News

In an order released today, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Berger v. ACLU holding that the state’s “Choose Life” license plate constituted unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, and sent the case back to the appeals court for a ruling consistent with the high court’s recent decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, Texas.

In Walker the state refused to allow plates displaying the confederate flag, finding them offensive to some residents. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ultimately ruled in their favor, finding that since the specialty plate messages were a form of private speech, the state agency had engaged in unlawful viewpoint discrimination.

The challengers in North Carolina’s license plate case made a similar argument, agreeing that the specialty plates were private speech and contending that by offering a “Choose Life” plate but not a similar pro-choice one the state had likewise engaged in viewpoint discrimination.

U.S. District Judge James C. Fox agreed, ruling in December 2012 that the state’s offering of a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate violated the First Amendment, and the Fourth Circuit later upheld that ruling.

But in June, the nation’s highest court ruled in Walker that specialty plates, like other state-issued license plates, conveyed government speech. Given that, states were free to pick and choose the message.

Now it will be left to the appeals court to decide whether to consider additional arguments from the parties in the “Choose Life” case, or simply enter an order consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Walker.

“As the Supreme Court made clear in Walker, the attempt to censor a message like North Carolina’s ‘Choose Life’ message is inconsistent with both the purpose of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s government speech precedents,” Scott Gaylor, lead counsel for the state in the case said in a statement.

But Chris Brook, the attorney for parties challenging the “Choose Life” plates, hoped that the state would reconsider whether it wanted to be viewed as suppressing varying viewpoints — court decisions aside.

At the time the plates were adopted by the state, they were intended to convey the message of Choose Life America, Inc., an organization whose mission is to promote the sale of “Choose Life” license plates throughout the country so that proceeds can be used to “encourage adoption as a positive choice for women with unplanned pregnancies.”

Drivers buying the “Choose Life” plate here would pay $25.00 per year– in addition to the regular registration fee — $15.00 of which would go to support the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship.

“This case has always been about more than specialty license plates; it asks whether the government should be allowed to provide a platform to one side of a controversial issue while silencing the other,” Brook said in an email. “The Court’s decision could allow states to censor private speech and discriminate against citizens who hold views that are different from the government’s. The General Assembly should do the right thing and allow citizens on both sides of the debate to purchase specialty plates supporting their views.”

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News

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.

News

In a case with implications for admissions policies at UNC-Chapel Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to review for a second time admissions policies at the University of Texas at Austin.

The high court first reviewed the case filed by Abigail Fisher, a white student denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin allegedly because of her race, in 2012. In a 7-1 decision the following spring, the justices sent Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for further review.

Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the Court said that “because the Fifth Circuit did not hold the University to the demanding burden of strict scrutiny articulated in Grutter and Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, its decision affirming the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the University was incorrect.”

“[S]trict scrutiny does require a court to examine with care, and not defer to, a university’s ‘serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives,’” Kennedy added.

The appeals court did that and upheld the university’s admissions policies again in July 2014, finding that they withstood the strict scrutiny test.

In the second petition filed at the court and granted today, Fisher’s attorneys ask the court to “strike down UT’s unjustified use of race, and once again make clear that the Equal Protection Clause does not permit the use of racial preferences in admissions decisions where, as here, they are neither narrowly tailored nor necessary to meet a compelling, otherwise unsatisfied, educational interest.”

How the high court rules next term in Fisher will have some bearing on the case filed in federal court here against UNC-Chapel Hill in November, alleging similar flaws in the university’s admission policies. (A similar lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts federal court against Harvard by the same group on the same day.)

As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston described the Harvard and UNC lawsuits:

The basic thrust of the new lawsuits is that Harvard and the flagship university in North Carolina are using admissions programs that cannot satisfy the tough constitutional test for judging race-based policy — “strict scrutiny.”  But their broader theme is that the Supreme Court’s affirmative action efforts beginning with the Bakke ruling have failed to end racial bias in admissions programs, so it is now time to overrule Bakke and at least one other decision.

In the lawsuits, filed under the name “Students for Fair Admissions Inc.,” attorneys for plaintiffs — selected after a nationwide search by backers of Project for Fair Representation — argue that diversity at the schools can be achieved by race-neutral alternatives and that public colleges and others receiving federal funds should be ordered to end the use of race in admissions altogether.

The same attorneys representing Fisher at the Supreme Court are representing the students in the UNC case here, which is pending in Winston-Salem and is now assigned to U.S. District Loretta Copeland Biggs, who took her seat on that court this past December.

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News

With a nod to the role the Fair Housing Act has played in reducing segregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today 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.

“The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority in Texas Dep’t of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project. He was joined in that decision by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

A Texas non-profit filed the case before the court 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.

But Texas argued that the group had to show that the government intended to discriminate — a hurdle that’s difficult to get over given that most companies and agencies don’t openly announce their intentions.

Over time all 11 federal appeals courts recognized such “disparate impact” claims under the Act and, as Justice Kennedy noted, developers and governmental bodies had begun considering them when developing plans and practices so as to avoid unnecessary harm to minority communities.

“Recognition of disparate impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment,” Kennedy said.

Despite the consensus in the appeals courts, though, the Supreme Court has in recent years twice agreed to take cases challenging that view, only to see them settle before a ruling issued — both sides appreciating the risk associated with a ruling against their interests.

That willingness to take the cases had many in the fair housing world concerned that the justices were primed to reverse what had become an accepted and critical tool.

Today’s ruling brought both relief and hope for those advocates.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized decades of long-standing precedent in today’s ruling, ensuring the survival of an important tool to combat discrimination in America’s housing market,” Michele Jawando from the Center for American Progress said in a statement. “Equal opportunity and diverse, thriving communities are crucial to our national prosperity. Even unintentional housing discrimination denies families access to the social, economic, and health benefits of appropriate housing opportunities. We are at our strongest when our communities are more diverse and inclusive.

The court’s full opinion is here.

News

In a 6-3 decision released today, the U.S. Supreme 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.”

Joining the Chief Justice were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

Plaintiffs who brought the case contended that the language of the statute only authorized subsidies for purchasers on state-run exchanges, relying on language in the Act which appeared to limit subsidies to people buying insurance on “an exchange established by the state.”

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 majority had plenty to say about the sloppiness of the drafting of the Act, but in the end found that the language at issue was ambiguous and could be interpreted in several ways. As such, the words should “be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”

Scalia’s dissent was far less staid, calling the majority’s logic “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce” and labeling the Act “SCOTUScare.”

“Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case,” Scalia wrote. “But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.”

Read the full court opinion here.