Supreme Court Term Begins, Prepare to Tackle Housing Discrimination, Affirmative Action

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Among other top cases already set for review:

—Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, is asking the court to uphold its practice of opening town council meetings with a prayer, despite an appeals court ruling that found the invocations a violation of the First Amendment because they almost always were Christian prayers. The court could use the case to rule that courts should take a more hands-off approach to religion in the public square or it could hold more narrowly that the town’s practice is consistent with a 1983 decision upholding prayer at the start of government meetings.

—Mount Holly, N.J., is defending a plan to demolish and redevelop a rundown neighborhood against claims that it discriminates because it disproportionately affects African-American and Latino residents. At issue is whether there also must be an intent to discriminate under federal housing law. The issue affects a range of transactions involving real estate and applies to banks and mortgage companies as well as governments, such as the one involved in this case.

—Michigan is fighting to preserve a constitutional amendment that bans the use of racial preferences in education after a federal appeals court ruled that the constitutional ban is itself discriminatory. This case, unlike last term’s look at a University of Texas admissions plan, does not involve the viability of affirmative action, but rather whether opponents of racial preferences can enshrine that ban in the state constitution.

—Massachusetts is defending a law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone at abortion clinics to limit protesters’ ability to interact with patients. The court upheld a buffer zone law in Colorado in 2000, but Roberts and Alito have replaced members of that majority and are considered more sympathetic to the free-speech claims of the protesters.

While several cases call into question high court precedents, the justices will be writing on a blank slate when they take up the president’s recess appointment power under the Constitution.

In that case, the court will confront an appeals court ruling that effectively would end the president’s ability to make such appointments, if it is left standing.

Former Justice Department official Peter Keisler said that justices often ask a lawyer for the best case in support of his argument. “No one is going to ask that question because ‘t’aint none.’ No Supreme Court decisions are material here,” said Keisler, a partner at the Sidley, Austin law firm in Washington.

The impasse that led Obama to install members of the National Labor Relations Board and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray in office without Senate confirmation has been resolved. So what remains of the issue is whether Obama and his successors will be constrained in the future.

The topic splits Democrats and Republicans, but their view of the matter is almost entirely dependent on which party controls the White House.

In another area, little drama is expected. Four justices are over the age of 75, but none is expected to retire in the coming year.

Ginsburg, at 80, is the oldest member of the court. Scalia and Kennedy are 77, and Justice Stephen Breyer is 75.

Ginsburg made clear in a series of media interviews this summer that she will stay on the court as long as she is able to do the work. Before the summer, Ginsburg had said she wanted to emulate Justice Louis Brandeis and stay on the bench as long as he did, 22 years. She will reach that mark in 2015, which also coincides with what is widely believed to be Obama’s last opportunity to name her replacement because the presidential election year of 2016 is an unlikely time to fill a high court vacancy, especially in the eighth and final year of a presidency.

(Photo: AP)

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