It's the end of June, which means school’s almost out for the Supreme Court, which means it's time to wonder how the Supremes might massively alter the course of American society this year. Like most summer blockbusters, these final decisions are greeted with combined feelings of intense anticipation and worries of whether they can live up to expectations.
There are three big decisions left to be announced before the end of the month, and all of them could have a big effect on young people. Here's a rundown of where things stand as we enter the home stretch.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt
All three of the big cases left come from Texas; make of that what you will. The first deals with abortion, and the decision could have a huge impact on whether women in rural areas will be able to find anywhere to get one. Back in 2013, the state legislature passed House Bill 2, which mandates that all abortions be conducted in hospital-like facilities, and that all doctors performing these procedures have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The bill's sponsors said they were thinking only of women's health, while opponents of the legislation say it puts an "undue burden" on the women trying to get abortions in the state — something that the Supreme Court said that states could not do back during another case on this subject in 1992.
When the law went into effect the following year, more than half of the clinics in the state closed. There are fewer than 20 clinics left in all of Texas, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News, which means that women in rural areas end up driving nearly a hundred miles to find one. Several groups have popped up in the past few years to help women who don't have the money or means to drive those long distances. These groups also help women pay for the costs of staying in the city overnight, as the state also mandates that women wait 24 hours after getting an ultrasound before getting an abortion. There are also long wait times for the procedure, since there are hardly any clinics left. That means that women usually have to pay more for the abortion, too, as the price goes up the further along you are in a pregnancy. Many women have responded to the law by finding unsafe ways to get an abortion, like obtaining pills from Mexico.
Jason Isaac, one of the sponsors of the bill, told NPR that he didn't see how these changes constituted an undue burden on women. "Hopefully, they'll be more preventative and not get pregnant."
What could happen?
Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the fate of this issue has become far murkier. There are four liberal justices who will probably vote against Texas's law, and three conservative justices who will side with the state. That leaves Anthony Kennedy, perpetual swing vote, as the person who could decide whether the decision ends in a tie or in a 5-3 defeat of HB 2. He's hard to read on this one, because he has sided both with and against abortion rights.
Of course, in this topsy-turvy term without a ninth justice, the Court might also decide to save such a big issue until they are fully staffed. If the decision ends with a tie, Texas's law gets to remain, pleasing anti-abortion activists in the state but limiting the impact of the case — there are at least nine other states with laws similar to Texas's, and probably more that are debating this type of law in state legislatures right now. In Texas, however, the immediate impact of a tie will be more closed clinics. There are only about 10 clinics in the state that fulfill the requirements in the law — the rest have been put on standby until the decision comes down. The Los Angeles Times notes that it can take up to four years to build a clinic that would stand up to the requirements in HB 2. NPR adds that the renovations can cost $1 million.
The law could be overturned too — and we'll have to wait to hear what the justices say to understand the complete ramifications of such a decision.
Blocked laws in other states would probably be affected by any decision. In Louisiana, a law mandating that all abortion providers have admitting privileges at a hospital is on hold. If the Texas law is upheld, only one provider could remain in Louisiana. In Mississippi, there is only one clinic left. The law requiring that abortion doctors have admitting privileges is currently stalled while the legal gears churn.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin
When the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action back in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." About 10 years later, the Court considered another affirmative action suit; the decision was basically a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — it was sent back for a second round at a lower court. This year, the Court heard the same case, with the same plaintiff, again, and it could end affirmative action long before that 25-year benchmark.
The case features Abigail Fisher, a white woman who did not get into her first-choice school, the University of Texas at Austin, eight years ago. She claims that she did not get in because she is white, which sent this whole legal ball rolling.
