposed to be printed beginning next week.

Roberts again had the court’s opinion, with the four liberals joining him in the relevant part of the outcome.

A lower court found the administration violated federal law in the way it tried to add a question broadly asking about citizenship for the first time since 1950.

The Census Bureau’s own experts have predicted that millions of Hispanics and immigrants would go uncounted if the census asked everyone if he or she is an American citizen.

Immigrant advocacy organizations and Democratic-led states, cities and counties argue the citizenship question is intended to discourage the participation of minorities, primarily Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats, from filling out census forms.

The challengers say they would get less federal money and fewer seats in Congress if the census asks about citizenship because people with noncitizens in their households would be less likely to fill out their census forms.

Evidence uncovered since the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in late April supports claims that the citizenship question is part of a broader Republican effort to accrue political power at the expense of minorities, the challengers say.

The Constitution requires a census count every 10 years. A question about citizenship had once been common, but it has not been widely asked since 1950. At the moment, the question is part of a detailed annual sample of a small chunk of the population, the American Community Survey.

The case stems from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision in 2018 to add a citizenship question to the next census, over the advice of career officials at the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department. At the time, Ross said he was responding to a Justice Department request to ask about citizenship in order to improve enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act.
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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved