Happening at the U.S. Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court was busy last month, holding its last round of oral arguments and issuing opinions in a number of key cases. The justices are now in the home stretch, with just over a month left to reach decisions in some of the term’s biggest cases.

High-Profile Decisions 

The Supreme Court issued ten decisions in the month of April. In Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court unanimously held that a state or locality may draw its legislative districts based on total population. “Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates and in receiving constituent services,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. “By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total-population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.”

In the term’s second redistricting case, Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Court upheld Arizona’s redistricting plan. According to the Court, the plan passed muster because its population deviations predominantly reflected efforts to achieve compliance with the Voting Rights Act, rather than to secure political advantage for the Democratic Party.

In Bank Markazi v. Peterson, the Court held that Section 8772 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 does not violate the separation of powers. The decision clears the way for $2 billion of bonds held by the Central Bank of Iran to be made available to partially satisfy judgments in actions brought by victims of terrorist acts sponsored by Iran.

Finally, a former Paterson police officer won his case before the Court (although it is unclear how he will fare on remand). In Heffernan v. City of Patterson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the worker from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, even if the employer’s actions are based on a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.

Most Anticipated Oral Arguments

The Court held oral arguments in United States v. Texas last month, which is arguably one of the term’s most closely-watches cases. The potential landmark case poses several legal challenges the Obama Administration’s immigration policy seeking to establish a process for considering deferred action for certain illegal aliens.

The most significant question before the Court is whether the executive action violates the Take Care Clause of the Constitution. Nonetheless, Court’s liberal justices vehemently questioned whether the suit should be able to proceed at all due to lack of Article III standing. The debate largely centered on whether the state of Texas had indeed been harmed or simply disagreed with the federal immigration policy.

With regard to the merits of the case, much of the argument focused on the phrase “lawful presence.” Lawyers for the federal government insisted that the phrase does not carry any significant meaning and could even be omitted. Meanwhile, the states and the House of Representatives maintained that the phrase create a new immigration law by conferring legal status for illegal aliens who would otherwise be deported.

The justices also considered the corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. The case, McDonnell v. United States, involves whether “official action” under the Hobbs Act and other relevant federal fraud statutes is limited to exercising actual government power, threatening to exercise such power, or pressuring others to exercise such power. Based on concerns from several justices regarding the implications of broadly interpreting the fraud statutes (Justice Anthony Kennedy speculated that a janitor who accepted a bottle of beer for doing some extra cleaning in an office could face prosecution), it is likely that McDonnel may succeed in his bid for a new trial.

What’s on Tap?

The Court’s job for the next several weeks is to issue opinions on the remaining cases and continue to determine what petitions will be granted for next term. With tough issues before the Court and just eight justices to decide them, they have their work cut out for them.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.