The Supreme Court Opens Its New Term: Cases to Watch

The past two Supreme Court terms were, without a doubt, some of the most exciting in U.S. history. In the 2012 term, decided this spring, the court issued a landmark ruling striking down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively meant that same-sex marriages would now be recognized on a national level. The year before, the court had to rule on the constitutionality of Obamacare ahead of the 2012 election.

None of the cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear thus far this term might seem quite so major, but they're exciting nonetheless. (SCOTUS began the term Monday, after all, by throwing out Virginia's attempt at an anti-sodomy law.) From abortion to affirmative action, check out five of the most interesting cases for the term.

An Exciting SCOTUS Term Ahead

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The past two Supreme Court terms were, without a doubt, some of the most exciting in U.S. history. In the 2012 term, decided this spring, the court issued a landmark ruling striking down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively meant that same-sex marriages would now be recognized on a national level. The year before, the court had to rule on the constitutionality of Obamacare ahead of the 2012 election.

None of the cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear thus far this term might seem quite so major, but they're exciting nonetheless. (SCOTUS began the term Monday, after all, by throwing out Virginia's attempt at an anti-sodomy law.) From abortion to affirmative action, check out five of the most interesting cases for the term.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

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Argument Date: Oct. 8, 2013

Shaun McCutcheon is suing for the right to make, well, basically unlimited campaign contributions. Or rather, contributions to unlimited campaigns. (And the Republican National Committee is a plaintiff here, too; they want his unlimited donations.) Here's the thing: there are limits on how much a person can donate to political causes. For the 2013-2014 year, the limit is $123,200 to all federal campaigns and PACs, with slightly less than half going to candidates, and slightly more to PACs. The reasoning behind this — and particularly behind per-campaign limits — is that the Court previously ruled that Congress has a real interest in preventing quid-pro-quo corruption. You can't donate to a candidate in exchange for a vote on a bill, or an ambassadorship (or not overtly, anyway). McCutcheon's case doesn't question the limit on contributions to individual campaigns, but rather the overall limit of $123,200. It's possible to want to donate to many federal campaigns under the per-campaign limit, but to come up against the total contribution ceiling, he argues, violates his freedom of speech.

The catch is that those in the know say it's not hard for campaigns or PACs to shuffle money around amongst themselves. So McCutcheon's case, reasonable in theory, can open a back door for the very quid-pro-quo corruption the Supreme Court was so vested in stamping out.

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

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Argument Date: Oct. 15, 2013

In 2006, Michigan voters passed a ban on race-conscious college admissions for public schools by ballot initiative. The ban was later declared unconstitutional by a circuit court because of its narrow focus: a ban on race-conscious admissions singled out a particular special interest group, while athletes, alumni, and religious groups were free to lobby for greater inclusion in the admissions process. The court has to decide whether a ban on gender and race considerations in admissions violates the equal protection clause.

Town of Greece vs. Susan Galloway, et al.

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Argument Date: Nov. 6, 2013

The Obama administration weighed in on this case, involving a small town that starts town board meetings with prayers. The solicitor general filed an amicus brief siding with the town of Greece, NY, and the idea that its prayer practice does not violate the constitution. According to the case, in the more than ten years from 1999 to 2010, only four of the prayer-givers were not Christian, and more than two thirds had references to Christian lingo (defined in this case as "Jesus Christ" and "Holy Spirit"). Susan Galloway is Jewish, and her attorneys claim the predominantly Christian prayers put her and other religious minorities "in a difficult spot": "They can either betray their conscience by participating in a prayer that conflicts with their religious views or single themselves out by declining to take part."

Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc.

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Argument Date: Dec. 4, 2013

In the Mount Holly case, residents of a low-income neighborhood in the township — a neighborhood called Mt. Holly Gardens — are suing the township for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act. In 2000, the township identified the Gardens as "in need of development" and began to buy up property there, with plans to raze existing structures and build newer, fancier mixed-income housing. The question the court has to decide is whether an action that wasn't discriminatory in design but has a disparate impact (there will be less low-income housing available) is allowed under the FHA.

McCullen v. Coakley

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Argument Date: TBD

Massachusetts created a "buffer zone" around abortion clinics to keep anti-choice protesters away, and to give women a safe passage into clinics. The circuit court upheld the law, but abortion opponents say it restricts their freedom of speech by inhibiting their right to peacefully assemble. The ACLU — trying hard not to violate anyone's rights — supplied a brief saying that they feel the law is constitutional "given a record of past harassment, intimidation, obstruction and violence." (Translation: First Amendment freedoms are not absolute if they interfere with the rights of others.) The Supreme Court already upheld a similar law in Colorado in 2000, but it's a new, more conservative court now.