Plain English / Cases Made Simple
This is our archive of posts in Plain English. You may also be interested in these resources:
Supreme Court Procedure
Glossary of Legal Terms
Biographies of the Justices
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 »
After nearly ninety minutes of oral arguments today in King v. Burwell, the challenge to the availability of tax subsidies for people who purchase health insurance on a marketplace created by the federal government, six Justices had tipped their hands. Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all seemed like solid votes for the federal government, defending the subsidies, while the challengers could clearly count on the votes of Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. Chief Justice John Roberts – who three years ago joined the Court’s more liberal Justices to uphold another provision of the Affordable Care Act, requiring everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty (it’s a tax!) – kept his cards close to his chest, asking only a few questions that gave no real hint as to how he might vote. But even if it ultimately doesn’t get the Chief Justice’s vote, the government could still win as long as it can pick up just one more vote. And that seemed like at least a possibility, because Justice Anthony Kennedy asked several questions which suggested that he might be leaning more toward the government than the challengers. Let’s talk about today’s argument in Plain English.
Continue reading »
Fifteen years ago, in the hope of eliminating or at least reducing partisan battles over redistricting, Arizona voters amended the state’s constitution to hand the power to draw boundaries for federal congressional districts over to an independent commission. The state’s legislature went to court to challenge that transfer of authority, and after an hour of oral arguments that focused almost exclusively on the words of the Constitution, it appeared that the Justices may be poised to return the power to the legislature – which could spell trouble not only for the Arizona commission, but also for California and the handful of other states with similar schemes. Let’s talk about Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in Plain English. Continue reading »
Arizona voters were fed up. After each census, states have to draw new boundaries to elect members of the House of Representatives in Washington. Until 2000, the state legislature took on this job, as it does in many other states. But voters weren’t happy with the results: in Arizona, as elsewhere, it was common for the political party that controlled the state legislature to use its power to its advantage in redistricting, by drawing districts to maximize the opportunities for its members to win election and to ensure that, once in office, those seats were safe. So in 2000, Arizona voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that would turn control of redistricting over to an independent commission. Three years ago, though, the state legislature filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging the voters’ transfer of redistricting power to the commission. Let’s talk about today’s argument in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in Plain English. Continue reading »
Today the Court heard oral arguments in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, in which the federal government is suing the retail giant for its refusal to hire Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teenager who wore a headscarf. (I previewed the case in Plain English yesterday.) After an hour of often spirited discussion, it wasn’t clear that there was a consensus for either side’s proposed rule. But the government (and therefore Elauf) has reason to be optimistic, as several Justices seemed to coalesce around a rule that would give it much of what it is seeking. Let’s talk about today’s oral arguments in Plain English. Continue reading »
Religion has been a hot topic at the Supreme Court recently. Last year, the Justices ruled that a town council could start its meetings with a prayer and also that a corporation owned by a devoutly religious family cannot be required to provide its female employees with health insurance that includes access to birth control that the employer equated with abortion. And earlier this year, it ruled that Arkansas cannot bar a Muslim inmate from growing the short beard that he believes his religion requires. The latest chapter on the role of religion in our daily lives comes tomorrow, when the Court hears oral arguments in the case of a Muslim woman whom the retail chain Abercrombie & Fitch declined to hire because she wore a headscarf. Let’s talk about EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch in Plain English. Continue reading »
Nearly three years ago, the Supreme Court decided a huge challenge to President Barack Obama’s signature legislature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The question was whether the Constitution allowed Congress to require everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. In a dramatic opinion on the last day of that Term, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court’s four more liberal Justices in ruling that it does, so the law survived.
Obamacare is back at the Court again this year. This time, the challenge is to how to interpret the Act, rather than whether it violates the Constitution. Although there’s no grand constitutional showdown, the stakes are nearly as high as they were three years ago, because a ruling in favor of the challengers could gut how the Act functions. Let’s talk about King v. Burwell in Plain English.
Continue reading »
Yesterday the Supreme Court did something that it didn’t get to do in two other recent cases involving the Fair Housing Act: it heard oral arguments. As I noted in my preview of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the previous two cases had settled before the oral argument. The reason? Civil rights groups were worried that the conservative Justices on the Roberts Court would rule that the Fair Housing Act does not allow lawsuits based on “disparate impact” – that is, an allegation that a law or policy has a discriminatory effect, even though the discrimination was not on purpose. The ability to bring such claims is important, they believe, because these days lawmakers and landlords rarely tell people that they intend to discriminate; discrimination is much more subtle, and it’s easier to prove that an action has a discriminatory effect. Many businesses, landlords, and lawmakers want the Court to rule that disparate-impact claims are not allowed under the FHA for much the same reason: why should we face lawsuits, they ask, if we have good intentions and didn’t mean to discriminate but our actions just so happen to disproportionately affect minorities? Continue reading »
If there is one thing that the Roberts Court seems consistently willing to protect, it’s speech – even controversial or unpopular speech like violent video games, protests at the funeral of a fallen soldier, lies about receiving military medals, and dog-fighting videos. And for the Court’s five more conservative Justices, this enthusiasm for the First Amendment extends to the campaign-finance arena. In recent years, a closely divided Court has struck down a ban on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions as well as the overall caps on how much one person can contribute to campaigns for federal office. But yesterday’s oral argument in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, a Tampa lawyer’s challenge to a Florida rule that prohibited her from personally contacting would-be donors to ask them to contribute to her campaign for a job as a trial judge, hinted that, when it comes to the First Amendment, judges might be different. After all, some Justices suggested, it would be undignified for judges – who, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, are supposed to be “above the fray” – to go around asking people for money. Continue reading »