The Supreme Court is expected to hand down several blockbuster opinions in the next few weeks as one of the most politically volatile terms in recent memory draws to a close.
The hot-button issues awaiting decisions include fights over abortion, Electoral College procedures, LGBT rights in the workplace, the deportation status of nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants and the fate of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMitt Romney invokes late father during the Civil Rights Movement amid protests White House wanted to deploy 10,000 troops to control protests: reports Zuckerberg, Chan-funded scientists pen ‘letter of concern’ over Trump, misinformation MORE‘s tax returns.
With the rulings arriving less than five months before Election Day, closely divided decisions — particularly those that may fall along ideological lines — could make control over future court vacancies an even more pressing issue when voters cast their ballots.
Here are the biggest arguments awaiting decisions.
Trump’s financial records
A landmark separation of powers fight involves overlapping efforts by Congress and New York state prosecutors to obtain years of Trump’s financial records and tax returns.
The justices seemed split along ideological lines during oral arguments last month in the dispute over subpoenas issued by a trio of Democratic-led House committees. The court’s conservatives tended to focus on the risk of granting Congress overly broad powers, including the potential for presidential harassment, while the liberal bloc voiced concerns about unduly restraining lawmakers.
The court appeared more aligned during the second argument, a criminal case from New York that could determine if Trump’s tax returns are ultimately seen by the public. That case, Trump v. Vance, concerns a grand jury subpoena for access to eight years of Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns.
The justices strained to reconcile Supreme Court rulings against Presidents Nixon and Clinton with the argument advanced by Trump’s lawyer that presidents should enjoy blanket immunity from any criminal process.
LGBT workplace protections
A set of cases before the court will decide whether civil rights laws protect gay and transgender employees from discrimination in the workplace.
The cases center around the wording of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits employer discrimination on the basis of “sex.” The Trump administration and social conservatives argue that Congress did not intend for that term to cover sexual orientation or gender identity, a theory that could demolish legal protections for LGBT employees if the court adopts it.
The justice to watch in these cases is Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchChief Justice Roberts wisely defers to California governor in church challenge It wasn’t just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled Supreme Court denies California church’s challenge to state restrictions MORE, who has advocated for a strict judicial approach that adheres to statutory language. During oral arguments in October, he admitted that the question for him is “really close,” but that he worries about a “massive social upheaval” if the court rules in favor of gay and transgender employees.
One of the cases was brought by Aimee Stephens, who sued the Michigan funeral home where she worked after she was fired for coming out as a woman. Stephens died last month at the age of 59. The two other cases were brought by men in Georgia and New York state who allege they were fired for being gay.
David Cole, an ACLU lawyer representing the employees, pushed back on Gorsuch’s concerns about a “social upheaval.”
“There are transgender male lawyers in this courtroom following the male dress code and going to the men’s room and the court’s dress code and sex-segregated restrooms have not fallen,” Cole said. “So the notion that somehow this is going to be a huge upheaval, we haven’t seen that upheaval for 20 years, there’s no reason you would see that upheaval. Transgender people follow the rule that’s associated with their gender identity. It’s not disruptive.”
Deportation protections for undocumented immigrants
One of the most closely watched cases this term concerns Trump’s move to end Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. At stake in the fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is the deportation status of nearly 700,000 people.
Chief Justice John Roberts could be the swing vote between the court’s conservative and liberal blocs, which appeared sharply divided during arguments in November. Roberts has penned two consequential 5-4 majority opinions dealing with Trump’s immigration policy, casting deciding votes in favor of Trump’s travel ban and against adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The case is likely to boil down to whether the Trump administration provided an adequate justification for its decision to terminate the DACA program, and whether it’s the proper role of the court to second-guess such administrative decision-making.
It’s difficult to overstate the case’s political import as a generation of undocumented immigrants awaits a decision that could strip them of their legal status. Trump is counting on his hardline immigration stance to energize his base in November, while Democrats have put outreach to immigrant communities and Hispanic voters at the center of their electoral agenda.
Louisiana’s abortion law
The first major abortion case of the Trump-era court see the justices revisit protections that emerged from the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
The Louisiana case asks the justices to decide whether a state law, which requires that doctors who perform abortions be able to admit patients at a local hospital, places an unconstitutional burden on a woman’s right to abortion.
In 2016, the court struck down a similar Texas law 5-3, with then-Justice Anthony Kennedy voting alongside the court’s reliably liberal bloc. But Kennedy has since retired, and with the additions of Trump’s appointees — Gorsuch and Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughWhy the Senate must vote against Justin Walker’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court Senate panel sends Trump appeals court pick to floor in party-line vote Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony MORE — the court now tilts more conservative. That shift has abortion-rights advocates worried.
