With a little less than a month remaining in the current Supreme Court term, several major cases are still outstanding that could have widespread political impact.
The last scheduled session of this term is set for June 24, as justices continue to draft opinions and offer dissents and concurrences. More-divisive cases usually take longer to decide; the decision to uphold President Obama’s health care legislation came in late June.
Here is a look at some of the cases that are still left on the docket of the nation’s high court:
Windsor v. U.S. – Defense of Marriage Act
This is the first of the two Supreme Court cases that involve same-sex marriage. At issue is the Defense of Marriage Act, a law passed in 1996 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples, therefore, are not granted the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples are given, such as medical leave and bankruptcy, Social Security, and pension benefits.
Edie Windsor, an 84-year-old New York woman, brought the case forward to protest the $363,000 in additional estate taxes when her partner died. The state of New York recognized her marriage, but the U.S. does not. She argues that her Fifth Amendment rights to due process were violated when she did not receive equal protection under the law.
During arguments, a majority of justices seemed open to overturning the law, as swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy said the issue of marriage has traditionally been addressed at the state level. Chief Justice John Roberts during arguments criticized Obama for not having the “courage” to simply stop enforcing the law with which he disagreed.
Hollingsworth v. Perry – Proposition 8
Following a California Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state in 2008, 52 percent of voters banned the practice in a ballot initiative later that year. While marriage licenses were put on hold, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the proposition was unconstitutional, thereby allowing same-sex marriages to continue in the Golden State.
Supporters of the proposition argue that the state should honor the will of the people, while opponents say the proposition violates the equal-protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment.
Justices were a little more uneasy with this case than they were with DOMA. Experts said the most likely result for this case would involve the justices throwing the case back to lower courts to decide, leaving the constitutional issue unsettled for now. Any sort of sweeping ruling is unlikely.
Nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage, while three additional states’ laws legalizing the practice will go into effect in the coming months.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin – Affirmative Action
Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was rejected for admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, is suing the university for its admissions process that she says unfairly uses racial quotas. The case before the Supreme Court is exploring the issue of racial preferences in college-admission processes by public universities.
Fisher argues that she was just as qualified, if not more qualified, than many of the minority students who were admitted that year. The university has argued that she did not have the qualification to attend the university and that her race did not affect her admission.
UT-Austin also argues that the university has the right to assemble a diverse student body to meet its educational needs and meet its mission. A diverse student body, the university argues, adds mixed viewpoints in the classroom, a thought that is rejected by many opponents of affirmative-action policies.
The Supreme Court has endorsed this idea in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case with a 5-4 decision, though the Court might take the conservative angle and strike down the university’s policy.
Shelby County v. Holder – Voting Rights
This county in Alabama argues that Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act, which requires several state and local governments to seek Justice Department approval when changing voting statutes, is outdated and unconstitutional.
Although recognizing that at the time of its passage the South still implemented racist laws that were unfair to minority voters, the times have changed since the law was passed in the 1960s: A black president was just reelected, opponents of the measure argue. But proponents of the law say that several of these jurisdictions still need to be monitored, as voter intimidation and laws to stifle voter turnout among minorities still exists.
Section 5 applies to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, in addition to other counties and cities. The likely outcome of this case is also unclear, though the conservative majority on the Court could strike down the section, or at least gut it severely.
This article appears in the May 29, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.