US Supreme Court soon to decide on pivotal, divisive issues

Business, Crime, Healthcare, Politics, Privacy, Rights

With the close of the 2013-2014 U.S. Supreme Court term quickly approaching, many Supreme Court enthusiasts are anxiously anticipating the fate of several pivotal and divisive high court petitions. Of the dozen or so petitions awaiting decision, the topic areas could not possibly be more varied. In addition to First Amendment questions, the Supreme Court is grappling with issues related to shareholder derivative actions, employee unions, executive powers and the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements. Some highlighted cases are explored in greater depth below, including the highly publicized, polarizing case involving craft conglomerate Hobby Lobby Inc. and its arguments in opposition to the mandatory provision of so-called abortifacient drugs.

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.

Hold on to your glue guns, the opinion in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. promises to bring about a firestorm of debate over a range of issues, most notably President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as it relates to businesses seeking to avoid the requirement to fund healthcare plans that include coverage for certain forms of preventative contraception.

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2009-2014 and petitioner in the case, appealed to the Supreme Court in October of last year seeking its review of Hobby Lobby’s assertions that it should not have to provide health insurance to employees if those policies cover certain contraceptive methods, since doing so allegedly violates religious freedoms protected under the First Amendment.

According to the petitioner’s arguments, which span a hefty 206-page petition for writ of certiorari, the government heavily subsidizes private healthcare plans to the tune of $249 billion per year, thereby allowing it to establish minimum coverage standards. These minimum standards, which have historically been decided by Congress, were expanded by the Affordable Care Act and include a mandatory provision of contraception as part of an employer-backed health insurance policy.

The petition relies on data showing that women, due to unique health and reproductive issues, pay on average 68 percent more than men in out-of-pocket healthcare costs, and women often avoid pursuing preventative contraceptive measures altogether. Healthcare plans currently mandate providing coverage for the “full range of contraceptive methods approved by the [Food and Drug Administration], as well as sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling.”

By contrast, respondent Hobby Lobby relies on the language of the First Amendment-derived Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to argue it should not have to provide coverage for four of the 20 methods approved by the FDA, as doing so would violate its religious convictions. Hobby Lobby is a faith-based organization with over 13,000 employees across 500 stores. The chain refuses to sell shot glasses, is closed on Sundays and provides employees with free access to spiritual counseling. Its convictions also prevent it from offering contraception, including RU-486, Plan B, Ella and two types of intrauterine devices, on the grounds that these devices or medications work to terminate an established pregnancy.

By refusing to offer the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive devices, Hobby Lobby stands to incur a massive financial penalty of up to an estimated $1.3 million per day in government fines.

The outcome and implications of this case are likely to dramatically affect the health insurance landscape, possibly causing many other businesses to rely on RFRA to alleviate and offset some of the costs associated with full-spectrum healthcare plans.

Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie

On an entirely different note, the Supreme Court is also trying to establish guidelines regarding cell phone searches, specifically how the Fourth Amendment applies to warrantless cell phone searches by police. Can, for example, the police use digital information gathered from a suspect at the time of an arrest to pursue an additional suspect, search for contraband, or obtain a subsequent search warrant?

In Riley v. California, officers scrolled through a suspect’s phone after discovering loaded firearms in his vehicle during a traffic stop. While doing so, the officer discovered digital evidence of a possible gang affiliation and photographic evidence linking him to another crime. Based in large part on the information contained in the phone, the suspect was ultimately convicted of attempted murder, shooting at an occupied vehicle and assault with a semi-automatic firearm.

In United States v. Wurie, law enforcement followed similar protocol after arresting a suspect following an alleged drug deal presumably arranged by cell phone. Police scrolled through the suspect’s call log, retrieved several recently dialed numbers and ultimately landed at a residence containing the primary cache of cocaine.

The Supreme Court is presented with a near-identical issue in both instances, with defendants in both cases arguing that such searches are illegal given the legal precedent set by countless cases requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before searching any area within which the owner would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. By contrast, law enforcement asserts it has always been allowed to search a suspect and his surrounding arms-reach area, known as the “wingspan rule.”

Other notables

In American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo Inc., the Supreme Court will determine whether start-up Aereo, which rebroadcasts television shows online for a small fee, is violating federal copyright laws by reconstituting content without paying applicable licensing fees. In oral argument, the Court took a winding journey down technology lane, comparing Aereo’s business model to other technologies including the digital video recorder, cable television, Dropbox and cloud-based software programs.

The Court will also wrestle with more controversial social issues, including whether state employees in Illinois are required to join the union, as in the case of Harris v. Quinn, and the extent to which the First Amendment will allow restrictions on protests and demonstrations outside abortion clinics, as in the case of McCullen v. Coakely.