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SCOTUS 2014 Preview: 7 Major Cases The Supreme Court Will Hear This Session

Jenny Di |
October 8, 2014 | 12:34 p.m. PDT


(Flickr/Neon Tommy)
(Flickr/Neon Tommy)
The United States Supreme Court announced it would not take five same-sex marriage cases during the 2014 session that opened Monday. Aside from being a statement unto itself, taking that major issue off the agenda means the court will spend the term focusing on a variety of lower profile cases. Neon Tommy compiled a list of the most intriguing cases on SCOTUS’s 2014 line-up.

1. Redistricting in Alabama (Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama AND Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama)

Two cases the Supreme Court will be hearing this term deal with “racial gerrymandering” in Alabama. Republicans won the majority in 2010 and subsequently redrew Alabama’s voting districts. Democrats and the Legislative Black Caucus both argue that Republican lawmakers intentionally diluted the black voters’ influence in certain districts by adding 120,000 more black voters to districts that were already majority-black. They both say that this perpetuates African-Americans’ political segregation and violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection

Alabama argues Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court struck down last year) at the time of the redrawing both justified and called for the redrawing of the boundaries. It says it wanted to keep the majority-black districts while maintaining the other district populations. 

Last year, a three-judge panel declared that the redistricting was in fact lawful. The Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of these actions.

2. Freedom of religion in prison (Holt v. Hobbs)

Gregory Holt, who also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, was not allowed to grow a beard while serving his life sentence in an Arkansas prison. This act, an observance of his faith, was deemed a security concern by the state. Holt argues that the Department of Corrections violated his First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The state argues that the beard could have concealed contraband or even altered the appearance of a prisoner, therefore serving as a security risk. 

Because Holt was allowed to observe religious holidays and given access to practice other aspects of his religion (diet, prayer mat, etc.), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had done its part in helping him observe his religion. It also said that prison safety procedures took precedence in the situation. Meanwhile, 40 other states currently allow prisoners to grow small beards.

On the heels of its recent Hobby Lobby religious freedom ruling, the Supreme Court will determine the extent of the protection of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. 

3. Worker’s rights for pregnant women (Young v. United Parcel Service)

Peggy Young, a female driver who worked at the United Parcel Service, sued her employer for requiring her to lift heavy items while pregnant. Her job description at the time included being able to lift up to 70 pounds, while her doctor recommended not to lift more than 20 pounds. UPS told her that she wouldn’t be able to return to work until after her pregnancy was over, which led to Young being on unpaid leave and losing medical coverage for childbirth expenses. She says that UPS did not require this heavy lifting of other similarly limited drivers, and that she deserved to keep her job and medical coverage while pregnant.

This case deals with the application of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as it pertains to providing the same level accommodations to pregnant employees as those provided to non-pregnant employees with work limitations. 

A district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled against her. They say that she wasn’t treated any different than any other employee with similar limitations. It will be up to the Supreme Court to determine the extent of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s accommodations. All eyes will be on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburtg, who claimed that her male colleagues have a “blind spot” when it comes to women’s rights.

4. Rap lyrics on Facebook as threats (Elonis v. United States)

Better start thinking twice about what you post on Facebook. Case and point: Anthony Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in jail after taking to Facebook to air his grievances against his ex-wife, former co-workers, an unnamed elementary school, the state police and the FBI. His wife left him and he lost his job, so he started venting and threatening to harm people via rap lyrics on Facebook. One of the incriminating lyrics reads:

“Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

It’s illegal

It’s indirect criminal contempt

It’s one of the only sentences that I’m not allowed to say.”

Elonis says that it’s based off a sketch comedy skit. His ex-wife felt threatened enough by these lyrics to bring him to court. 

The Supreme Court will decide whether convicting someone of threatening another person requires proof of intent, and whether a “reasonable person” would take Elonis’ statement as threatening. 

5. Passports for those born in Jerusalem (Zivtotofsky v. Kerry)

Menachem Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem in 2002 to American parents who requested that the State Department note Israel as his birth place. The Zivotofskys were declined their request, for the Executive Branch does not recognize either Israel's or Palestine’s claims on Jerusalem. Congress, however, passed a law that requires that American children born in Jerusalem be allowed to have “Israel” as their birth country if requested. The State Department has ignored this law. 

This case is not so much Zivotofsky v. Kerry as much as Executive Branch v. Legislative Branch as it pertains to the larger question of Jerusalem’s sovereignty. 

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals says that the president has the ultimate say on the recognition of a country. The Supreme Court will decide whether Congress’s law is constitutional based on the fact that it undermines the power of recognition granted “exclusively” to the president.

6. Fish = tangible objects? (Yates v. United States)

In 2007, John Yates and his crew were on a commercial fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico when an officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boarded the ship and found that many of the red groupers in Yates’s haul were smaller than the commission’s required 20 inches. The officer asked Yates to return to port so the fish could be seized. Instead, the crew dumped the small fish and replaced them with fish that met the size requirement.

At trial, he was charged with “destruction and falsification of evidence” and found guilty under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This statute makes it illegal to conceal or destroy “a tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” government investigation. 

Yates comes to the Supreme Court arguing that “tangible object” does not apply to the fish because the act is limited to the documents and records involved in the white-collar crimes it usually applies to. It is up to the court to decide whether the term “tangible object” should be taken at face value or not. 

7. Abercrombie & Fitch’s religious discrimination (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.)

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch denied 17-year-old Samantha Elauf a job at its Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma because of her hijab. 

Abercrombie salespeople are called “models.” There’s even a portion of the job interview scored on appearances. While preparing for her interview, Elauf discovered the company had allowed a male employee to wear his yarmulke. She thought this meant her hijab would be alright, and she wore the headscarf to her interview

Elauf’s interview earned her a score that qualified her for the job, but her district manager determined that the hijab was “inconsistent” with Abercrombie’s “look policy.” The 10th Circuit Court says that because Elauf never told Abercrombie she would require “religious accommodation,” the company did nothing wrong in deciding not to hire her.

The Supreme Court will decide whether direct, explicit notice of a need for religious accommodation from an applicant or employee is required for an employer to be held liable under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Though the session has just begun and promises a host of controversial cases, the court may have already made its biggest statement of the term with the decision to not hear same-sex marriages cases. Harkening the ban on interracial marriage cases SCOTUS imposed in the 1960s, this move could be the beginning of the end in the fight for marriage equality.

Reach Contributor Jenny Di here.



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