March at the U.S. Supreme Court


While the debate continues regarding Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement, the remaining eight justices were hard at work in the month of March. The justices issued 13 opinions, most notably a 4-4 tie in the biggest labor case to reach the Supreme Court in years. They also heard oral arguments in several high-profile cases, including those involving the Affordable Care Act and abortion restrictions.

The Court’s Key Decisions


The Court’s equally divided decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Assn. highlighted that the justices may not reach a majority in some of the Term’s most important cases. By virtue of the 4-4 tie, the lower court decision stands, without creating any new precedent. California’s agency-shop system and opt-out requirements remain in tact and the issue of whether such agency fees violate the First Amendment will be decided another day.

The Court issued a number of other key decisions. Of interest to the business community, the Court held in Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. that the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) pre-empts a Vermont state law requiring certain entities to provide claims payment data to the State. In Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, the justices ruled that held that plaintiffs may use of representative statistical evidence to support class certification.

Finally, in V.L. v. E.L, the Court unanimously held that the State of Alabama must recognize an adoption by a same-sex parent that occurred in another state. The Court’s per curium decision rested on the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause.


Oral Arguments in March


The Court heard oral arguments in the latest legal challenge the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) contraception mandate. Zubik v. Burwell centers on whether the ACA’s current accommodation for religious nonprofit organizations that object to providing contraception coverage violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).

Under current HHS regulations, religiously affiliated nonprofit corporations that object to birth control coverage can notify their insurance company, third-party benefits administrator, or the HHS about their objection. The plaintiffs argue that the notification process essentially acts as a “trigger” and requires them “to provide the morally objectionable coverage and allow their health plans to be used as a vehicle to bring about a morally objectionable wrong.”

During oral arguments, several justices appeared concerned the federal government was “hijacking” the nonprofits’ insurance coverage by providing birth control services they find objectionable. One week later, the Court asked both sides to provide briefs on several new issues that suggest the Court is striving to reach a compromise. The new issues include: “whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees”; and “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners.” The Court’s goal seems to be to remove non-profits from the process of providing birth control and other objectionable care, while also ensuring that employees can receive contraception services.


Blockbuster on April Docket 

The most significant case before the Court in April is United States v. Texas. 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. Challengers argue that the President violated Article II, section 3 by failing to faithfully execute existing immigration laws.  Oral arguments are scheduled for April 18, with a decision expected in June.

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.

March at the U.S. Supreme Court