Plain English / Cases Made Simple

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Back in October, when the Court heard oral argument in a challenge to the overall caps – known as “aggregate limits” – on how much an individual can contribute to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees, there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense.  Given the Court’s recent campaign finance rulings, it seemed clear that a majority of the Justices would vote to strike down at least some of the caps; the only real question was whether they would strike down them all.

Today we got our answer from the Court, and it was a decisive “yes”:  all of the aggregate limits must go.  Let’s talk about today’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in Plain English. Continue reading »

Almost two years ago to the day, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which requires virtually everyone in the United States to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.  This morning, it heard a new and different challenge arising out of the Affordable Care Act:  can a business be required to provide its female employees with health insurance that includes access to free birth control, even if doing so would violate the strong religious beliefs of the family that owns the business?  After the oral argument today, it looked like the Court’s answer may well be no, although the decision may not prove as sweeping as some of the challengers might prefer.  And as is so often the case, it looks like Justice Anthony Kennedy may hold the key vote in the case.  Let’s talk about the proceedings at the Court today in Plain English.

Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan (Art Lien)

Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan (Art Lien)

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In 2007, Kerri Kaley and her husband, Brian, were indicted on charges arising from a plan to steal and then re-sell prescription medical devices.  Based on the indictment, the federal government also got a restraining order to freeze their assets.  The Kaleys asked the district court to lift the asset freeze so that they could pay their lawyers:  although they did not dispute that the frozen assets could be traced to the conduct for which they were indicted, they argued that the charges against them were “baseless.”  Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied the request, holding that it was prohibited because the Kaleys had no right to a hearing to challenge the grand jury’s determination that there was probable cause to support the charges against them.  This morning a divided Supreme Court agreed, preserving a frequently used tool in the government’s arsenal for prosecuting crimes.  (My preview of the case is available here, while my report on the October oral argument is available here.)  Continue reading »

You might have expected large crowds and loud protests this morning at the Supreme Court, which heard oral argument in McCullen v. Coakley, a case dealing with the intersection of abortion and free speech.  (I previewed the case in Plain English yesterday.)  But less than an hour before the argument began, the reporters and cameramen staking out the Court far outnumbered the protesters, a lone handful of abortion-rights supporters.  The atmosphere inside turned out to be fairly subdued as well, lacking the fireworks that sometimes accompany high-profile cases.  Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts, who is normally an active participant, was uncharacteristically silent throughout the oral argument.  Although that silence made it harder to handicap the oral argument, it still seems unlikely that Massachusetts will find five votes to uphold its law, which creates a thirty-five-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics that abortion opponents (among others) cannot enter.  The bigger question is whether the Court’s five more conservative Justices will broadly strike down such measures, or whether a compromise solution that would permit a smaller buffer zone might be in the works.  Let’s talk about today’s argument in Plain English. Continue reading »

Tomorrow, the Court will hear the case of Eleanor McCullen, a seventy-seven-year-old Massachusetts grandmother who has spent over fifty thousand dollars of her own money to help pregnant women who decide not to get an abortion.  All McCullen wants, she tells the Court, is to stand on a public sidewalk to provide information and offer help to women entering an abortion clinic, but a state law prohibits her from doing so.  Based on the Court’s past track record on First Amendment cases, she may well soon get that chance.  Let’s talk about McCullen v. Coakley in Plain English.

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This morning’s oral argument in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, the challenge to the constitutionality of the president’s recess appointments to the federal labor relations board, checked many of the boxes for high-profile cases.  There were long lines and cameras outside.  Inside, there was a full press gallery, from which reporters craned their necks to try to see the celebrities (or at least what passes for celebrities in Washington):  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, seated near White House spokesman Jay Carney and White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.  There were sardonic comments by Justice Scalia, and there was high-quality advocacy.  But unlike many high-profile cases, there seemed to be at least some degree of consensus among the Justices, virtually all of whom expressed skepticism of the federal government’s broad defense of the president’s recess appointments power.  At the same time, however, a few Justices seemed wary of upending the longstanding practice – by presidents of all ideological stripes – with a ruling that would sharply limit the availability of recess appointments.  Whether they can convince their colleagues to reach some sort of middle ground, however, remains unclear.

NLRB v Canning, No. 12-1281

(Art Lien)

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Most of the time, the Supreme Court decides cases with a careful eye to what is known as precedent – that is, its earlier cases dealing with the same or similar topics.  Precedent plays a major role in important cases argued earlier this Term involving constitutional challenges to, for example, Michigan’s ban on the use of affirmative action at its public universities, the overall limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates for federal office, and prayer at town council meetings.  But on Monday, the Court will take on a constitutional issue for which there is no real precedent because the Justices have never confronted it before: when can the president appoint senior officials and judges without first getting approval from the Senate?

Both sides in the case – National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning – have tried to fill the void left by a lack of precedent with arguments based on the text of the Constitution, the understanding of the Constitution’s drafters, and the past practice of other presidents.  After the oral argument, the Court will have the final say.  Going forward, its decision will significantly affect the balance of power between the president and the Senate when it comes to filling vacancies in the government.  Let’s talk about the case in Plain English. Continue reading »

On Wednesday morning, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Justices heard oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by two residents who argue that the town council’s practice of beginning its meetings with a prayer violates the Constitution.   (I previously previewed the oral argument in Plain English.)  A court of appeals had ruled that although prayers are permissible, these suggested that the town was endorsing Christianity.  When the hearing was over, it looked like the prayers would survive.  If that happens, though, a win for the town may have less to do with the Justices’ strong convictions that the prayers are on firm constitutional ground than with their sense that a ruling allowing the prayers to continue would create fewer challenges for the courts than the alternatives.  Let’s talk about the oral argument in Plain English.  Continue reading »

Thirty years ago, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court held that the Nebraska legislature could begin its legislative sessions with prayers led by a chaplain who was employed by the legislature.  But the Court has never settled when legislative prayers go too far and cross the line separating church and state.  Since 1999, the town of Greece, New York, which is outside Rochester, has started its town council meetings with a prayer led by members of the local clergy or local residents.  Today, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court will hear oral arguments about whether the town’s prayers are constitutional, but its decision could have a wider impact on the law governing the intersection of church and state.  Let’s talk about the case in Plain English. Continue reading »

Today’s oral argument in Bond v. United States was a spirited one, but one that sounded a lot more like a law school lecture than the daytime drama suggested by the facts of the case.  (My Plain English preview of the case is available here.)  And at the end of that lecture, and despite the government’s fervent defense of the laws at issue in the case as an essential part of the nation’s efforts to combat chemical weapons, including in the ongoing conflict in Syria, it looked like the Court was poised to put real limits on when and how Congress can rely on its power to enter into treaties to then pass laws putting those treaties into effect.

Carol Anne Bond was charged with violating federal laws prohibiting the use of chemical weapons when she tried to poison her husband’s mistress.  Her lawyer, former Solicitor General Paul Clement, began with the idea that, if the federal laws at issue really do “reach every malicious use of chemicals,” then they exceed the powers given to Congress by the Constitution.  The fact that the laws were passed to implement a treaty does not, he said, somehow enlarge Congress’s powers.

Paul Clement for petitioner (Art Lien)

Paul Clement for petitioner (Art Lien)

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