Supreme Court decides federal judges cannot block gerrymandering

From today’s CNBC Online:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts may not block gerrymandering in a 5-4 decision that fell along partisan lines.

The court also ruled, in a separate high-profile case decided Thursday, that the Trump administration’s reasoning for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was insufficient, effectively blocking the question for now.

On the final day of decisions before the court’s summer recess, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinions of the court in both cases.

The closely watched case on a charged political matter comes in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. The decision was met with scorn by some Democrats running for president, including former vice president Joe Biden, and a sharp dissent from the liberal justices.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the redistricting case. He said those asking the top court to block gerrymandered districts effectively sought “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” he wrote.

The court’s decision prompted a fierce reply from its liberal wing. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

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SCOTUS To Hear Cases On Title VII Protections For LGBTQ Employees

From today’s NPR News Online:

The Supreme Court has accepted three cases that ask whether federal anti-discrimination laws should apply to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, putting the court on track to consider high-profile LGBTQ issues after its next term begins this fall.

Two of the cases — Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda — were consolidated because both include claims that employers discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. A third — R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC — involves the question of whether existing discrimination laws apply to transgender workers.

The Supreme Court granted petitions for writs of certiorari for the three cases Monday morning, adding them to their workload for the term that will start in October — meaning any decisions and opinions will emerge in the runup to the national election in 2020.

But the court also set limits as it accepted the cases. As the court’s order list states, the scope of the court’s review of the Harris Funeral Homes case is limited to only question “whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their status as transgender or (2) sex stereotyping” under the 1989 decision in the Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case.

The Supreme Court’s order refers to Title VII, the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. In recent years, lower federal courts have disagreed on whether the same protections should apply to people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. That divide can be seen in the trio of cases now up for review.

“In two of the cases, lower courts sided with the plaintiffs,” NPR’s Leila Fadel reports for our Newscast unit, “one in Michigan where a transgender woman was fired from her job at a funeral home based on her gender identity; another, out of New York where a skydiving instructor was allegedly fired because he’s gay. But in a third case in Georgia, a gay man who was fired from his job as a child welfare services coordinator lost.”

In that third case, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit turned away an appeal from Gerald Lynn Bostock last summer. Even before Bostock’s appeal request was declined by the full panel, his attorneys already had asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.

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Kavanaugh Seems Conflicted About Gerrymandering at SCOTUS Arguments

From today’s NPR News Online:

The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided on the question of whether there’s any limit on what the courts can impose on partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the newest member of the court, appearing at least somewhat conflicted.

“I took some of your argument in the briefs and the amicus briefs to be that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy,” Kavanaugh told the lawyers arguing the case, “and I’m not going to dispute that.”

On Tuesday, the court considered challenges to congressional district maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and in Maryland, drawn by Democrats.

The question of how political boundaries are drawn has taken on increasing importance for both parties over the past decade.

After the 2010 midterms, Republicans used their control of many state legislatures to draw favorable congressional maps for the GOP. An analysis this month by the Associated Press found that Republicans very likely won about 16 more House seats last fall than they would have been expected to based on their share of the vote owing to those lines. Still, Democrats did win control of the House.

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New sexual assault allegations roil Kavanaugh SCOTUS nomination

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Brett Kavanaugh’s embattled nomination for the Supreme Court faced further disarray Sunday night after an explosive new account emerged of alleged sexual misconduct when he was in college, putting the White House on the defensive and the judge’s confirmation in fresh doubt.

Scrambling to respond, the White House and Kavanaugh issued swift denials of the report. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were shellshocked even as they blamed Democrats for what they described as a political takedown based on scurrilous allegations.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel would “attempt to evaluate these new claims” but did not publicly respond to a call by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, to immediately postpone confirmation proceedings until the FBI could investigate.

The new allegations, reported by the New Yorker, date back to Kavanaugh’s freshman year at Yale University, when a classmate named Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at close range at a drunken dormitory party, forcing her to bat him away.

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Appeals court rules North Carolina’s electoral map unconstitutional, map may have to be redrawn before midterms

From today’s Washington Post:

A panel of three federal judges held Monday that North Carolina’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans over Democrats and said it may require new districts before the November elections, possibly affecting control of the House.

The judges acknowledged that primary elections have already produced candidates for the 2018 elections but said they were reluctant to let voting take place in congressional districts that courts twice have found violate constitutional standards.

North Carolina legislators are likely to ask the Supreme Court to step in. The court traditionally does not approve of judicial actions that can affect an election so close to the day voters go to the polls.

But the Supreme Court has just eight members since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement last month; a tie vote would leave the lower court’s decision in place. Senate hearings on President Trump’s nominee to fill the open seat, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, commence Sept. 4.

The North Carolina case is a long-running saga, with a federal court in 2016 striking down the legislature’s 2011 map as a racial gerrymander. The legislature then passed a plan that left essentially the same districts in place but said lawmakers were motivated by politics, not race.

The Supreme Court told the three-judge panel to take another look at the North Carolina case in light of the high court’s June decision in a Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, in which the justices said those who brought that case did not have legal standing.

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What Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s SCOTUS nominee means for consumer rights

From today’s NPR MarketWatch:

When President Donald Trump announced Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee for the Supreme Court to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy when he retires at the end of July, liberal commentators sounded the alarm about what his service could mean for controversial topics including abortion and health care. Add one more topic to the list: consumer rights.

