Plain English / Cases Made Simple

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Civil rights groups are breathing a little easier today, after the Court’s ruling in an important housing discrimination case. The question before the Court was whether claims brought under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination “because of” race, can be based on an allegation that a law or practice has a “disparate impact” – that is, it has a discriminatory effect, even if it wasn’t motivated by an intent to discriminate. The distinction matters because it’s rare for a lawmaker, landlord, or developer to admit that a law or practice is intended to be discriminatory; civil rights groups believe that disparate-impact claims are an important tool to ferret out more subtle examples of housing discrimination. Continue reading »

Since it was enacted in 2010, Republicans in Congress have voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement.  With no success on the legislative front, opponents of the ACA have tried their luck in the courts, but that avenue hasn’t proven any more fruitful.  Three years ago, the Court upheld the Act’s individual mandate, which compels everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, against a challenge based on the argument that Congress lacked the power to impose such a requirement.  And today the Court turned back a challenge to the subsidies that many people receive to pay for their health insurance, ending a case that had the potential to seriously undermine the ACA, if not dismantle it altogether.  Let’s talk about today’s decision in King v. Burwell in Plain English.

Chief Justice Roberts announces Obamacare opinion (Art Lien)

Chief Justice Roberts announces Obamacare opinion (Art Lien)

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Yesterday the Justices were back in the Courtroom to issue four decisions in major cases involving the Fourth Amendment, patent royalties, the Constitution’s Takings Clause, and claims that prison officials used excessive force against arrestees.  With those four cases now in the history books, the Justices have only seven more opinions to issue before they head out for their summer vacations.  At least one of those opinions could prove to be a blockbuster for the ages, but they are all likely to be, at the very least, highly significant.  Let’s talk about those cases in Plain English.  Continue reading »

Shortly after his birth in Jerusalem in 2002, Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents applied for a U.S. passport for their infant son.  The two U.S. citizens exercised their right under a 2002 law to ask the State Department to designate “Israel” as Menachem’s place of birth.   The State Department turned down the family’s request: it explained that, notwithstanding the 2002 law, the U.S. government had a decades-old policy of not recognizing any country as having sovereignty over the holy city of Jerusalem.

The Zivotofskys went to court to challenge that decision, kicking off a campaign that would last almost thirteen years.  Today that battle finally ended in a victory for the federal government, with six Justices on the Supreme Court agreeing that the 2002 law is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the president’s “consistent decision” not to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.   But even while resolving this long-disputed issue, which could have affected the roughly 52,000 U.S. citizens whose passports designate their place of birth as “Jerusalem,” the Court’s ruling may have left the door open for other skirmishes between Congress and the president in the future – including with regard to changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.  Let’s talk about today’s decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry in Plain English. Continue reading »

In 2008, Oklahoma teenager Samantha Elauf applied for a job as a salesperson at retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch. Elauf is a devout Muslim who believes that her religion requires her to wear a headscarf. But the company has a dress code that prohibits its employees from wearing – among other things – “caps.” When Abercrombie didn’t hire Elauf, and a company employee indicated that the rejection was attributable to the headscarf, she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf.   A lower court ruled for Abercrombie, reasoning that it could not be held liable because Elauf had not specifically said that she was wearing the scarf for religious reasons. Yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling – yet another in a series of victories for religious rights at the Roberts Court. Continue reading »

First, there was hanging.  Then there was the electric chair, or in some places the gas chamber and the firing squad.  More recently, many states and the federal government have relied on lethal injection – administering a fatal dose of drugs – to carry out executions.  The switch to lethal injections came in no small part because they were regarded as more humane, for both the condemned inmate and the witnesses to the execution:  the prisoner could simply drift off, as if he were sleeping.

