Looking at an upcoming Supreme Court term from the vantage point of the first Monday in October rarely tells the full story of what lies ahead, but the docket already includes major cases concerning the intersection between the First Amendment and social media, gun rights, racial gerrymandering and the power of the executive branch when it comes to regulation.
The court will still determine if it will hear oral arguments on issues such as medication abortion and transgender rights, not to mention the possibility of a flurry of emergency requests related to the 2024 election.
Here are some of the key cases on which the court will hear oral arguments this term:
After the Supreme Court issued a major decision last year expanding gun rights nationwide, lower courts began reconsidering hundreds of firearms regulations across the country under the new standard crafted by Justice Clarence Thomas that a gun law passes legal muster only if it is rooted in history and tradition.
On the heels of that decision, a federal appeals court invalidated a federal law that bars an individual who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a firearm. That law, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, “is an outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.”
The Biden administration has appealed, saying the ruling “threatens grave harms for victims of domestic violence.”
In 2019, nearly two-thirds of domestic homicides in the United States were committed with a gun, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Lawyers for Zackey Rahimi, a man who was prosecuted under the law in 2020 after a violent altercation with his girlfriend, have urged the justices to let the lower court opinion stand, arguing in part that there is no law from the founding era comparable to the statute at hand.
Racial gerrymandering: South Carolina congressional maps
Justices will consider a congressional redistricting plan drawn by South Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature in the wake of the 2020 census. Critics say it was designed with discriminatory purpose and amounts to an illegal racial gerrymander.
The case focuses the court’s attention once again on the issue of race and map drawing and comes after the court ordered Alabama to redraw the state’s congressional map last term to account for the fact that the state is 27% black. The decision, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, surprised liberals who feared the court was going to make it harder for minorities to challenge maps under Section 2 of the historic Voting Rights Act.
In the latest case, the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a Black voter named Taiwan Scott, are challenging the state’s congressional District 1 that is located along the southeastern coast and is anchored in Charleston County. Although the district consistently elected Republicans from 1980 to 2016, in 2018 a Democrat was elected in a political upset, though a Republican recaptured the seat in 2020.
The person who devised the map has testified that he was instructed to make the district “more Republican leaning,” but that he did not consider race. He did, however, acknowledge that he examined racial data after drafting each version and that the Black voting age population of the district was likely viewed during the drafting process.
A three-judge district court panel struck down the plan in January, saying that race had been the predominant motivating factor. “To achieve a target of 17% African American population,” the court said, “Charleston County was racially gerrymandered and over 30,000 African Americans were removed from their home district.”
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In the latest attack against the so-called administrative state, the justices are considering whether to overturn decades old precedent to scale back the power of federal agencies, impacting how the government tackles issues such as climate change, immigration, labor conditions and public health.
At issue is an appeal from herring fishermen in the Atlantic who say the National Marine Fisheries Service does not have the authority to require them to pay the salaries of government monitors who ride aboard the fishing vessels.
In agreeing to hear the case, the justices signaled they will reconsider a 1984 decision – Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council – that sets forward factors to determine when courts should defer to a government agency’s interpretation of the law. First, they examine a statute to see if Congress’ intent is clear. It if is – then the matter is settled. But if there is ambiguity – the court defers to the agency’s expertise.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the justices that the agency was acting within the scope of its authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and said the fishermen are not responsible for all the costs. The regulation was put in place to combat overfishing of the fisheries off the coasts of the US.
Representing the fishermen, former Solicitor General Paul Clement argues that the government exceeded its authority and needs direct and clear congressional authorization to make such a demand. “The ‘net effect’ of Chevron,” Clement said, is that it “incentives a dynamic where Congress does far less than the Framers anticipated, and the executive branch is left to do far more by deciding controversial issues via regulatory fiat”
For the second time in recent years, the court is taking aim at a watchdog agency created to combat unfair and deceptive practices against consumers, in a case that could deal a fatal blow to the future of the agency and send reverberations throughout the financial services industry.
At the center of the case at hand is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – an independent agency set up in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown that works to monitor the practices of lenders, debt collectors and credit rating agencies.
Congress chose to fund the CFPB from outside the annual appropriations process to ensure its independence. As such, the agency receives its funding each year from the earnings of the Federal Reserve System. But the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals held last year that the funding scheme violates the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution, that, the court said “ensures Congress’ “exclusive power over the federal purse.”
According to the CFPB, the agency has obtained more than $18.9 billion in ordered relief, including restitution and canceled debts, for more than 195 million consumers, and more than $4.1 billion in penalties, in actions brought by the agency against financial institutions and individuals that have broken federal consumer financial protection laws.
A handful of other agencies have similar funding schemes including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court limited the independence of the CFPB by invalidating its leadership structure. A 5-4 court held that the structure violated the separation of powers because the president was restricted from removing the director, even if they had policy disagreements.
Agency regulatory authority: Securities and Exchange Commission
The justices are looking at the in-house enforcement proceedings of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in another case that invites the conservative majority to pare back the regulatory authority of federal agencies.
The court’s decision could impact whether the SEC and other agencies can conduct enforcement proceedings in-house, using administrative courts staffed with agency employees, or whether such actions must be brought in federal court.
On one side are critics of such agency courts who argue that they allow federal employees to serve as prosecutors, judges and jury, issuing rulings that could particularly hurt small businesses. On the other side are those who point out that several agencies, including the Social Security Administration, have such internal proceedings because the topics are often complex and the agency has more expertise than a federal judge.
The case arose in 2013 after the SEC brought an enforcement action against George Jarkesy, who had established two hedge funds with his advisory firm, Patriot28, for securities fraud.
The 5th Circuit ruled that the SEC’s proceedings deprive individuals of their Seventh Amendment right to a civil jury. In addition, the court said that Congress had improperly delegated legislative power to the SEC, which gave the agency unconstrained authority at times to choose the in-house administrative proceeding rather than filing suit in district court.
In December, the court will examine the historic multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement with several states that would ultimately offer the Sackler family broad protection from OxyContin-related civil claims.
Until recently, Purdue was controlled by the Sackler family, who withdrew billions of dollars from the company before it filed for bankruptcy. The family has now agreed to contribute up to $6 billion to Purdue’s reorganization fund on the condition that the Sacklers receive a release from civil liability.
The Biden administration, representing the US Trustee, the executive branch agency that monitors the administration of bankruptcy cases, has called the plan “exceptional and unprecedented” in court papers, noting that lower courts have divided on when parties can be released from liability for actions that caused societal harm.
“The plan’s release ‘absolutely, unconditionally, irrevocably, fully, finally, forever and permanently releases’ the Sacklers from every conceivable type of opioid-related civil claim – even claims based on fraud and other forms of willful misconduct that could not be discharged if the Sacklers filed for bankruptcy in their individual capacities,” Prelogar argued in court papers.
For the second year running, the justices will leap into the online moderation debate and decide whether states can essentially control how social media companies operate.
If upheld, laws from Florida and Texas could open the door to more state legislation requiring platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and TikTok to treat content in specific ways within certain jurisdictions – and potentially expose the companies to more content moderation lawsuits.
It could also make it harder for platforms to remove what they determine is misinformation, hate speech or other offensive material.
“These cases could completely reshape the digital public sphere. The question of what limits the First Amendment imposes on legislatures’ ability to regulate social media is immensely important – for speech, and for democracy as well,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, in a statement.
“It’s difficult to think of any other recent First Amendment cases in which the stakes were so high,” Jaffer added.