There’s a lot to dislike about Brett Kavanaugh’s record — including his hostility to consumers,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who largely created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of Dodd-Frank reforms in 2010, wrote on Twitter TWTR, -4.27%   on July 10.

“Judge Kavanaugh has been a reckless and partisan jurist who has always seemed more interested in pleasing Wall Street and the conservative political establishment than he has in defending the Constitution,” wrote Karl Frisch, the executive director of the left-leaning consumer advocacy organization Allied Progress, in a statement. “He would be a disaster for consumers and the CFPB if confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

Critics fear Kavanaugh will weaken the country’s most prominent consumer watchdog. In 2017, a three-judge panel for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a case called PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Kavanaugh was the lead author of that decision, which said the current structure of the CFPB, with just one director, violates the Constitution.

The director could only be removed for specific reasons: Inefficiency, neglect of duty or “malfeasance,” or wrongdoing. In contrast, the president has the power to remove the head of most other agencies at will. Kavanaugh proposed giving that power to the U.S. president, making it possible to remove the CFPB’s director. Consumer advocates feared that would hurt the bureau, especially as the Trump administration had already expressed desire to weaken it.

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Supreme Court delivers blow to organized labor in fees dispute

From Reuter’s News Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a big blow to organized labor, ruling that non-members cannot be forced in certain states to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police, shutting off a key union revenue source.

The 5-4 ruling overturned a 1977 Supreme Court precedent that had permitted these so-called agency fees, which have been collected from millions of workers who opt not to join unions in lieu of union dues to fund non-political activities such as collective bargaining. The court’s conservative justices were in the majority, with the liberal justices dissenting.

Forcing non-members to pay these fees to unions whose views they may oppose violates their rights to free speech and free association under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the court said in the ruling authored by Justice Samuel Alito.

“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from non-consenting employees,” Alito wrote. In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan accused the court’s conservatives of “weaponizing the First Amendment” to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.

“This case was nothing more than a blatant political attack to further rig our economy and democracy against everyday Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful,” public-sector unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union directly involved in the case, said in a statement.

Two dozen states had required agency fees. The ruling means that the estimated 5 million non-union workers for state and local governments who have paid them can stop. Agency fees do not involve federal or private-sector employees.

The decision represented a major victory for conservative activists who long have sought to curb the influence of public-sector unions, which often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes.

With the U.S. organized labor movement already in a diminished state compared to past decades, the ruling now deprives unions of a vital revenue stream, undercuts their ability to attract new members and retain current members, and undermines their ability to spend in political races.

Republican President Donald Trump, whose administration backed the challenge to the fees, welcomed the ruling, writing on Twitter, “Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS defers gerrymandering ruling

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to address the central questions in two closely watched challenges to partisan gerrymandering, putting off for another time a ruling on the constitutionality of voting districts designed by legislatures to amplify one party’s political power.

In a challenge to a redistricting plan devised by the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin, the court unanimously said that the plaintiffs had not proved that they had suffered the sort of direct injury that would give them standing to sue. The justices sent the case back to a trial court to allow the plaintiffs to try again to prove that their voting power had been directly affected by the way state lawmakers drew voting districts for the State Assembly.

In the second case, the court unanimously ruled against the Republican challengers to a Democratic plan to redraw a Maryland congressional district. In a brief unsigned opinion, the court said the challengers had waited too long to seek an injunction blocking the district, which was drawn in 2011.

Both cases had the potential to deliver a reckoning on a practice that dates to the early days of the Republic and got its name from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. The court instead kicked the can down the road, leaving the door open to further challenges.

But the decisions were a setback for critics of gerrymandering, who had hoped that the Supreme Court would transform American democracy by subjecting to close judicial scrutiny the way districts have been redrawn to accommodate the preferences of the party in power. When the dust settled Monday, the status quo remained in place.

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Supreme Court Sides With Colorado Baker Who Turned Away Gay Couple

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker on Monday in a closely watched case pitting gay rights against claims of religious freedom.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 7-2 decision, relied on narrow grounds, saying a state commission had violated the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom in ruling against the baker, Jack Phillips, who had refused to create a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, which turned on the commission’s asserted hostility to religion, strongly reaffirmed protections for gay rights and left open the possibility that other cases raising similar issues could be decided differently.

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Elena Kagan and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but would have adopted broader reasons.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.

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SCOTUS Upholds Workplace Arbitration Contracts Barring Class Actions

From today’s New York Times:

 The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues.

The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority. The court’s decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, “the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision “will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.”

Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to address the matter.

Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies arbitrations and class actions, said the ruling was unsurprising in light of earlier Supreme Court decisions. Justice Gorsuch, he added, “appears to have put his cards on the table as firmly in favor of allowing class actions to be stamped out through arbitration agreements.”

As a result, Professor Fitzpatrick said “it is only a matter of time until the most powerful device to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds is lost altogether.”

But Gregory F. Jacob, a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, said the decision would have a limited impact, as many employers already use the contested arbitration clauses. “This decision thus will not see a huge increase in the use of such provisions,” he said, “but it does protect employers’ settled expectations and avoids placing our nation’s job providers under the threat of additional burdensome litigation drain.”

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