The case represents yet another test of Roberts’s role as the court’s new ideological center, likely placing the deciding vote in his hands.
Analysts say Roberts may be inclined to join the liberals in striking down the Louisiana law given how similar it is to the Texas law the court invalidated four years earlier.
Roberts is considered an institutionalist justice, preferring to decide cases in harmony with prior Supreme Court rulings when possible.
In a case that could have serious ramifications for the 2020 presidential election, the court will have to decide whether states are allowed to regulate the votes of the representatives they send to the Electoral College.
A group of “faithless electors” — Electoral College voters who cast their ballots for someone who did not win a majority of their state’s popular vote — are challenging laws in Colorado and Washington that forbid them from going rogue.
When the justices heard the case last month, they appeared uneasy at the prospect of unleashing electors to vote for whoever they wanted, which some said could lead to “chaos.”
“Those who disagree with your argument say that it would lead to chaos,” Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoChief Justice Roberts wisely defers to California governor in church challenge Supreme Court rules immigrants who fear torture can appeal deportations in court It wasn’t just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled MORE told one of the lawyers arguing on the electors’ behalf. “That where the popular vote is close and changing just a few votes would alter the outcome or throw it into the House of Representatives — the rational response of the losing political party or elements within the losing political party would be to launch a massive campaign to try to influence electors and there would be a long period of uncertainty about who the next president was going to be.”
Lawrence Lessig, the renowned activist and Harvard Law professor representing the electors, has been upfront about his opposition to the Electoral College system and how the lawsuit is intended to make it unpalatable for the American public.
“The states have a problem with the idea of an Electoral College and they want to write it out,” Lessig’s colleague on the legal team, Jason Harrow, told the court. “Perhaps we would be better off without indirect election, because this months-long multi-step process of presidential selection presents some risk of instability, no matter who wins this case.”
“But until we have an article five amendment, the vote of real humans, called presidential electors isn’t going away,” he added. “To make sure the system we have works sensibly, given the constitution we have now when those human electors do vote by ballot, they must be permitted to do so with discretion.”
Religious exemptions from discrimination suits
A pair of Los Angeles-area Catholic schools asked the justices to find them immune from discrimination lawsuits brought by two former teachers, in a case that pits First Amendment safeguards for religious employers against workers’ rights.
The former teachers are Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who claims she suffered age discrimination, and now-deceased Kristen Biel, whose widower said Biel’s school fired her in violation of disability laws while she battled breast cancer.
The cases ask the justices to bring clarity to a somewhat murky area of law known as the “ministerial exception.” This First Amendment doctrine prohibits lawsuits by employees who are considered “ministers” due to the religious nature of their work.
A lawyer for the former employees told the Supreme Court that while there were some religious aspects to his clients’ teaching jobs, those limited duties were not enough to trigger a religious exemption for the schools.
The justices appeared divided in oral arguments last month over what kind of religious features must be present to strip grade-school teachers of their right to sue for job discrimination.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
The court will be deciding the fate of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a case that has become a flashpoint in a partisan battle over financial reform and the president’s constitutional powers.
Conservative lawmakers and the financial sector have been targeting the agency since it was created in 2010 in response to the Great Recession, blasting it as an unaccountable, heavy-handed bureaucracy. The legal challenge was brought by a firm called Seila Law, which sued over a set of subpoenas it was issued on the grounds that the CFPB is unconstitutionally structured.
Congress designed the bureau to be led by a single director who can only be fired by the president for things like malfeasance, which was intended to shield the CFPB from being influenced by the industry it polices. Conservatives backing Seila’s lawsuit contend that those firing protections place an unconstitutional restriction on the president’s ability to fire executive branch personnel.
During oral arguments in March, the justices appeared to divide along ideological lines with the liberal wing largely expressing sympathy for the CFPB and the conservatives showing concern over constraints on executive power.
“You talked about liberty. Now whose liberty are we speaking of?” Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgIt wasn’t just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled Speculation swirls about next Supreme Court vacancy Supreme Court divided over fight for Trump’s financial records MORE said to Seila’s attorney. “What about the consumers? I mean, Congress passed this law so that the consumers would be better protected against financial fraud. And you’re talking about, I suppose, the liberty of your client. But what about the people that Congress was concerned about, that is, the consumers who were not well protected by the array of agencies that were handling these problems?”
Despite the predictable ideological divide, there are multiple routes the court can take in deciding the case, from ruling on the constitutionality of the agency altogether, to altering its leadership structure or even deciding that the case is not a proper venue for deciding any of those questions.