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2022-23 SCOTUS Major Decisions, and Ramifications

August 2, 2023

The Supreme Court of the United States released decisions this term that wiped away decades of progress. As the term neared its end, the outcomes only seemed to get worse. One thing should be noted up front: The Court selects all of its cases aside from a small amount that the Constitution requires the Court to hear. What this means is the individual Justices get to decide whether or not to hear a case – it takes four votes to grant review. So whenever any Justice is replaced with a new one by presidents of different parties, that can change not only the outcome of cases, but also which cases are even given attention in the first place. 

Here is an explanation of some of the decisions from this Supreme Court of the United States term. 

Major 2022-23 SCOTUS Decisions:

SFFA v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (and UNC):

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that was formed to challenge affirmative action programs in college admissions. They filed suits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina to try to invalidate affirmative action under the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court held that affirmative action violates the Equal Protection Clause. The elimination of affirmative action will make it much harder for Black and brown students to get into college.

Glacier Northwest v Teamsters:

This was a challenge brought by a company against union strikers. The company alleged that the union strikers destroyed much of their property by leaving wet cement in cement trucks and then abandoning their vehicles. The company wanted to sue in state court but the question was whether the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law, preempts or trumps state lawsuits of this kind. The Court ruled that they don’t and that the state lawsuit can go forward. This will have a profound effect on union organizing going forward. Unions will have to be more careful in deciding where and how to organize and strike or cost their unions a lot of money in court costs and damages. The case has the potential to financially gut unions.

303 Creative v. Elenis:

This case was brought by a business, 303 Creative, and its owner, Lorie Smith, as a pre-enforcement challenge to the application of Colorado’s public accommodations law. Smith’s business does website design, among other things. She claimed that she was thinking about making wedding websites but opposes same-sex marriage and would decline to make wedding websites for LGBTQ+ people. She believed Colorado’s public accommodations law would punish her for that. The Court ruled in her favor: it said she had Article III “standing”, the right to bring the lawsuit in federal court and that Colorado’s law would violate the First Amendment if it’s applied to businesses like hers. The decision is an enormous setback for LGBTQ+ rights and it will most likely embolden anti-LGBTQ+ business owners to discriminate. The dissent noted that people will start putting up “no gays allowed” signs at their businesses – and since this was a First Amendment case, it can’t simply be changed by federal or state law.

Biden v Nebraska:

Nebraska and five other states sued the Biden administration alleging that it  doesn’t have authority under federal law to cancel student debt. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Nebraska that Biden had overstepped federal authority when the administration announced the cancellation of up to $400 billion in student loans. This ruling limits the administration’s ability to address the crippling student debt crisis. 

Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh/Gonzalez v. Google LLC:

This decision involved whether social media companies can be held liable for certain terrorist attacks. The tech companies were sued based on theories that their websites and algorithms were set up to show people terrorist materials. The Court ruled that the companies can’t be sued. This ruling makes it difficult to stop terrorist recruitment online and hold tech companies accountable. One silver lining of the case is that it didn’t address the so-called “Section 230” arguments which would have fundamentally changed the way everyone uses the internet.

Moore v. Harper:

This case was a challenge to a 2021 North Carolina state districting map, it ultimately involved a conservative legal theory called independent state legislature theory. Moore argued that because the Constitution uses “the Legislature” in the Elections Clauses, a state’s legislature can regulate elections but not a state’s courts or constitutional provision – this is the independent state legislature theory. If successful, the argument would have applied to areas such as partisan or racial gerrymandering, voter ID provisions, just to name a few. The Court ruled against Morre, which means North Carolina keeps their existing electoral maps in place and courts will be able to step in when legislatures do something unconstitutional.

Merrill v. Milligan:

This was a case brought by several plaintiffs challenging Congressional Districts in Alabama. Alabama only has one majority-Black district despite having about a 25% Black population. The plaintiffs, led by Milligan, argued that Black voters have been deliberately packed into a single district to dilute their voting power. The plaintiffs argue that this is unlawful under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Court sided with Milligan and therefore the plaintiffs will be able to have a second majority-Black district in the state.

Reed v. Goertz:

This was a case brought by an incarcerated person, Rodney Reed, who challenged the denial of DNA testing to prove his innocence. Reed argued that the state’s procedures for DNA testing are unfair for multiple reasons, but here, he cited the state statute of limitations in the case should be held only to start once the initial state challenge to denial of DNA testing is over, including appeals. The Court sided with Reed establishing that the statute of limitations begins when litigation is completed.

Noteworthy Cases

Sackett v. EPA: This was a challenge brought by a couple against the EPA. The Sacketts want to build a house on land that has been classified as wetlands. Under the EPA and its regulations, water is defined as “the waters of the United States” with another provision that explicitly includes wetlands that meet certain circumstances. In this case, the Court severely limited what qualifies as a wetland. Wetlands occupy much of the US and are home to important organisms and species, and thus are incredibly important to environmental preservation. The Court changed the definition of “waters of the United States” to require bodies of water to have a “continuous surface connection” to wetlands to qualify for EPA protection. Now developers and big businesses will be able to change those areas without permits.

Jones v. Hendrix: This case involves a federal prisoner who was trying to prove his actual innocence in court after he had already filed one habeas corpus petition (which hadn’t raised the issue at hand because the evidence wasn’t priorly available). You only get one chance to file a habeas petition in federal court, but there is a law that is supposed to serve as an escape hatch of sorts if the habeas law is “inadequate or ineffective” to get the relief sought for – it is known as a savings clause. In this case, the Court ruled that the savings clause is no help to incarcerated people in this situation, even those who are actually innocent, or in this person’s case who is  in prison for a crime that is no longer a crime.