In the last two days, the Supreme Court has issued decisions on some very important and controversial issues. Many of these decisions will go down in history as landmark cases that shaped our nation. Let’s take a look at the decisions.
What is the Supreme Court?
Everyone knows the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) is the highest court of the judicial branch, right? Don’t give me that look. Some of us may need this section, so just skip down to the next section if you don’t, little miss smart guy.
SCOTUS is the pinnacle of the endless American appeal system. Cases usually begin down at the trial court level. There are federal trial courts known as district courts and state trial courts. The job of the trial court is to determine facts through document discovery, witness testimony, etc. This is the court you see on TV/movies where a quirky, young lawyer asks offbeat yet very relevant questions to a difficult witness–who may or may not question the lawyer’s truth handling abilities. About 2% of all cases filed in the U.S. reach this point.
If the losing party is unhappy about the outcome of the case, the party may then appeal to an appellate court. On the federal level, the appellate court is known as the circuit court. The appellate courts do not find facts or hear witness testimony. At this level, the lawyers will present their case regarding the points of law that the trial court got wrong to the several judges that sit on the bench. First, both sides submit written arguments to the court followed by an oral argument which looks like a panel of judges barraging attorneys with questions about the case. Fun! The appellate court will then issue an opinion either affirming or overruling the trial court’s decision. If the trial court is overruled but more facts need to be determined, the appellate court will order the trial court to do more finding of fact.
If the parties are still unhappy at the outcome, they will appeal once more. On the federal level, they apply to the SCOTUS to hear their case. On the state level, it goes to the state supreme court. If the parties at the state level want to appeal the decision of the state supreme court, they can apply to SCOTUS thereafter. If SCOTUS agrees to hear the case, it takes the same format as the appellate court. Attorneys will present their arguments on paper and orally to the nine justices who will barrage the attorneys with questions and then issue an opinion. The ruling of SCOTUS is final and cannot be overruled by any other court.
Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) of 1965
Yesterday we saw the decision come down on Shelby County v. Holder challenging Section 5 of the VRA. By way of background, voter discrimination has been in practice in this country ever since the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment–particularly in the South. States and counties often tried to disenfranchise minority voters by implementing seemingly arbitrary voter laws/policies that would prevent minorities from voting. Some places had a more troubled history of these practices than others.
Section 5 of the VRA provided that states and counties could not change voting procedures without getting a clearance from either the Attorney General or a court of three judges. The purpose was to prevent those states and counties from implementing voting laws that disparately impact minorities. Great!
However, Section 4 of the VRA determined where Section 5 applied. In 1965, Section 4 applied to Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. No surprises there. In 1970 several more locations became covered including several counties in California, New Hampshire and New York. In 1972, the covered areas now included Alaska, Arizona, Texas and several counties in Florida, North Carolina and South Dakota. Congress did not change Section 4 coverage after that but continued to reauthorize the law.
What did SCOTUS do?
The issue in front of SCOTUS was whether Congress had the authority to reauthorize the law in 2006 based on a formula from 1972.
SCOTUS said no, Congress did not have that authority. SCOTUS found the old formula to be outdated. Section 5 remains active, but Section 4 is unconstitutional. For all intents and purposes, Section 5 is moot until Section 4 can be resolved. The only way for that to happen is if Congress revisits its formula and issues a new “covered area.”
Does it matter?
Short answer: yes, yes it does matter. Even if some of the areas are different now than they were in the 1970s, voter discrimination still happens in many of those areas. SCOTUS did not say that voter discrimination doesn’t happen. It only said that Congress needs to re-determine where exactly it’s most common. Unfortunately, SCOTUS is assuming that Congress can get this done.
Section 5 of the VRA was invoked several times just in the past two decades and prevented major discriminatory voter laws. In 2001, the mayor of Kilmichael, MI (sounds like a fun place) canceled the town’s election after several African-Americans candidates declared they’d be running for office. Per the VRA, the Attorney General required the town to hold an election and the first black mayor was elected. In 2012, a Texas redistricting plan was hatched only to limit Latino voters. The plan was shot down by Federal courts per the VRA.
Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”)
Today SCOTUS issued its ruling on United States v. Windsor–the controversial case challenging DOMA. DOMA was passed in 1996 and stated that the Federal government only recognizes marriage as between one man and one woman as husband and wife. Around this same time, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer registered as a same-sex couple in 1993 in New York. As Spyer’s health began to deteriorate, the couple traveled to Ontario, Canada and got married there. The State of New York deemed their Ontario marriage to be valid. In 2009, Spyer died and left her estate to Windsor.
Since Federal law did not recognize the marriage, Windsor incurred estate taxation (which should have been exempt under the spousal exemption) in the amount of $363,053. Windsor challenged DOMA in order to get a refund of the estate taxes.
What did SCOTUS do?
The issue in front of SCOTUS was whether Section 3 of DOMA (that a marriage is between one man and one woman) is constitutional.
SCOTUS said no, the law is unconstituional. SCOTUS held that DOMA violates equal protection principles. Marriage is within the realm of state law not Federal law. Moreover, DOMA aims to deprive the rights of people whom 11 other states protect. Therefore, DOMA cannot stand the test of equal protection.
Does it matter?
Of course it does. As SCOTUS mentioned, 11 states have already allowed gay marriage. Now those couples can enjoy equal protection as spouses under Federal law as well as state law. This decision will have major impact in tax and immigration laws among other areas.
California’s Proposition 8
SCOTUS also ruled on Hollingsworth v. Perry, which dealt with California’s Proposition 8. In 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down laws limiting marriage to those between one man and one woman. California voters reacted by passing a referendum known as Proposition 8 which amend California State Constitution to include marriage is only between one man and one woman under California law.
The Supreme Court of California saw Proposition 8 as only changing the name of marriage to domestic partnership, without affecting any actual rights.
A same-sex couple challenged Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.
What did SCOTUS do?
SCOTUS had several issues to address. However, SCOTUS decided to not touch any of them. SCOTUS said the same-sex couple lacked standing to sue because there was no personal or tangible harm.
In other words, an individual cannot sue just because they feel a particular law is unconstitutional. There needs to be a specific harm (for example Edith Windsor having to pay estate taxes).