May cases

For the first time ever, it will be possible to listen to Supreme Court arguments as they happen from outside the building. C-SPAN has confirmed that it will provide live coverage and identify the Justice who is speaking. Presumably SCOTUSBlog will stream live as well. (If you can’t listen live, there will still be after-the-arguments options. From the Court’s website, you can get transcripts the same day as the arguments and the audio is released that Friday.  In addition, on Oyez you can get transcript-synchronized audio; it’s not available quite as immediately, but the transcript scrolls and highlights automatically as you listen.)

Next week brings cases involving trademarks, compelled speech, the ACA birth control mandate, and robocalls as free speech.  The following week is even more contentious, with Trump subpoenas, faithless electors, and religious exemption from nondiscrimination laws. 

Monday, May 4

For the first day of teleconference arguments, the Court is starting with just one case, US Patent & Trademark Office v. It may not have terribly broad allure, but it’s an interesting trademark case. You cannot trademark a generic term, but can you trademark “[generic term].com”? For a useful overview, see this “Brief amici curiae of Trademark Scholars in support of neither party.”

Tuesday, May 5

Also just one case today, United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. It is an important case involving First Amendment limits on conditions for federal funding. Congress originally provided funding for HIV intervention programs subject to two restrictions: (1) no funds “may be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution,” and (2) no funds may be used by an organization “that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.”  In 2013, Alliance for Open Society won in an earlier Supreme Court case with the same name, which held that the second restriction “violates the First Amendment by compelling as a condition of federal funding the affirmation of a belief that by its nature cannot be confined within the scope of the Government program.” Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 570 U.S. 205 (2013). The case today asks whether that principle protects only this US-based organization or extends “to legally distinct foreign entities operating overseas that are affiliated with” the organization.

Wednesday, May 6

The Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate is the issue in two consolidated cases that will be argued first today, Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania. These are cases that would have drawn huge crowds, long lines, and demonstrations in front of the Court in pre-covid times.  Scotusblog has a very helpful overview. Briefly, it is important to note the administrative law concerns that will complicate the argument.  The ACA left many details to the Department of Health and Human Services to enact through administrative rulemaking.  Initially, those rules required health insurance plans to include birth control at no cost to the women but exempted religious institutions and included an “opt-out” system for religious nonprofits. The 2014 Hobby Lobby decision gave for-profit religious companies access to that opt-out. There was then a challenge to that opt-out process, but with Justice Scalia’s death and the prospect of a 4-4 split on such an important issue, the Supreme Court sent the cases back in hopes of a compromise. And now, HHS under the Trump administration has rewritten the rules, allowing any employer with a religious or moral objection to opt out.  New Jersey and Pennsylvania have challenged those Trump administration rules as inconsistent with the ACA and as violating other principles of administrative procedure, particularly since the final rules relied on interim rules that did not allow for the usual public comment period. The Court will need to address a number of technical administrative procedure questions as well as the substantive.  So I strongly recommend taking some time to understand the argument preview before trying to follow along with the oral arguments. 

The second argument today is robocalls as free speech.  Back 1991, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act outlawed automated calls to cell phones, except for emergency calls or with the consumer’s prior consent — and importantly, the law was amended in 2015 to allow debt collection calls for federally guaranteed loans. 47 U.S.C. § 227. In Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, a group that would like to use automated calls for political purposes is challenging the law on First Amendment grounds, arguing that by making exceptions for certain types of calls, the law discriminates on the basis of content (which is highly disfavored and subject to strict scrutiny under longstanding First Amendment doctrine).  Interestingly, Public Citizen is supporting the law, and their amicus brief is worth reviewing along with the scotusblog overview.

Monday, May 11

The first case today, McGirt v. Oklahoma, is an interesting if rather narrow question of tribal sovereignty: “Whether the prosecution of an enrolled member of the Creek Tribe for crimes committed within the historical Creek boundaries is subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction.” 

Most attention today will be on the second argument, a pair of consolidated cases involving the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. The cases today involve teachers at Catholic schools who allege they were discriminated against on the basis of age and disability.  The issue is whether the teachers are “ministers,” within the meaning of the exception that the Court has previously held the First Amendment requires in order to prevent excessive state governance of churches. There’s a useful NY Times article about the cases, and an interesting perspective from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in their amicus brief

Tuesday, May 12 — Trump subpoenas 

Two major arguments today.  First are the cases involving Congressional subpoenas to banks and accounting firms seeking records related to President Trump and his businesses.  In Trump v. Deutsche Bank, the House Committee on Financial Services and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence sought records as part of an investigation into possible foreign influence in U.S. elections; in Trump v. Mazars, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform subpoenaed an accounting firm for documents as part of its investigation into possible reform of government ethics laws. In both cases, Trump is asserting that the committees do not in fact have a “valid legislative purpose.”  In essence, this is about presidential immunity from congressional oversight. The backdrop includes Supreme Court cases that expressed concern with the executive branch’s ability to function but ultimately sided with Congress in disputes with Presidents Nixon and Clinton. 

The second argument also involves Trump business records, but in Trump v. Vance they were sought by a grand jury. Grand jury records are sealed, but it appears to involve the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation into hush money to silence Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, and whether any of those payments led to false business and tax filings in violation of state law. Trump sued to block the subpoena to his accounting firm, claiming that the president is immune from criminal investigations while in office.  In rejecting that argument, the Second Circuit relied heavily on US v. Nixon

Scotusblog has a useful overview as well as a symposium reflecting a range of views. 

Wednesday, May 13 — “faithless electors”

Both cases today involve “faithless electors” (individuals at the Electoral College who do not vote according to the state’s popular vote) at the 2016 election.  They have not been consolidated; each will be argued separately for one hour. 

A few electors from Washington cast a vote for Colin Powell even though Hillary Clinton had won the state.  Washington fined them $1,000.  The issue in Chiafalo v. Washington is “whether enforcement of a Washington state law that threatens a fine for presidential electors who vote contrary to how the law directs is unconstitutional because a state has no power to legally enforce how a presidential elector casts his or her ballot and a state penalizing an elector for exercising his or her constitutional discretion to vote violates the First Amendment.” 

Similarly, a few electors from Colorado voted for John Kasich.  Colorado responded by replacing them with electors who would vote as instructed. The issue in this second case, Colorado Department of State v. Baca, is “(1) whether a presidential elector who is prevented by their appointing state from casting an electoral-college ballot that violates state law lacks standing to sue their appointing state because they hold no constitutionally protected right to exercise discretion; and (2) whether Article II or the 12th Amendment forbids a state from requiring its presidential electors to follow the state’s popular vote when casting their electoral-college ballots.”

Again, Scotusblog has a useful overview and a symposium with a range of views.