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Court denies case on refusal of gay customers

The Supreme Court refused on Monday to be drawn into the spreading controversy over the right of business firms to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers, turning aside the appeal of a New Mexico photography studio and its owners.  The Court made no comment as it denied review of Elane Photography v. Willock, involving a refusal to photograph a lesbian couple’s wedding-style ceremony.

In another significant denial, the Court left intact a lower court ruling that upheld an Iowa ban on direct contributions by corporations to candidates for office.  The case of Iowa Right to Life v. Tooker had given the Justices the opportunity to decide whether to extend the Court’s ruling last week striking down one limit on contributions to the corporate ban.  The denial appeared to suggest that the Justices either found that the new case did not present the issue adequately, or they were not yet ready to consider extending the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission to other donation restrictions.

The Court did grant one new case for review in its next Term, a case testing what information a party in a state court case must provide to have that case transferred to a federal court.  The new case is Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens — a dispute under the federal Class Action Fairness Act.  Lower courts are split on what must be spelled out in court papers before a case can be switched to a federal court.

The Elane Photography case had gained some prominence on the Court’s docket because it was the first to reach the Court, in the wake of new successes in achieving legal equality for gays and lesbians, to test whether homosexuals can be turned away as customers of ordinary businesses that are open to the public.

A number of state legislatures are passing or at least considering new legislation to give businesses the right to refuse to deal with customers based on religious objections to the customers’ character or lifestyle.  For example, such a bill was recently passed in Arizona, but was blocked by a high-profile veto by the governor.

At one point, the business in Elane Photography case also raised religious objections, but the studio’s lawyers dropped that issue when they took the case to the Supreme Court.  Instead, they argued that, since photography is a form of expression, the government should not be allowed to compel the use of that freedom in ways that the business owners find objectionable.

Whether that switch in the nature of the case played a role in the Supreme Court’s denial of review is unknown, except inside the Court; it customarily does not give reasons for such a denial.  The New Mexico case involved a ruling that turning away a customer from access to a business open to the public based on the customer’s sexual identity violated the state’s law against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Among the other denied cases was a plea for the Court to step in now, without waiting for a ruling by a federal appeals court, to review the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s sweeping program to gather data on telephone calls.  That case, Klayman v. Obama, is moving on two tracks in lower courts — one toward a trial on the merits in district court, another on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Court did not take action Monday on several significant cases that it apparently had considered at its private Conference last Friday.  The Justices did not act on an appeal testing whether the president has exclusive control, or must share it with Congress, over formal recognition by the U.S. of a foreign government.  That issue is the basic one in a case involving the designation of the place of birth for a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem.  The case is Zivotofsky v. Kerry.

No order was issued Monday on a Guantanamo prisoner case that the Court has considered several times.  The case of Hussain v. Obama seeks to test whether detainees at the U.S. military prison on the island of Cuba are being denied a meaningful court review of their plea for release from captivity.

And, the Court once more took no action on a case that the Justices have examined at every Conference since the beginning of the Term — that is, eighteen times.  The case is Ryan v. Hurles, testing the power of a federal court in a habeas case to find fault with a state court’s failure to hold an evidentiary hearing on an issue of judicial bias.

Among the remaining cases that were denied Monday were a test case on whether a death-row inmate has a right to be told in advance of the method of execution that will be used (Sepulvado v. Jindal), and a case on the scope of a federal court’s power to overturn an arbitration award (Walia v. Dewan). (Disclosure: Lawyers for the firm of Goldstein & Russell, who have various roles with this blog, represented the petitioning parties in both of these cases.)

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court denies case on refusal of gay customers, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 7, 2014, 10:51 AM),