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This year's Supreme Court term featured major rulings on abortion, religion and immigration and included a fair number of surprises. In nearly all of the major cases, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was in control, aligning sometimes with his fellow conservatives and at other times with the court's four liberals.
One surprise ruling extended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ employees, and another blocked President Trump's repeal of the Obama-era program that protects the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
The chief justice also cast the deciding vote to strike down a Louisiana law limiting abortions.
Trump and financial records
May a New York grand jury require President Trump's accountants and bankers to turn over records revealing his personal tax returns and financial dealings?
Yes, the court said in a 7-2 ruling in Trump vs. Vance. The chief justice rejected Trump's claim of "absolute immunity" and said the grand jury operating in secret may demand documents and records it needs to investigate potential crimes. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
May three House committees require the president and his accountants to turn over a massive amount of financial and banking records going back to 2010? No, or not until the committees demonstrate to a judge why all the records are needed and are relevant to new legislation, the court said in another 7-2 ruling in Trump vs. Mazars USA. Thomas and Alito dissented and said they would have blocked the subpoena.
Abortion and clinic doctors
May a state require that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles?
No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in June Medical Services vs. Russo.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by the three other liberal justices, said the admitting privileges rule would do more harm than good for pregnant women because it would likely result in the closing of all but one of the state's abortion providers. The chief justice concurred in the outcome based on precedent: The court had struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016. In dissent were Justices Thomas, Alito, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
LGBTQ and workplace rights
Do the federal civil rights laws protect LGBTQ employees from discrimination in the workplace nationwide?
Yes, the court said in a 6-3 ruling citing the words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says employers may not fire or refuse to hire employees based on their race, religion, sex or national origin. And the court decided that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is discrimination based on sex.
Justice Gorsuch wrote the court's opinion in Bostock vs. Clayton County. He agreed that lawmakers in 1964 may not have intended to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer employees, but he said the court relies on the words of the law, not the aims of the lawmakers. Justices Thomas, Alito and Kavanaugh dissented.
Dreamers and immigration law
Did Trump lawfully repeal the Obama-era order that shielded young immigrants who were brought to this country as children?
No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling written by Chief Justice Roberts. He said that while the president had the legal authority to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, his administration failed to give a reasoned explanation for ending a policy that encouraged about 700,000 immigrants to register with the government to obtain work permits and avoid deportation. While Trump could change policies, his administration did not comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, the court said in Department of Homeland Security vs. Regents of the University of California. Trump's aides had relied on former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and his questionable claim that the policy was illegal from the start. In dissent were Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
Religion and schools
May a state exclude church schools from a state-sponsored tuition aid program that supports students in other private schools, or does that exclusion amount to unconstitutional discrimination against religion?
That is unconstitutional discrimination based on religion, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in Espinoza vs. Montana. The Montana Supreme Court had blocked the $500 grants on the grounds that the state's constitution, like those of most states, forbids giving tax money to churches or their affiliates. But Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the court, said the discriminatory policy violates the 1st Amendment and its protection for the free exercise of religion. In dissent were Justices Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
President and independent agencies
Did Congress violate the separation of powers and the president's executive authority when it created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 as an "independent bureau," which would be led by a director who was appointed by the president but could not be fired except for "neglect of duty or malfeasance in office."
Yes, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in Seila Law vs. CFPB. Chief Justice Roberts said that putting a single director in charge of the agency and giving her a fixed term violates the president's executive authority. He said the president must be authorized to remove top officials. But the chief justice said his opinion did not extend to independent agencies which are governed by a board or by multiple commissioners.
Religion and teachers
Are church-run schools entitled to a religious exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws when it comes to hiring and firing teachers ?
Yes, the court said in a 7-2 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru. The decision, based on two cases from Los Angeles County, tossed out discrimination lawsuits filed by two former teachers who taught fifth grade. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the 1st Amendment and its protection for the free exercise of religion means the government cannot tell a church whom to employ for positions at a church school if the church deems those jobs critical to its religious mission. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.
Electoral college and states
Can a state require its appointed electors to cast their presidential ballots in the electoral college for the candidate who won the most popular support in the state?
Yes, the court said in a 9-0 ruling in Chiafalo vs. Washington. The justices overturned a ruling by a federal appeals court in Denver which held that the Constitution as written in 1787 envisioned that electors were free to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. Writing for the court, Justice Kagan said that while that may been understood at the start, the electoral college became by the early 1800s a means of tallying the votes of the states. In nearly every state, all the electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who won the state's popular vote. The electors are "not free agents," she said.
Religion and birth control
May the Trump administration exempt employers who cite religious or moral objections from part of the Affordable Care Act that requires providing no-cost contraceptives to employees?
Yes, the court said by a 7-2 vote in Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Pennsylvania. The decision overturned a ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court in Philadelphia which had blocked the Trump rule from taking effect on both legal and procedural grounds. Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, said the administration had the legal authority to carve out a broader religious exemption for employers. But the 3rd Circuit did not yet rule on whether the regulation violated the Administrative Procedure Act, so the ruling is not final. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.
Native Americans and crime
Does Oklahoma have the authority to prosecute serious crimes committed by Native Americans on land that was part of a historic reservation? No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in McGirt vs. Oklahoma. Writing for the court, Justice Gorsuch said Congress had never disestablished or revoked the treaty that created the Creek Nation in eastern Oklahoma, and a federal law says U.S. authorities, not the state, have jurisdiction to prosecute serious crimes there committed by Native Americans. In dissent were Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Kavanaugh.