Abortion, affirmative action, and campaign finance: Previewing the Supreme Court's big new term

One branch of government unaffected by the shutdown: The Supreme Court

Pro-choice protest
(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

The Supreme Court opened a new term Monday, and though it cannot rule that Congress shalt not destroy the global economy, it will be otherwise occupied with some controversial issues of its own. The court's docket isn't packed with as many blockbuster cases as in the last term, which saw the justices issue landmark rulings on same-sex marriage and the Voting Rights Act. Still, the current term is expected to result in many important decisions on a range of hot-button issues.

Among the cases:

Recess appointments

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Stonewalled by Senate Republicans, President Obama in January 2012 appointed three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate wasn't in session. Or at least that's what the White House claims: The Senate was on a three-week vacation, but Congress still met for "pro forma" sessions every three days, a deliberate tactic aimed at blocking recess appointments. Sometimes only one lawmaker would be present.

In a blow to the administration, three appellate courts have since ruled the appointments unconstitutional, arguing that the Senate, though not conducting regular business, was not technically in recess either.

Presidents have the constitutional authority to make recess appointments, but there is no explicit definition of what constitutes a "recess." Appellate courts in the case, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, said "recess" meant an official break between sessions of Congress — criteria Obama's appointments did not meet.

Campaign finance

Nearly four years after the Supreme Court issued its landmark Citizens United decision, the Justices will again weigh whether to strike down longstanding restrictions on campaign contributions.

In the case of McCutcheon vs. FEC, a wealthy businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, is arguing that the caps on individual campaign contributions are unconstitutional and serve no compelling purpose. By law, individuals can donate only up to $123,200 to federal candidates in a two-year election cycle.

McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee — bolstered by amicus briefs from other GOP groups and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — suggest the aggregate cap be thrown out, while leaving a limit on contributions to an individual candidate. In that way, people could donate as much as they want, so long as they spread those donations across a range of candidates.

Supporters of the limit, however, fret that an unfavorable ruling could "set the stage to strike all contribution limits," Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, told the Washington Post.

Public prayer

The Justices are set to take on the issue of whether town officials can open meetings with a religious invocation.

The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, stems from a small New York town where public meetings have, since 1999, opened with a prayer from a designated "chaplain of the month." The chaplain has typically been Christian, prompting complaints of religious favoritism. Of more interest to the court is the question of whether the prayer itself goes against the First Amendment's prohibition of government-sponsored religion.

In a 1983 ruling, the court upheld the Nebraska legislature's tradition of opening sessions with a Christian prayer, saying the practice was "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country."

Reproductive rights

ObamaCare could once again come before the court, this time over its provision requiring companies to offer insurance plans that cover birth control. Several groups — including Liberty University and a Mennonite cabinet maker — have challenged the provision, arguing that it infringes on their religious freedom.

The court already upheld the bulk of the health care law, but allowed lawsuits over its finer points to move forward.

The court has also agreed to hear a case involving an Oklahoma law that regulates the use of drugs used for early-term abortions. Lower courts have blocked the law's implementation, saying it essentially presents women with an "undue burden" to obtaining an abortion, which would violate protections set by Roe v. Wade.

The court may also revisit a 13-year-old decision upholding buffer zones around abortion clinics. At issue is a Massachusetts law prohibiting anti-abortion protesters from congregating within 35 feet of such clinics.

Affirmative action

The high court avoided a direct ruling on affirmative action in its last term, but is expected to tackle the issue head on this time around.

In the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the court has been asked to determine the legality of a voter-approved ban on affirmative action in Michigan. The state's voters in 2006 approved a ballot initiative outlawing race-based admissions criteria for schools and public employment.

An appellate court in November deemed the law unconstitutional, saying it infringed on the equal protection clause.

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