The Supreme Court is hearing an unusual number of high-profile, hot-button cases this term, and the outcomes will impact the future of anti-discrimination laws, worker rights, digital privacy and more. Here are some the most important cases the Supreme Court will hear in 2017.
"There’s only one prediction that’s entirely safe about the upcoming term,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said publicly in September. “It will be momentous.” She's right. The justices tabled several important cases in 2016; at that point, there was a still an empty seat on the court, and the justices didn't want to deadlock 4-4 on too many high-impact cases. But now, that seat has been filled, and the cases that were placed on the back-burner are now on the front-burner.
This will be the first full term with President Trump's first nominee to the court, Neil Gorsuch, on the bench. Gorsuch filled the seat once held by the late Antonin Scalia, and has reliably voted with the court's conservative bloc in the few cases in which he's participated. His presence, like that of Scalia before him, gives the court a small conservative lean.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court is full of surprises, and there's no telling how the most important cases before the court will play out. Here are a few to keep your eye on.
One of the most high-profile cases before the court is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which concerns a baker who refused make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he said doing so would violate his religious beliefs.
The legal question is whether or not state anti-discrimination laws, of which Colorado has many, require business owners to make accommodations even if doing so would be a violation of their "sincerely-held religious beliefs."
Husted v. Philip Randolph Institute centers on the question of when officials are permitted to purge registered voters from state voter rolls. In Ohio, voters who haven't voted over a two-year period are first sent a notice and then removed from the rolls if they don't both respond to the notice and then vote in a future election over the next four years.
But federal law prohibits the removal of voters' names from rolls "by reason of the person’s failure to vote." This case will decide whether Ohio-style voter purges fall into that category.
In Carpenter v. United States, the court will decide whether or not law enforcement has the right to obtain cell phone data from service providers without a search warrant. It stemmed from a case in which authorities obtained a man's cell phone location data through a court order — not a search warrant — and then used that data to convict him of a series of robberies. A lawyer for the ACLU called this "the most important Fourth Amendment case we’ve seen in a generation."
Gerrymandering is when politicians draw congressional districts to benefit their own party. Although it's been a fact of American life for centuries, the Supreme Court has never addressed its constitutionality — until this term, when it will hear Gill v. Whitford.
The case arose from a challenge to Wisconsin's congressional maps. Democrats argue that state Republicans violated the Constitution's equal protection clause by drawing maps with the intent of benefiting Republican politicians. The outcome could drastically reshape the composition of the House of Representatives in years to come; in July, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the case "perhaps the most important" one the court had taken up so far in its term.
Sports gambling has been illegal in most states since 1992, thanks to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). But a pair of cases, Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association and New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, could potentially strike down that federal law.
When PASPA was passed in 1992, it contained a grandfather clause: Sports betting would be illegal everywhere except for in states that, within a year of the law's passage, already had state-regulated gambling regimes (This is why such bets are legal in Nevada). Challengers argue that this is discriminatory, as it treats different states differently, and are seeking to allow individual states to legalize sports betting on their own terms.
A trio of cases on the court's docket will potentially have a huge impact on how workplace disputes are handled. Some companies require employees to sign contracts in which they agree not to join any class-action lawsuits with fellow workers against the company. The plaintiffs in the case argue that such contracts violate the National Labor Relations Act, and should be illegal.
The court will also hear another employment-related case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which centers on the question of whether or not employees who opt not to join unions can be forced to pay union dues.
This case falls into a slightly different category. The Supreme Court had scheduled arguments in a challenge to Trump's travel ban, but the justices cancelled those arguments in September, when the travel ban expired and Trump signed a different ban that was substantively different from the first.
Because the policy that the original case centered around is no longer in effect, the court has asked both sides in the case to submit briefs explaining why the lawsuit is or isn't still worth litigating. Those briefs are due on Thursday, and after they're received, the court will decide whether or not to hear a challenge to the new travel ban, which unlike the last one, is intended to be permanent.
To be fair, every Supreme Court term is important. That's why it's called the Supreme Court. But the number of sweeping cases on the agenda for 2017 mean that this term could well end up being more influential than normal, and set precedents that affect all sectors of American life for decades to come.