14 Supreme Court Rulings In 2015 That You Didn't Hear About, But Definitely Should Have
This year has been a blockbuster one for the Supreme Court, full of important rulings with something for everyone. Think back to the final days of June. It was like Christmas morning every day that week, waking up in hopes of a judicial gift. Many of the rulings handed down made headlines — namely, the ones on marriage equality and Obamacare — but there are some you probably haven't heard about. And which you probably should.
After a Supreme Court cliffhanger with the to-be-continued Prop 8 and DOMA rulings in 2014, Obergefell v. Hodges was no doubt the most celebrated case of the year. It legalized gay marriage in a 5-4 ruling. Impromptu weddings spread across the holdout 14 states that hadn't already legalized same-sex marriage. The ruling incited one of the biggest pride celebrations ever and received the endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Twitter.
The other case that received top billing was King v. Burwell, which upheld 6-3 the subsidies that help individuals pay for health insurance. It's a key part of Obamacare. Opponents to the law tried to pick a battle over semantics that would have eliminated the subsidies for residents of states with state-run exchanges or insurance marketplaces, the websites consumers use to shop and pay for health insurance. The vast majority of states use federal exchanges.
Other high-profile cases put limits on the EPA, allowed for lethal injection, let voters control redistricting, and allowed public housing advocates to use statistics to prove discrimination. But what about the legal landscape beyond these highly-watched decisions? The court covered everything from applying to work at Abercrombie & Fitch as a Muslim to passports listing one's birthplace as Jerusalem. The decisions will have implications for years to come with regards to freedom of speech, religious freedom, and privacy.
1) Church Signs: Reed v. Town of Gilbert
In a unanimous decision, the court decided that a town in Arizona may not limit the size of temporary church signs announcing services. The town of Gilbert had different limits for temporary signs, depending on whether they were commercial, political, religious, or to give directions. So carry on and put "Jesus" in big block letters as big as you'd like. The ruling will be important for any speech bans that are based on content.
2) Raisins: Horne v. Department of Agriculture
You may not have known this, but the federal government has been protecting raisin growers since the New Deal. In an 8-1 decision, the court struck down a law that required farmers to turn over their raisins to the government for future sale. To keep prices up, the government would take raisins from growers and then sell them in non-competitive markets, like school lunches. Because the government can't seize private property, the court ruled that the law was unconstitutional.
3) The Confederate Flag: Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans
Texas license plates could have been marred with the Confederate flag if it weren't for this 5-4 ruling. Perennial conservative Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four more liberal justices on the decision to find that Texas did not violate the First Amendment when denying the application by the group for vanity plates with the flag for a design.
4) Hotel Privacy: City of Los Angeles v. Patel
Hotels do not need to hand over a register of guests to the police without warning, the court found in this case. The vote was 5-4. The City of Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring that hotels have a guest register available at all times to fight human trafficking. The court said this violated the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and left guests at risk of harassment. For now, your stays are safe from unwarranted police searches.
5) Pregnancy: Young v. United Parcel Service
After a pregnant woman was told by her doctor to refrain from heavy lifting, she told her employer, UPS. She alleges that the delivery and logistics company refused to shift her to lighter work, and put her on unpaid leave in 2006. She sued, saying that she was treated differently than other employees with limits on what they could lift. The court, voting 6-3, didn't find that she was discriminated against; only that she could continue to make her case.
6) Jerusalem And Passports: Zivotofsky v. Kerry
At stake here was more than just passports. A 2002 law required the State Department to list "Israel" as the birthplace of the children of American citizens born in Jerusalem if they asked. Supporters of the law saw it as a symbolic victory for Israel. The Obama Administration (and Bush before him) saw it as an intrusion on the president's role in setting foreign policy and recognizing foreign states. Six justices agreed.
7) Child Abuse: Ohio v. Clark
In another unanimous judgement, the court made it easier to prosecute child abuse claims. After a three-year-old Ohio boy's wounds were discovered at a daycare center, he told his teacher that his mom's boyfriend was to blame. The judges said that this teacher's testimony was admissible in court.
8) Social Media Threats: Elonis v. United States
A Pennsylvania man posted rap lyrics he had written on Facebook which were "crude, degrading and violent" according to Chief Justice Roberts. His estranged wife considered many of the lyrics to be death threats aimed at her. Direct threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment, but in an 8-1 decision, the court found there was no proof of his intent in posting the lyrics, and therefore it was protected speech.
9) Minority Voting: Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama; Alabama Democratic Caucus v. Alabama
The court found in a 5-4 vote that Alabama's redistricting plan should return to lower courts for further hearings. Basically, Alabama tried to group all black residents into just a few gerrymandered districts. If black voters, who tend to lean Democratic, were consolidated into too few districts, it would limit Democrats' ability to compete at the state level, and limit the black minority's ability to exert influence in the state government. The vast majority of the state was divided to give white voters more of a say in deciding elections.
10) Judicial Candidate Fundraising: Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar
Judges can be prohibited by states from asking supporters for campaign contributions, the court ruled, voting 5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “A state’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.” Thirty-nine states elect some judges. Florida is one state that prohibits judicial candidates from soliciting money to fund campaigns.
11) Religious Freedom: Holt v. Hobbs
Unanimously, the court found that Arkansas prison officials had infringed on the religious liberties of Muslim inmates when they forbade them from growing beards. The inmate who took the case to court hoped to grow a half-inch beard, but was denied for security reasons. More than 40 state prison systems already allowed short beards, and many long beards, too.
12) Cell Phone Towers: T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell
In a win for wireless carriers, the court voted 6-3 to require that any denials for cell phone towers have a reason in writing available at the time of the denial. The Georgia town was found at fault for not writing up the minutes of the council meeting where the decision was made for three weeks after the vote.
13) Whistleblowers: Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean
A U.S. air marshal should be afforded whistleblower protections, the court found in a 7-2 vote. He had warned that the TSA had removed air marshals from some long-haul flights, and was subsequently fired. He challenged his firing because he had done so to protect the "public health or safety" of the flying public. The court said that a TSA rule prohibiting the release of sensitive information did not exempt him from whistleblower protections.
14) Traffic Stops: Rodriguez v. United States
In a 6-3 ruling, the court rejected the idea that police can drag out a police stop and use a drug-sniffing dog unless there is reasonable suspicion of finding illegal substances. Nebraska police had pulled over a man after he veered onto the shoulder briefly. They completed the traffic stop, and then asked permission to use a drug-sniffing dog. The suspect declined, and police went ahead with the search anyway, finding drugs. This would now be illegal without reasonable suspicion.