A Look Back at the Supreme Court's 2014 Opinions

As the Supreme Court wraps up a busy, and important, 2014 term, we have an opportunity to reflect on the significant decisions that will impact the legal community for years to come.  While Burwell v Hobby Lobby received the lion’s share of the headlines, and criticism, there were a number of key decisions this year that are worth exploring as the Court prepares for the next term.

Important Supreme Court Decisions of 2014

From criminal law to constitutional law, SCOTUS covered a wide range of topics this year, and delivered a number of opinions that will create long lasting ripples across American jurisprudence.  Of note:

  • Cell Phone Search: We previewed the cell phone search cases here, and in late June, the Supreme Court concluded that data on cellular phones cannot be searched without use of a warrant, even if the phone is seized at the time of an arrest.  Although police officers may seize a phone during an arrest, SCOTUS determined that authorities may not access the data contained within without first obtaining a search warrant from a judge.  Writing that data on a cellphone cannot be used to harm an officer or facilitate escape, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that there are not immediate circumstances that justify conducting a search at the time of arrest.  Finding that officers can minimize the risk of remote data wiping by removing phone batteries or making use of a Faraday bag, Justice Roberts concluded that the data could easily be preserved if and when a warrant for search of the phone was issued.  Justice Roberts did note that the police may find themselves faced with circumstances that justify an immediate search – like the need to immediately access data to prevent further crimes – but those situations are to be the exception and reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
  • Presidential Recess Appointments:  A unanimous SCOTUS concluded that President Obama had violated the Constitution with a series of 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  In NLRB v Noel Canning the Court found that the President had been too aggressive in declaring the Senate to be on recess when he made NLRB appointments, and had therefore overstepped his authority.  At the time of Obama’s recess appointments, the Senate was convening only every three days and was not conducting business, but the Court determined that the infrequent gatherings were sufficient to qualify the body as being “in session.”  Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that Obama, and future presidents, retain the authority to make unilateral appointments when the Senate is away for more substantial recesses.
  • Affirmative Action: A 6-2 divided Court upheld an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution which prohibited the use of racial considerations in university admissions – thus allowing states to ban affirmative action.  Finding that nothing in the Constitution prohibited a law that eliminated racial treatment – even positive – the Court declined to overturn Michigan’s somewhat controversial approach.
  • Abortion Protests Zone:  A unanimous Court found that a 2007 Massachusetts law which banned abortion protests within a 35-foot zone of the clinic violated the protestors’ First Amendment Freedom of Speech.  Finding that the state could have found a less-restrictive way to protect women who were entering clinics to receive abortions and ensure safety, SCOTUS invalidated the overly-broad legislation.

In addition to these decisions, the Court shot down Aereo’s streaming TV model, upheld a town’s right to start public meetings with a prayer, and changed campaign finance law.  For more on the SCOTUS term, including summaries from written opinions, take a look at this article over at the Washington Post.

Looking ahead to the next SCOTUS Term

After a term littered with meaningful opinions across a variety of legal topics, it is hard not to expect more significant opinions in the Supreme Court’s next docket of cases.  Today, the Court released its schedule for October oral arguments, and there are some notable highlights:

  • Holt v Hobbs: Challenge the legality of a prison system’s ban on inmate facial hair grown for religious reasons.
  • Kansas v Nebraska and Colorado: Challenge from the state of Kansas that alleges Nebraska is using too much water from the Republican River.
  • Heien v North Carolina: Review of the constitutionality of a traffic stop if the police made a mistake in believing a law had been broken.

Lurking in the wings is Utah’s promise to appeal a recent 10th Circuit decision that upheld a challenge to its ban on gay marriage.  Given the significance of the issue, Utah’s appeal could be fast tracked to the Supreme Court, potentially forcing SCOTUS to directly consider the constitutionality of gay marriage bans as soon as next year.

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