Race, religion and debt: Here are the biggest cases pending at the Supreme Court
From affirmative action in college admissions to a copyright claim involving the late artist Andy Warhol, the Supreme Court's current term is full of controversy and important legal questions.
WASHINGTON – Even as the fallout continues over its controversial abortion ruling last year, the Supreme Court is heading into its busiest period as it readies opinions about race, student loans, LGBTQ rights, religion and federal elections.
The court has resolved 24 merits cases so far and has 34 left to go before its self-imposed end-of-June deadline. Here's a look at some of the biggest cases on deck.
Affirmative action over?
Background: Among the most closely watched cases at the Supreme Court this term involve race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina. Those schools consider race as one of many factors in deciding whether to accept prospective students, a policy that is consistent with current Supreme Court precedent. But an anti-affirmative action group has argued the policies discriminate against Asian American and white candidates in violation of federal law and the Constitution.
Argument: During nearly five hours of arguments on Oct. 31, several of the court's conservative justices appeared skeptical of race-conscious admissions and potentially willing to overturn prior precedent on the issue. Many of the conservatives zeroed in on a section of the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision in which the court included a potential timeline of 25 years for ending race-conscious admissions.
The court's liberal justices, meanwhile, defended the need for race-conscious policies. "I thought that part of what it meant to be an American and to believe in American pluralism is that, actually, our institutions are reflective of who we are as a people in all our variety," Justice Elena Kagan said.
Decision: Expected in June.
Title: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College; Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina.
►Arguments:Supreme Court signals skepticism of race-conscious college admissions
►Roberts:Supreme Court fight over admissions puts focus on John Roberts
►Brown:Affirmative action cases spark debate over meaning of Brown v. Board
►Spillover:Supreme Court's affirmative action cases could affect private e
Biden's student loan plan under fire
Argument: The court's conservative majority signaled deep skepticism about Biden's plan during arguments in February, suggesting a majority is leaning toward a conclusion that the president overstepped his power. During the course of more than three hours of arguments, the justices prodded Biden's attorneys for answers about why the student loan plan was different from other emergency policies the court has struck down.
Decision: Timing unclear.
Title: Biden v. Nebraska and Department of Education v. Brown. Read more:
►Granted:Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments on Biden's student loan plan
►Power?: Biden's ability to bypass Congress faces 'major' legal hurdle
►Extension:Biden offers extension on student loan repayments
LGBTQ rights and speech
Background: Seven years after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in a watershed civil rights decision, religious business owners and LGBTQ individuals remain locked in a battle over whether businesses that sell goods and services to the public may reject LGBTQ couples as customers. This term, the high court must decide whether a graphic designer may decline to make websites for same-sex marriages. The designer claims that Colorado's anti-discrimination law forces her to create the websites – and to condone a message approving of same-sex marriages – against her will, which would violate the First Amendment's prohibition on compelled speech. The state counters that it is not attempting to regulate speech but rather commerce: The designer can say whatever she wants on her websites, but she can't deny selling them to same-sex couples.
Argument: A majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic to the web designer, embracing the idea that Colorado's anti-discrimination law cannot compel her to communicate messages that she objects to on religious grounds. The two-and-a-half-hour debate centered on whether same-sex couples would be denied wedding websites because of their status as LGBTQ individuals – a result that might favor the state – or whether the designer has a right to refuse to endorse a message of approval of same-sex marriage. "This is not a hotel," Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said at one point, suggesting the state may have been defining the types of businesses covered under its anti-discrimination law too broadly. The court's three liberal justices appeared mostly aligned in favor of Colorado's law.
Decision: To be determined.
Title: 303 Creative v. Aubrey Elenis
►Arguments:Supreme Court signals support for website designer who wants to decline same-sex weddings
►LGBTQ rights v. speech:Supreme Court to debate whether businesses may decline to provide services to same-sex weddings
►Granted:Supreme Court to decide if designer may decline same-sex weddings
Voting Rights Act could be weakened
Background: The Supreme Court is deciding a major case that may weaken the Voting Rights Act. At issue is an Alabama congressional redistricting map that includes only one majority Black district out of seven, even though African Americans make up more than a quarter of the state's population. The plaintiffs say the new map violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. Alabama counters that the Voting Rights Act prohibits states from approving discriminatory maps but that it does not act as a command compelling states to draw an additional minority-majority district at the expense of all other factors, such as keeping counties and other political subdivisions together.
