Supreme Court cases to watch as term nears end

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court is nearing the busiest part of its term, which usually ends in June, when it normally issues some of its most significant decisions.

Here are some cases to watch in the coming weeks.

Freedom of religion or discrimination?

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission the court will decide if a Colorado baker has a constitutional right to deny service to a gay couple because of his religious beliefs.

The owner of a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, told a gay couple in 2012 that he would not sell them a wedding cake because he does not design cakes for gay weddings.

The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission arguing that Phillips violated Colorado law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

State courts agreed with the couple but Phillips has appealed the decision, saying that baking is a form of artistic expression, and that if he were compelled to bake a cake for a gay couple, it would violate his First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

The Trump Justice Department has sided with Phillips in the case, arguing that because of the symbolism a wedding cake has as part of marriage ceremony, it constitutes an artistic expression that should be protected as freedom of speech.

The case has also drawn attention from dozens of First Amendment, religious freedom, and LGBTQ advocacy groups who have filed amicus briefs arguing on behalf of both sides.

The court’s decision in this case could have implications for freedom of speech and anti-discrimination laws alike because the justices will have to rule, not only on whether a wedding cake is protected speech, but on how states should enforce anti-discrimination laws that could be seen as infringing on speech.

Cell phone privacy

In Carpenter v. the United States, the court is considering whether police officers need a warrant before they can access cell phone records that reveal a person’s location.

The plaintiff, Timothy Carpenter, was convicted of multiple robbery and firearms offenses but challenged his conviction because the police officers investigating his case didn’t have a warrant for his cell phone records, according to ABC News’ Supreme Court Contributor Kate Shaw.

The government has argued that police didn’t need a warrant because the phone company already had Carpenter’s cell phone records and so he had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The case could have major implications for privacy in the digital age and for how much companies are required to protect data that could give away specific information about an individual.

Carpenter is being represented by the ACLU, and major companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have filed briefs agreeing with his argument that users should have a reasonable expectation of privacy because data transmitted by devices like smartphones could reveal so much personal information.

Fees for public unions

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, shortened to Janus v. AFSCME – the court will decide whether government workers can be required to pay fees to unions even if they aren’t members.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1977 found that government employees can be required to pay “fair share fees” to unions because the fees pay for contract negotiations that could benefit all employees, even if they aren’t part of the union.

But in this case, Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois, argues that the fees violate his First Amendment right because he doesn’t agree with all of the union’s political views.

The court also looked at the 1977 ruling in 2016 but was split 4-4 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, with conservative justices in favor of overturning the previous ruling.

Unions for teachers and other public employees argue that the court should uphold the 1977 ruling, saying that unions supported by fees advocate for all employees through collective bargaining.

Political gerrymandering

The issue of “gerrymandering” – or whether the borders of state political districts are drawn to advantage one political party over another – has been especially controversial over the last year and garnered even more attention ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections as the court considers cases that could have an impact on congressional districts in multiple states.

In Abbott v. Perez, the court will have to decide whether to overturn a Texas state court’s decision concerning congressional and state political districts redrawn after the 2010 census.

A state court found the districts’ boundaries violated the Voting Rights Act because they were drawn in a way that diluted the Latino and African-American vote. The court and state panels have since redrawn the maps but the high court will still have to decide if it has the jurisdiction to intervene and whether the current maps also discrimination against certain groups.

In a separate case, Benisek v Lamone, the court will consider political boundaries in Maryland. That case looks at whether the boundaries of congressional districts in the state led directly to Democratic victories in the 2012, 2014, or 2016 elections.

Online sales taxes

In South Dakota v Wayfair the court is being asked to decide if a state can force online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases, even if they have no physical presence in that state.

South Dakota is asking the justices to overturn a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that said retailers do not have to collect state sales tax on purchases on online purchases if the company has no physical presence in that state.

But online shopping has exploded since then and the South Dakota attorney general argued that the state is missing out on “massive” tax revenue from companies like Wayfair, which sells furniture online. South Dakota passed a state law in 2016 that said retailers with more than $100,000 in annual sales – or 200 sales per year – have to pay state sales taxes, even if they don’t have any stores or offices in the state.

Lawyers for Wayfair, joined by online retailers and NewEgg, argued that if there is a change to how taxes are collected that should be legislated by Congress, not through the courts. The companies also argued that the growth of online shopping has made tax systems even more complex and that overturning the previous ruling would make the system overly complicated.

If the court overturns the previous ruling it could mean that the cost of online transactions will go up as states impose sales taxes, which some groups say would level the playing field for small businesses.

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