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The U.S. Supreme Court wraps up its term

Supreme courtThe U.S. Supreme Court handed down the last of its opinions this morning, closing out a term that saw several blockbuster cases go down to the wire.

Below, in the order in which opinions were released starting last Thursday, are brief recaps of some of the court’s landmark decisions.

Fair Housing  In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court held in Texas Dep’t of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project that housing discrimination cases can proceed in court upon a showing that a challenged practice disproportionately affects minorities, rejecting the argument that such cases turn upon proof of discriminatory intent and handing an important win to fair housing advocates and civil rights groups.

A Texas non-profit filed the case in 2008, alleging that the state housing agency distributed affordable housing tax credits in a way that thwarted integration efforts — disproportionately granting them to minority areas while denying them in white areas of Dallas.

The court’s decision is here.

Affordable Care Act  In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court upheld the availability of subsidies to health insurance purchasers on both state exchanges and the federal exchange, affirming the Fourth Circuit’s decision in King v. Burwell.

“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Chief Justice John Roberts  wrote for the majority. “If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

North Carolina, like three dozen other states, did not set up its own health care exchange.  More than 560,000 state residents purchased health insurance on the federal exchange instead, with more than 90 percent doing so with the help of subsidies designed to make coverage affordable for middle- and low-income purchasers.

The court’s opinion is here.

Same-sex marriage  In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy wrote. “[The challengers] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.The Constitution grants them that right.”

The court’s decision came on the anniversary of two other landmark decisions on gay rights also authored by Kennedy:  Lawrence v. Kansas, in which the court struck a Texas sodomy law, and U.S. Windsor, in which the court struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act and ruled that the federal government must afford same-sex couples the same benefits it extends to heterosexual couples.

The court’s decision is here.

Redistricting  In a win for efforts to rein in gerrymandering, the court with a 5-4 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg upheld a voter-approved independent redistricting commission created to draw congressional maps in Arizona.

Efforts to create such a commission in North Carolina gained some bipartisan support this year with bills filed in the General Assembly, though none moved far enough ahead to be considered this session.

The court’s decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is here.

Lethal Injection In a fiery 5-4 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito that mirrored an equally contentious debate among the justices at oral argument, the court held in Glossip v. Gross that Oklahoma’s use of a three-drug cocktail containing the controversial drug midazolam did not violate the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Midazolam was to blame in recent botched executions in that state.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, with Justices Ginsburg and Breyer calling for a full review of whether the death penalty is constitutional.

North Carolina switched from a three-drug cocktail to a single drug protocol in late 2013, but the rulemaking process leading up to that change has been challenged in court. And like other execution drugs, the state’s drug of choice, pentobarbital, has grown scarce.

The court’s decision is here.

Clean Air Act In the last opinion of the term, and another 5-4 decision written this time by Justice Antonin Scalia,   the court rejected regulations requiring coal burning power plants to sharply reduce mercury emissions.  The court held that the Environmental Protection Agency should have taken costs to power producers into account during the first stage of its rule-making process, when it was deciding whether reducing mercury emissions was worth doing from a health perspective.

North Carolina was one of 20 states that opposed the request for review by the Supreme Court, saying that the EPA was well within its prerogative in prioritizing emissions impact over industry costs. Those states also argued that several of them had passed even stricter regulations and that companies have adapted.

The court’s decision is here.

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