Argument: The court heard oral arguments in the Alabama redistricting case on Oct. 4. There appeared to be a majority for supporting Alabama but perhaps on narrower grounds than the state is seeking. Justice Samuel Alito was the most vocal of the conservative justices and he acknowledged that some of the state's arguments were "quite far-reaching." Some of the conservatives, including Justice Brett Kavanaugh, appeared to be searching for a more limited way to decide the case. What was clear: The liberal wing of the court opposes Alabama. Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson pummeled Alabama with questions about its position as well as the court's commitment to the Voting Rights Act.
Title: The redistricting case is Merrill v. Milligan.
►Alabama:Supreme Court delves into Alabama brawl over race, redistricting and Voting Rights Act
►Elections clause:Supreme Court pressed to give state legislatures more power to oversee federal elections
►2020:How the Supreme Court is already influencing the November midterm elections
Maintaining the internet with Section 230
Background: Since more than a decade before the first iPhone was released, internet companies have been shielded from legal liability for the user-generated content on their platforms. That's important, the companies argue, because they might otherwise be forced to review every post on their sites. At issue in the case is whether companies may be held liable not for the content itself but rather the targeted recommendations of that content to specific users, a process that is often handled by an algorithm. The suit was filed by the family of a 23-year-old U.S. citizen who was killed in an Islamic State group attack in Paris in 2015. The family alleged the company was partly responsible because it promoted videos and other content that propagated the terrorist group’s message.
A related case, Twitter v. Taamneh, raises the question of whether Twitter, Google and other platforms may be held liable for "aiding and abetting" the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Argument: The Supreme Court seemed hesitant to hand down a sweeping ruling that could change the way search engines and other websites recommend content to users during arguments on Feb. 21. But the justices struggled with how to address whether Big Tech can ever be held liable when those recommendations cause harm. In the related Twitter case a day later, there appeared to be skepticism aboutthe idea that the internet companies could be held liable for an attack just because they hosted content that may have inspired people to join terrorist groups.
Decision: In a major win for Google and other Big Tech firms, the Supreme Court on May 18 kept the status quo in place, sidestepping the questions about Section 230. A unanimous court sided with Twitter, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, holding that the families could not bring their lawsuits against the social media companies because they had not actually aided and abetted in the terrorist attack carried about by the Islamic State group. Because the lawsuits failed there was no need to decide whether the companies could raise Section 230 as a defense.
Title: Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh.
Decision:In win for Google, Supreme Court sidesteps question some feared could break the internet
Arguments:Supreme Court eager to steer clear of sweeping changes to internet in Section 230 case
►Granted:Supreme Court to hear challenge to law that shields internet c
►Explainer:Everything you need to know about Section 230 and why everyone hates it
►Thomas:Supreme Court dismisses case on Trump blocking of critics on Twitter
Background: Like other administrations, Biden's Department of Homeland Security wants to prioritize for deportation immigrants it believes pose a threat to national security or public safety. Other immigrants would be less of a priority. Texas and Louisiana sued. The states say that federal immigration law requires the administration to detain and deport specific categories of immigrants and that Biden is reading more leeway into the law than is permitted. The policy at issue is separate from the Title 42 program that expired in May.
Argument: During more than two hours of at times intense oral argument, the justices appeared split in unconventional ways – particularly when it came to some of the procedural questions raised by the challenge from Texas and Louisiana. Chief Justice John Roberts pushed hard on the notion of reading the plain text of the law, which says the federal government "shall" detain certain immigrants (though he later noted that sometimes the high court doesn't read that word as a command). Justice Brett Kavanaugh questioned whether a win for Texas and Louisiana would change anything practically, since the administration doesn't have the resources to apprehend every immigrant in the country illegally. Justice Elena Kagan questioned whether a ruling for the states would open the door to more states suing to stop policies they don't like from presidents of either party. "We're just going to be in a situation where every administration is confronted by suits by states that can bring a policy to a dead halt, to a dead stop by just showing a dollar's worth of costs?" she said.
Title: U.S. v. Texas.
