SCOTUS: This Term’s Big Cases in Simple Language

As June comes to a close and brings us into the heat of summer, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has completed its decisions on this Term’s cases. Some of the opinions handed down in the final days of the Term were among the most important of the year, provoking much discussion on what the Justices might decide in these complex cases. It’s not uncommon that the Court’s opinions are lengthy and, at times, complicated, so I’ve broken down and summarized three of the biggest SCOTUS cases from this Term below:


1. National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning

In this case, the Court unanimously decided that the President exceeded his constitutional power in making appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) when he decided the Senate was in recess and thus not able to act on the appointments. In reality, the Senate was holding what are called pro forma sessions, which are sessions in which no work is actually done.

The issue at hand is a 2011 resolution that allows for a series of pro forma sessions with no official business transactions every Tuesday and Friday through January 20, 2012. The President acted upon the Recess Appointments Clause, which allows him to fill vacancies that may occur during a Senate recess, and appointed three members between the January 3 and January 6 pro forma sessions. Noel Canning, a Pepsi-Cola distributor, asked the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to set an order of the NLRB aside because the board lacked authority due to the invalid appointment of three members.

The first question the Court considered was if the Constitution allows the President to make recess appointments, whether occurring during or between sessions of Congress. The Court concluded that the Recess Appointments Clause should be interpreted as granting the President the power to make appointments during any recess of sufficient length.

So the critical consideration is how long the recess is. The Court said that any recess shorter than three days is not long enough to warrant recess appointments. And the Court went on to say that a recess longer than three days and shorter than ten days is also not sufficient enough for recess appointments. This means that the three appointments made by the President are invalid and the decisions that those three NLRB commissioners participated in are also invalid.

2. McCullen v. Coakley

The Court examined free speech in the context of abortion clinics in this case, and ultimately struck down a Massachusetts law that required a 35-foot buffer zone for protesters around abortion clinics in the state. The Justices unanimously concluded that the law violates First Amendment rights, primarily because it includes public areas such as sidewalks. Instead of broad restrictions, the Court decided that there should be targeted responses to individual incidents.

The leading plaintiff was Ellen McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother who has spent years talking with women outside of abortion clinics in Boston, providing them with information about alternatives to abortion. She argued that the law violates her right to advocate for her message and discriminates against anti-abortion individuals.

The Massachusetts law was created in response to a series of dangerous incidents outside of abortion clinics in order to prevent further violent protests and protect women. While the state’s desire to protect women and the public outside of abortion clinics is valid, the Court said the law unnecessarily violates the free speech rights of individuals.

All in all, the Court’s decision was pretty narrow. SCOTUS made clear that states can pass laws that specifically ensure access to clinics, but states cannot more broadly prohibit speech on public streets and sidewalks.

3. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Burwell

And last but certainly not least, came one of the most anticipated and controversial cases of the Term. This case dealt with the issue of whether for-profit, private business owners may be forced by either the Constitution or government regulation to provide birth control and related health benefits to female employees if it violates their religious beliefs. According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the government cannot burden an individual’s religious practices unless that burden is the least restrictive way to further a compelling governmental interest.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court decided that closely held corporations, or small companies with a limited number of shareholders, cannot be required to provide contraception or related benefits. The opinion stated that the government has not proven that the requirement is the least restrictive manner of advancing its interest in providing cost-free access to birth control.

The two family-owned companies at issue, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, said that they are willing to cover most methods of contraception, but will not provide for services or drugs that may work after an egg has been fertilized, such as emergency contraceptives or IUDs.

The decision deals only with contraceptive coverage, and will not necessarily affect other insurance mandates, such as vaccinations or blood transfusions, that may conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. The Court also made clear that the government can provide coverage to female employees by regulation, and thus it is unlikely that there will be a substantial difference in coverage.

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