Supreme Court Closes the Book on Historic 2015 Spring Term

The Supreme Court adjourned for the summer early last week, wrapping up a historically significant session headlined by an expansion of gay rights and the affirmation of Obamacare.  We have tracked several of the Court’s notable opinions over the course of the term, however, there are a number of decisions that, while not as notable, deserve mention as well.

Historic Decisions by the Supreme Court in 2015

Over the course of the Supreme Courts spring and summer opinions, we covered a number of the important decisions that will have a significant impact on American jurisprudence. Our blogs highlighted decisions that covered a range of significant topics, including:

  • Protection of marriage rights extended to gay and lesbian couples. Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Obergefell v Hodges that declared marriage to be a fundamental right which states could not deny to same-sex couples. 
  • Upholding the Affordable Care Act again. In what is likely the final substantial legal challenge to Obamacare, the Supreme Court reinforced its position that it would not be the vehicle of changes to the controversial legislation.  Justice Antonin Scalia penned a fiery dissent, criticizing the majority for making concessions in established legal standards in order to preserve a law that the Justices preferred. 
  • Texas permitted to ban the Confederate Flag from license plates. The Court found that state governments are not bound by the Free Speech Clause when limiting or selecting “government speech” – which encompasses any official message endorsed by the state, including license plates.  Texas, and other states, are free to endorse or limit government sanctioned messages without concern for violating the First Amendment.
  • Government programs that force farmers to give authorities a percentage of raisin crop are unconstitutional. In a significant victory for property owner rights, the Supreme Court held that the government cannot take personal property without paying owners just compensation.
  • Forcing prosecutors to prove intent in online threat speech cases. By overturning the conviction of a Pennsylvania man jailed for posting disturbing, and arguably threatening, rap lyrics directed at his ex-wife, the Supreme Court established that prosecutors must prove that a defendant in an online threat case demonstrated some level of intent to cause fear or harm to the victim. The Court declined to rule on the broader question of speech protections afforded Internet communications.

In addition to these impactful legal decisions, the Supreme Court ruled on a number of other issues including the constitutionality of new death penalty drugs, and the authority of a state to close abortion clinics.

Supreme Court Blocks EPA Restrictions

In a disputed 5-4 opinion, the Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not permitted to enforce new regulations that require power plants to cut emissions of mercury and other toxins.  The majority, led by Justice Scalia, criticized the EPA for failing to consider the costs of its restrictions, and forced the agency to start the process of regulating mercury emissions over again.  The program was a significant piece of President Obama’s focus on environmental protection, and the Court’s ruling will start the process of regulating mercury over, likely pushing the creation of new rules past the President’s second term in office.

Death Penalty Drug Supported by Supreme Court

Another hotly contested 5-4 decision saw the Court reject pleas from death row prisoners to ban use of new and experimental lethal injection drugs in the wake of several difficult executions across the country.  According to the condemned petitioners, the new drugs, particularly midazolam, cause severe pain and suffering that renders them unconstitutional.  Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority and rejected the prisoner’s complaint by arguing they failed to provide a reasonable alternative to the drug many states have been forced to use because pharmaceutical manufacturers have ceased the sale of the traditional drugs to prisons. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was joined by the Court’s other liberal judges in a dissent which criticized the majority for exposing the condemned men to “what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”  Arguing that it was not incumbent on the petitioners to propose an alternative to a drug cocktail that arguably induces unconstitutional levels of pain and suffering, the dissent felt the experimental death penalty drug cocktails violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights.

Supreme Court closes out 2015 Session and Previews Next Round of Cases

The Justices also issued and important ruling that allowed for voter-backed initiatives designed to take redistricting power away from state government and place it into the hands of private, non-partisan, consulting agencies, and rejected Google’s request to limit software copyright protections – thus exposing the tech giant to an upcoming lawsuit from Oracle Corp that could be worth billions of dollars.

Before adjourning for the summer, the Court also agreed to take on a direct question about the constitutionality of affirmative action policies at public universities.  In a lawsuit filed by a white student who argues race-based acceptance quotas prohibited her from attending the University of Texas at Austin, the Court will reevaluate affirmative action practices in October.  The Court also blocked implementation of a Texas law that would close 10 abortion clinics as it considers whether or not to hear an abortion case in the fall. 

Overall, the Supreme Court’s busy 2015 term produced opinions that will have a lasting impact on the landscape of the country’s law and jurisprudence, cementing the session as a historic period of American legal history.

 

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