Supreme Court issues several surprise rulings at term’s end

Politics, News, Rights

We recently reported on some of the most pivotal cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The Court has issued several rulings this week, settling a number of divisive issues. Here, a  brief overview of the Court’s holdings:

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.

In the nation’s most closely-watched case of the 2013-2014 term, the Court’s Hobby Lobby decision descended today in favor of the craft conglomerate. The court ruled that religious freedoms under the First Amendment, further solidified by the Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA), trump the rights of Congress to mandate minimum standards for employer-backed health plans, particularly with regard to providing certain types of birth control.

The opinion was authored by Justice Alito, who was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts, and applied the constitutional standard of “strict scrutiny.” The standard is applied when the government acts in a way that violates an individual’s, or corporation’s, fundamental rights.

The standard dictates that the government may only sidestep a fundamental right – here, the right to the free exercise of religion – if doing so advances a compelling government interest and if the government’s methods of trouncing on the fundamental right are as unobtrusive as possible.

In applying this standard, the Court found that the government’s interest in requiring employers to provide all FDA-approved birth control methods was not compelling enough in light of Hobby Lobby’s right to freely exercise its religious belief against providing some types of contraception. The Court pointed to the fact that Hobby Lobby believes it will be facilitating abortions by providing certain types of contraception – those that can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting – and, by refusing to provide this contraception, will face a fine of $475 million per year. As written by Justice Alito, “if these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”

This substantial burden was enough to sway a majority of the Court in favor of Hobby Lobby, ruling that the congressional mandates are an unconstitutional infringement upon the corporation’s religious rights.

Note: The Court found no evidence in the language of RFRA to support the argument that Congress intended to exclude a corporation from the legal definition of “person,” which has historically included corporations.

Multiple dissents were authored by justices in the minority. Perhaps the highlight was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s 35-page dissent in which she asserted that applying RFRA to uphold Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs unfairly burdens the company’s female employees, their families and dependents. Ginsberg maintains that Congress never intended RFRA to be so far-reaching. 

Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie

In both Riley and Wurie, the Court was considering whether police may initiate a warrantless search of a suspect’s cell phone and use information gained from that search in the investigation and prosecution of other crimes.

Opponents reminded the Court of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, while proponents argued that requiring the police to obtain a warrant could result in the destruction of evidence.

In its opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court resoundingly concluded that, in general, police must obtain a warrant before rifling through a suspect’s phone for evidence of a crime. The court centered its opinion on the language of the Fourth Amendment itself, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government or law enforcement.

The Court rejected arguments that compared the search of a cell phone with the search of a suspect’s pockets or wallet – warrantless conduct which is generally permissible in the case of a valid arrest.

The Court reiterated that modern cell phones often contain the user’s most personal information, and accessing all of that data is not comparable to searching a wallet. In the Court’s words, “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”

The Court’s simple message to law enforcement: Get a warrant.

American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo Inc.

In the David vs. Goliath of this term, Goliath reigned supreme as the Court resoundingly rejected Aereo’s bid to stream copyrighted material over the internet. The Court held that Aereo must obtain a license just like any other re-broadcaster.

Aereo, which uses small antennae to collect over-the-air broadcasts and re-broadcast the content to users for $8 per month, appeared to be operating a business model much like cable television or Netflix. However, as the Court pointed out, the small start-up was not paying any re-transmission fees to the networks holding copyrights to the material and was essentially violating the Copyright Act of 1976.

The Court rejected Aereo’s contention that its services were no different than old-fashioned “rabbit ears,” which are used to capture over-the-air broadcasts and transmit those waves to television. Instead, the Court relied on contentions by broadcasting giants like ABC and Fox that this type of technology would cut into their billion-dollar incomes from retransmission fees, and force networks to begin airing content only on cable television affiliates.

Other Cases

In McCullen v. Coakley, the Court ruled against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in its bid to maintain a 35-foot buffer zone between protestors and abortion clinics. The Court unanimously ruled the buffer zone to be an unconstitutional infringement upon protestors’ First Amendment rights.