The annual “term” of the U.S. Supreme Court begins first Monday in October and ends in late June or early July. The term is divided between "sittings," when the Justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening "recesses," when they consider the business before the Court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals.
With the 2014-2015 Supreme Court term over, below are four of the most important cases the Judicial Branch ruled on over the past week.
OBERGEFELL V. HODGES (Gay Marriage)
Over the course of the case, three dozen states ultimately legalized gay marriage, but “federal appeals courts [had] been divided over whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry and recognize such marriages performed elsewhere,” according to The New York Times. That’s where Obergefell v. Hodges comes in.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court declared gay marriage bans – and not recognizing a same-sex marriage from elsewhere -- as unconstitutional for all 50 states, opening the door for all states to allow gay marriage legally.
Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy all ruled in favor, for various reasons. Kennedy, who read his opinion in open court, believes the Constitution to be a living, breathing document.
There were also varying dissents from Justices Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Chief Justice Roberts. Roberts believed the Constitution had nothing to say regarding same-sex marriage, while Scalia is a “strict constructionalist,” when it comes to the Constitution – the complete opposite of Kennedy.
KING v. BURWELL (The Affordable Care Act)
The Affordable Care Act:
First things first: A brief overview of the three parts of the ACA.
1 – The “non-discrimination rule” says that health insurance companies must sell policies to everyone at a reasonable price, even those who are sick or have chronic illnesses.
2 – The “individual mandate” means everyone must get health insurance or otherwise pay a penalty.
3 – Those who don’t get health insurance through their employers need a way to purchase it. That’s what subsidies are for. The ACA has created an online marketplace, or “exchange,” in each state. Subsidies are what King v. Burwell is about.
Under the ACA provision that discusses subsidies, the wording says that subsidies are only available to those who purchases health insurance on an exchange “established by the State.” King v. Burwell argues that the federal government is not a “State,” so the millions who purchased their insurance on an exchange created by the federal government are not entitled to subsidies.
In a 6-3 vote, the Court sided with the Obama administration that subsidies are available for everyone who bought health insurance through an exchange – either via state government or federal government.
The six Justices – Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan – agreed that the wording in the ACA “is not so clear.” Looking more broadly, they reasoned that Congress intended for subsidies to available for everyone, no matter the exchange.
In his dissent, Scalia argued that “words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by the State is ‘established by the State.’”
If the Court had decided against the Obama administration, it not only could have resulted in millions losing health insurance, but it could have led to dismantling the ACA altogether.
GLOSSIP v. GROSS (Lethal Injection)
According to Reuters, three inmates – Richard Glossip, John Grant, and Benjamin Cole – “objected to the use of a sedative called midazolam, saying it cannot achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it unsuitable for executions.” In other words, the inmates believed lethal injection constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating their 8th Amendment rights.
Midazolam is the drug used in the three-part lethal injection cocktail used in multiple states that is supposed to sedate the inmate. The drug has been under scrutiny after a series of botched execution attempts, most notably with Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. Lawyers in the case argued that it “cannot maintain a coma-like consciousness.”
In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that lethal injection is not “cruel and unusual,” with Justice Alito adding that the three men “failed to show that there was an alternative method of execution available that would be less painful.”
In their dissent, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.
ARIZONA STATE LEGISLATURE V. ARIZONA INDEPENDENT REDISTRICTING COMMISSION (Congressional Districts)
The case involved Proposition 106, an independent commission that was created by Arizona voters in 2000. Prop 106 amended Arizona’s constitution to “create an independent redistricting commission to re-draw the state’s legislative and congressional district lines after every census,” Ballotpedia reported. The AZ State Legislature said Prop 106 violated Section 4, Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which reads:
“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof …”.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “Arizona voters were entitled to try to make the process of drawing congressional district lines less partisan,” according to The New York Times. In other words, the Court found “that voters had the power to strip elected lawmakers of their authority to draw district lines.”
KOBACH V. U.S. ELECTION ASSISTANCE COMMISSION (Voter ID)
Both Arizona and Kansas wanted their state voter registration procedures to add a proof of citizenship requirement.
The Supreme Court did NOT rule on this case. Instead, they announced Monday that they have refused to hear the case, which means the prior ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stands. The Court of Appeals declared back in November 2014 that proof of citizenship was not required. This means that residents who use a federal form to vote do not have to provide proof of citizenship.