In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected an argument that Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” because of the possibility that the inmate could suffer serious pain if the procedures were not followed properly.  But that didn’t end the debate, particularly after several well-publicized botched executions.   And so yesterday the Court heard oral arguments in a new challenge, this time to Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures.  After over an hour of often-heated debate, the Court’s more conservative Justices seemed like they could be poised to rule once again in favor of the state, in the hope of ending what they regard as a “guerrilla war” against the death penalty itself.  Let’s talk about yesterday’s hearing in Glossip v. Gross in Plain English. Continue reading »

In the past few years, the Roberts Court has been very supportive of the freedom of speech, ruling in favor of protests by the Westboro Baptist Church at a soldier’s funeral, violent video games for children, videos depicting dog-fighting, and lies about receiving prestigious military medals.  But today an unusual coalition of five Justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and the Court’s four more liberal Justices – agreed on one kind of speech that the government can ban:  personal solicitations of campaign funds by people running for judgeships.  Let’s talk about the ruling in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar in Plain English. Continue reading »

Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556It could turn out to be a nailbiter.  After two-and-a-half hours of oral argument in the same-sex marriage cases, it was not clear where Justice Anthony Kennedy – and therefore the rest of the Court – was headed. Let’s talk about the oral argument in Plain English.

The arguments started with what many people refer to as the “marriage question” – whether the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriages.  Representing the same-sex couples challenging the state bans, Mary Bonauto ran into tough questions from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.  Roberts suggested that adopting Bonauto’s position would “redefine” marriage, adding that “every definition I looked up until about a dozen years ago” defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  The plaintiffs could not have been encouraged when Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is probably their best bet to join the Court’s more liberal Justices to strike down the bans, echoed this idea.  He told Bonauto that the traditional definition of marriage has been around for millennia, but it has only been a little over a decade since the Court held that Texas could not criminalize sex between two consenting adults of the same sex.  That may be a long time for scholars, he pointed out, but it isn’t very long compared to the big picture, and “it’s very difficult for the Court to say we know better.”  Continue reading »

Two years ago, the Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Windsor.  By a vote of five to four, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the Court’s four more liberal Justices to form a majority, the Court struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage, for purposes of over a thousand federal laws and programs, as a union between a man and a woman.  In Windsor, the Court made clear that it was not deciding whether states can prohibit same-sex marriages. But – as I explained in the first part of my preview of tomorrow’s oral arguments in the same-sex marriage cases – lower courts around the country quickly began to rely on the decision in Windsor to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage, and the plaintiffs have done the same in their efforts to convince the Supreme Court to rule in their favor.

So it may come as a bit of a surprise that the Court’s ruling in Windsor also plays a starring role in the arguments made by Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky to defend their bans on same-sex marriage.  The heart of the Court’s decision in Windsor, the states emphasize, was that the states have traditionally defined and regulated marriage.  And just as the Court in Windsor determined that the Defense of Marriage Act must fall because it stood in the way of a decision by New Yorkers that same-sex couples should be treated the same as their opposite-sex counterparts, a decision by the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs would overturn a decision by the residents of these four states that marriage should be reserved for opposite-sex couples.  Because each state is its own independent entity, they insist, they don’t have to allow same-sex marriages or recognize same-sex marriages that take place outside their state just because some other states have opted to do so.  Continue reading »

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse have lived together for ten years, own a home together, and have three children.  Laws in Michigan, where they live, prevented them from jointly adopting their children, so DeBoer adopted one child on her own, while Rowse adopted the other two.  This also means that Rowse can’t cover DeBoer’s child on her health insurance, and vice-versa.  And if one of them were to die, the other would not automatically get custody of her children.  So the two women want to get married – but they can’t, because Michigan laws specifically prohibit them from doing so.

In 2013, James Obergefell married John Arthur, his partner of more than twenty years, on a tarmac at an airport in Maryland, which permits same-sex marriage, where they had flown in a medically equipped plane because Arthur was battling ALS.  After Arthur died a few months later, Obergefell filed a lawsuit, seeking to be recognized as Arthur’s spouse by the state of Ohio, where the pair lived and he still lives – so that, for example, his name will appear on Arthur’s death certificate as his spouse.  Continue reading »

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