Oct 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Here are 5 Supreme Court cases to watch this term

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s new term began this week with several major cases that could impact environmental regulations, voting rights, affirmative action and free speech.

The big picture: The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, saw widespread criticism following June’s overturning of Roe v. Wade — ending nearly 50 years of constitutional protections for abortion rights.

Here's a look at some of the biggest cases coming up this term.

1) Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

Kicking off the first day of the term, the justices heard oral arguments on a case that could limit the scope of a landmark federal environmental law: the Clean Water Act of 1972.

What we're watching: The Supreme Court will decide whether the proper test was used to decide if wetlands are “navigable waters” protected under the Clean Water Act.

Details: An Idaho couple submitted a bid to build a home located near Priest Lake that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed a protected wetland under the Clean Water Act.

  • The couple filed a petition in 2021 that asks the justices to revisit the 2006 Rapanos v. United States decision, which held that the Clean Water Act could regulate wetlands considered “navigable waters.” They want the court to clarify the EPA’s regulatory powers granted under the act.
  • After they started construction on a home-building project in April 2007, the EPA determined that under the Clean Water Act, the property owners were required to have a permit prior to beginning construction. The couple did not have the EPA’s permits, which prompted the EPA to halt their project and issue an administrative compliance order that imposed fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day, per their legal team.
  • In 2012, the couple sued the EPA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that the couple could challenge the EPA's compliance order and penalties. The EPA dropped the order but still required a permit for construction.
2) Moore v. Harper

The court will hear a voting rights case that examines states' power in federal elections.

What we're watching: The decision could allow state legislatures to set the rules for federal elections — even if they result in partisan gerrymandering or violate state constitutions.

Details: At the heart of the case is a legal theory called the independent state legislature doctrine based on the U.S. Constitution's election clause, which says "the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

3) Merrill v. Milligan

The court will hear a case Tuesday that could further undermine the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits discrimination in voting.

What we're watching: The ruling could impact how lawmakers in other states draw their congressional district maps.

Details: The Supreme Court earlier this year halted a lower court order requiring Alabama to redraw its congressional districting maps, which will used in the 2022 election. The lower court had ruled that the GOP-led state legislature's maps likely violated (VRA) by diluting Black voting power.

  • Civil rights advocates sued Alabama last November after the state legislature released its map, which has one single majority-Black district that includes "part of Birmingham and some of the Black Belt in Alabama," according to the ACLU.
  • "While Black people are about 27% of Alabama’s population, they are represented in only one of seven (14%) congressional districts," the ACLU noted.
  • Alabama has argued that drawing a second district would itself be racially discriminatory by favoring Black voters.
4) Students for Fair Admissions' challenges to affirmative action

The court will consider a pair of cases challenging the consideration of race in the college admissions processes.

What we're watching: The ruling could decide the future of affirmative action in higher education.

Details: Conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) is appealing lower court rulings that upheld race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

  • The group argues that Harvard's admissions standards discriminate against Asian American applicants while UNC discriminates against white and Asian American applicants.
  • The universities have maintained that race is only a single factor examined during their admissions process and that inhibiting them from doing so would have a significant impact in the number of underrepresented students on campus, Reuters has reported.
5) 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis

The court will hear a free-speech case over the rights of a business owner with a religious objection to working with same-sex couples on their weddings.

What we're watching: After the court previously sided with a baker who objected to making cakes for same-sex weddings, this ruling could be a new battleground for LGBTQ rights.

Details: A Colorado-based web designer's attorneys argue that her First Amendment rights were violated after a federal court sided with a Colorado law that says she must "work with all people regardless of ... sexual orientation."

  • The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Smith's attempt to overturn a lower court's decision to throw out her case, ruling that Colorado must protect the interests of marginalized groups under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
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