►Arguments:Supreme Court grapples with challenge to Biden immigration policy
►Preview:Supreme Court returns to immigration in test of Biden's power
►Granted:Supreme Court blocks Biden from implementing immigration policy
Native American adoptions
Background: Congress passed a law in 1978 to stop the forced removal of Native American children from their tribes – a practice that began in the 19th century and led to hundreds of thousands of removals. One of the law's provisions is a mandate that authorities give preference to Native American families when a Native American child is placed for adoption. Several states and non-Native families seeking to adopt sued, arguing the preferential treatment violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
Argument: During more than three hours of oral argument on Nov. 9, several members of the court's conservative wing indicated that they were inclined to view the adoption preferences in the law as race-based, which suggests the court may be leaning toward finding the law unconstitutional – or at least some portions of it. Yet some of the justices appeared to be searching for a narrow outcome, focusing on specific provisions or debating if the correct parties are involved in the case. The high court's three-member liberal wing and Justice Neil Gorsuch, who has often broken with his conservative colleagues on tribal issues, signaled their support for the law.
Title: There are multiple consolidated cases, including Haaland v. Brackeen.
►Arguments:Supreme Court grapples with battle over adoption of Native American children
►Adoptions:For Native Americans, a 1978 adoption law protects children. Critics see a racial preference.
►Granted:Supreme Court takes up battle over adoption of Native American children
Andy Warhol, Prince and copyright
Background:Photographer Lynn Goldsmith took a portrait of the musician Prince in 1981. The artist Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, relied on the image to create a work of art. Goldsmith sued Warhol's foundation for copyright infringement. The Warhol foundation argued that the art was "transformative," one of the standards courts use to decide such claims. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit said that a work of art is not transformative if it is "both recognizably deriving from, and retaining the essential elements of, its source material." Otherwise, the appeals court reasoned, movie adaptations of books could, for instance, make subtle changes to get around copyright laws. The question for the high court is whether an artwork is "transformative" if it conveys a different meaning or message than the original work it is based on.
Argument: Copyright litigation often blurs the traditional conservative-liberal divisions on the Supreme Court and it was not clear which way the justices are leaning. After nearly two hours of argument on Oct. 12, it seemed Justice Samuel Alito was concerned about the implications of the Warhol foundation's position. "How is a court to determine the message or meaning of works of art?" he asked. Justice Elena Kagan posed similar questions but also pressed the attorney for Goldsmith. "Why do museums show Andy Warhol? They show Andy Warhol because he was a transformative artist, because he took a bunch of photographs and he made them mean something completely different," Kagan said. Though it was difficult to read which way the court is leaning, the argument was an entertaining tour through pop culture and art, with the justices in one moment debating the meaning of the color Leonardo da Vinci chose for Mona Lisa's dress and, in the next, discussing the audience for the ABC sitcom "Mork & Mindy."
Decision: In a 7-2 decision with potentially sweeping implications for artistic creation, the Supreme Court on May 18 sided against Andy Warhol's foundation. In an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court ruled that the Prince silkscreen was not a "fair use" of Goldsmith's photograph because the "degree of difference is not enough" given that both were being used for the same commercial purpose. In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the court's opinion would "make our world poorer" by making it harder for artists like Warhol to create art based on previous works.
Title: Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith.
Decision:Supreme Court rules against Andy Warhol in copyright case with implications for artists
►Argued:Supreme Court debates Warhol copyright case with implications for art
►Impact:How a Supreme Court case could change the face of art
►Copyright:Supreme Court to hear dispute over Andy Warhol artwork
Religion in the workplace
Background: In a case with big implications for the workplace, the Supreme Court is being asked to decide how far employers must go to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees. The case involves a former mail carrier in Pennsylvania who sued the U.S. Postal Service for requiring him to work on Sunday, his Sabbath. Federal law requires companies to make accommodations for workers' religious beliefs as long as it doesn't present an "undue hardship." In 1977, the Supreme Court defined "undue hardship" as anything having more than a "de minimis," or trivial cost. That means employers have been able to avoid making accommodations in many situations, although the federal government has questioned how widespread the issue is.
Argument: A majority signaled during arguments April 18 that the court may rethink the standard but many also appeared to be searching for a narrow outcome that might tinker with the standard rather than scrapping it entirely. Several of the court's conservatives are on record in other cases seeking to revisit the "de minimis" standard, including Justice Neil Gorsuch. During arguments, Gorsuch suggested there might be common ground in clarifying that standard set by the court in 1977 was always supposed to be higher than a trivial cost.
Title: Groff v. DeJoy
►Granted:Supreme Court to revisit employer disputes over religious beliefs
►Dissent:Gorsuch, Alito balk as SCOTUS declines case on religious accommodations