It seems somewhat odd that the fate of affirmative action could be decided by Fisher, given how admissions works at UT Austin. About 75 percent of each freshman class is chosen by the state’s Top 10 Percent Plan — across Texas, the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class gets admitted to the school. In 2008, the year that Fisher applied, 92 percent of the class was chosen from the Top 10 pool — probably because a higher percentage of Top 10 students were eager to go to the school that year. The remaining 25 percent of the class is determined by a bunch of other factors meant to make the class as well-rounded as possible. Race is one of those factors. The quirks of this system — no other public university system does it quite this way — also shows that there is a simpler reason why Fisher didn't get into UT Austin: Her grades weren't high enough. Also, as ProPublica reported, some of the non–Top 10 applicants being considered had lower grades than Fisher: "Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white." ProPublica adds that "168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher's … were also denied entry into the university that year." And if she had REALLY been upset about having to go somewhere else, UT Austin lets students with good grades transfer there after their freshman year. The facts of the case are far more complex than Affirmative Action: Good or Bad?
What might happen?
The Chronicle of Higher Education argues that Fisher is the rare decision where Scalia's death wouldn't have a big effect — despite the fact that he was one of the biggest haters of affirmative action. Elena Kagan won't be voting; she has recused herself because of her previous work on the case as U.S. solicitor general. Kennedy has a history of not siding with affirmative action programs, which seems to signal that UT Austin's program is in peril. But the big question that remains uncertain is this: Will the Court make moves to influence affirmative action programs beyond Texas? SCOTUSblog thinks a precedent-setting opinion is unlikely, since it might be harder to get a majority for a big, broad opinion — and they really don't want everything to end in a tie this year.
The Court could also decide that Fisher didn't have the right to sue the school in the first place, noting that it’s unlikely she would have been admitted in a race-blind admissions process, or noting that the point of the suit is irrelevant since she has graduated. The most she could get out of this is an application-fee refund.
What impact could a big decision against affirmative action have?
Despite what O'Connor wrote more than a decade ago, 25 years won't be enough time to solve racial inequality in higher education, and it seems insane to even write that in a decision, given where we are right now. As FiveThirtyEight notes, "Black students are underrepresented by at least 20 percent at 79 percent of the country’s research universities" and "Hispanic students are underrepresented by at least 20 percent at 82 percent of the country’s public research universities." That gap is wider in states that have affirmative action bans.
United States v. Texas
Although the title sounds like how you might describe all political battles in Texas, this specific case deals with President Obama's executive actions on immigration — the ones that would temporarily let the undocumented parents of DREAMers stay in the country and work, as well as letting a larger number of children brought here as undocumented immigrants stay in the country. Obama enacted that policy back in 2014, and it has been in legal limbo ever since. Twenty-five states have joined Texas in the suit, all accusing the president of sneaking more power than allotted to him in the Constitution. Specifically, Texas argues that its suit is a valid one because it is worried about the cost of providing drivers' licenses to the undocumented immigrants who are granted legal status — which probably sounds more eloquent on a legal document than "Thanks, Obama."
The Obama administration says that it enacted the stalled policy because of inaction in Congress. The legal status of around 4 million immigrants could be affected by the justices' opinions — not to mention all the children who are unsure whether their parents will be allowed to stay in the country.
How do things look right now?
Most reporters seemed to think that — surprise! — the justices seemed divided on this issue. If this case ended in a tie, Obama's program would remain where it has been since first being conjured — stuck in timeout and feeling very lonely and useless — but there would be no big pronouncements on what presidential power means. If the Court decides it's OK with this use of presidential authority, Reuters argues that could help a hypothetical President Trump, who also happens to have ideas about immigration and presidential power — ideas that would, of course, have the opposite intended effects of Obama's plan.
Odds and ends
Now for some cases that just got decided, or won't get any hearing at the Supreme Court. On Monday, the Court issued a decision in Utah v. Strieff, a case about the rights of those being searched by the police. In a 5-3 vote, the Court decided that officers who illegally stopped people on the street, and then used evidence found against them — like illegal drugs, or an outstanding warrant located while looking them up — were not violating the Fourth Amendment.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not like this opinion. At all. Her dissent, which cited Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin, among other modern thinkers, may have rendered the decision it disagreed with an ant hill of smoldering embers.
The Court also decided on Monday that it didn't really want to hear a challenge to Connecticut's assault weapons ban; dealing with a Second Amendment lawsuit after all the other heady legal issues it has had to solve, all while annoyingly understaffed the past few months — thanks, Congress! — was probably the last thing on their bucket list.