6 Themes To Pay Attention To In Upcoming Supreme Court Decisions

May 21, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 10:02 am

It's decision season at the U.S. Supreme Court, and there are a host of consequential cases the justices are deciding, from a controversial Trump administration proposal to adding a citizenship question to the census to gerrymandering and a question of separation of church and state.

As always, timing of which exact cases will be decided is unknown until the court releases them. The only clues are when the cases were argued, and, sometimes, that's not predictive either.

Generally, however, the more complicated the case, the later the decision. The court is scheduled to release decisions on Mondays from now until the end of June, with its last decision day being June 24 (though that could move later in the week).

Here are six themes to watch for:

The Supreme Court will decide whether the Trump administration can add a citizenship question to the U.S. census.
Ross D. Franklin / AP

1. Census citizenship question

The Trump administration is trying to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census. The court will decide whether it can. Based on questioning during oral arguments, the court's conservatives appeared ready to side with the Trump administration and allow it by a narrow 5-4 majority.

The Census Bureau warns that there could be an undercount of 6.5 million people if the question is included. Department of Commerce v. New York was argued in April.

2. Political and racial gerrymandering

A trio of states and cases, from Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, are before the court dealing with redistricting. The racial gerrymandering case is Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill and deals with state legislative districts.

The other two are political gerrymandering cases — Lamone v. Benisek (Maryland) and Rucho v. Common Cause (North Carolina) — that deal with congressional districts and could have big implications for the shape of the U.S. House. All three were argued in March. Background on Virginia House of Delegates here, Lamone here and Rucho here.

3. Separation of church and state

This has been known as the "cross case." It's about a large concrete cross at a busy intersection in Maryland that serves as a war memorial — and whether it should be allowed to continue to stand on public land.

The American Legion v. American Humanist Association and other related cases were argued in February.

A World War I memorial cross sits in Bladensburg, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. The federal government asked the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the cross, which critics say is an unconstitutional state religious endorsement.
Becky Harlan / NPR

4. Race, murder and jury selection

This is a case about bias in jury selection. It involves a Mississippi death row inmate who was prosecuted six times for the same crime by a prosecutor with a history of racial bias in jury selection. Flowers v. Mississippi was argued in March.

5. Native American rights

The court ruled Monday, in a 5-4 decision, in favor of Native American rights in a Wyoming hunting case. There is one more Native American rights case to be decided this term — a capital case out of Oklahoma that deals with tribal territorial rights. But Justice Neil Gorsuch — who has proved to be a champion of American Indian rights and has been the deciding vote this term on at least two of these cases, including Monday's — is recused from this particular case. That means the court very well could deadlock. Carpenter v. Murphy was argued in December.

6. When is a word too dirty to be trademarked?

A clothing designer, Erik Brunetti, tried to trademark his "FUCT" line, but it was rejected. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has not exactly shown a consistent standard on what constitutes "immoral," "shocking," "offensive" and "scandalous" words, leaving the justices to wade through and decide whether it's acceptable. Does the court create a discernible standard or keep it narrowly focused? Iancu v. Brunetti was argued in April.

Other potential cases of consequence:

Gundy v. U.S. (argued in October): Sex offender case dealing with how much power is too much to give to the U.S. attorney general for his application of the law.

Gamble v. U.S. (argued in December): Double jeopardy case of whether a state and federal government can try someone for the same crime. It was thought at the time this was argued that it could have implications for special counsel Robert Mueller's probe (think: Paul Manafort), but that report is out, so it lessens its broader potency.

Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair (argued in January): Retailer Total Wine and others looked to expand into Tennessee and are challenging a Tennessee law that says wholesale liquor sales licenses can be given only to those who have resided in the state for a certain amount of time.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin (argued in April): Deals with whether drawing blood from an unconscious patient without consent is constitutional. In this case, it was someone accused of driving drunk who fell unconscious before his blood was drawn at the hospital. Nurses did so at police request and his blood alcohol content was 0.222.

Kisor v. Wilkie (argued in March): About deference to agencies. Previous Supreme Court cases ruled in favor of deferring to an agency's reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations. If the court rules differently, it would be overturning precedent.

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