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.


While equality advocates are universally celebrating today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, critics have issued mixed responses.

Not surprisingly, Equality NC hailed the decision:

“Chris Sgro, Equality NC’s executive director, called this ‘a historic day’ for the United States and the state of North Carolina.’Today’s ruling granting loving, same-sex couples the freedom to marry across our United States is a historic moment for our country, and for tens of thousands of same-sex families who call our state home,’ said Sgro. ‘With it, gays and lesbians in every corner of the United States will finally be able to marry the person they love. Today, love won and we celebrate all who have worked tirelessly over many decades to change hearts and minds and make this ruling a possibility.’

Sgro added, ‘Even as we celebrate, we know our progress does not and will not end at the Supreme Court. Same-sex couples can legally marry in North Carolina—and the very same day, be denied public services, fired from their job or denied housing simply because of who they are. With these harsh realities in mind, Equality NC remains committed to fighting for full equality for LGBT North Carolinians wherever they work or live.’”

And this is from the ACLU:

“‘The Supreme Court today welcomed same-sex couples fully into the American family. Gay and lesbian couples and our families may be at peace knowing that our simple request to be treated like everyone else – that is, to be able to participate in the dignity of marriage – has finally been granted,’ said James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and HIV Project. ‘Today’s historic victory comes on the backs of same-sex couples and advocates who have worked for decades to dismantle harmful stereotypes and unjust laws in the quest for equal treatment.’

The court’s 5-4 opinion holds that state marriage bans violate the due process and equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Recognizing that ‘marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death,’ the Court held that the Constitution grants to same-sex couples the right to “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”

‘Today’s decision has been 50 years in the making and will stand with Brown vs. Board of Education as one of the landmark civil rights moments of our time,’ said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. ‘Now we take the battle for full legal equality to the states, where 31 states have yet to pass any statewide LGBT non-discrimination laws. The wind is at our backs, and we are now on the cusp of achieving full legal equality for LGBT Americans across the country.'”

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger offered somewhat muted criticism:

“The majority of North Carolina voters who define marriage as between one man and one woman deserved a final resolution from the Supreme Court. while this decision is disappointing, we respect the ruling and will continue to work to ensure North Carolina complies with the law of the land.”

Meanwhile conservative social warriors were scathing in their reaction.  Read More


Supreme courtIn case you missed it yesterday, be sure to check out this article by NC Policy Watch’s Sharon McCloskey about North Carolina’s support for the provision of subsidies to low-income residents purchasing Obamacare.

Last week, Attorney General Roy Cooper signed on to a brief, on behalf of North Carolina, supporting these subsidies for low-income enrollees on the federal exchange.

In a number of lawsuits filed in federal courts, ACA opponents have argued that the law as written limits those subsidies to those who purchase on a state exchange and not, as interpreted by the Internal Revenue Service, to purchasers on either a state or federal exchange.

That interpretation would exclude North Carolinians, as well as the residents of the 33 other states in which governors opted to join the federal exchange rather than construct one of their own, from receiving the aid.

The lawsuit has been through several appeals and will now be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 4th.

Twenty-two other states also signed the brief and collectively argue that a challenge to the subsidies should be rejected because they weren’t informed that residents of their state would be harmed if the state chose to use the federal exchange.

Most experts agree that a decision limiting subsidies to purchasers on state exchanges would cripple Obamacare.

The non-partisan Urban Institute projects that in 2016, the loss of subsidies in the 34 states using the federal exchange would deprive more than 9.3 million Americans of almost $29 billion in financial assistance — an average of $3,090 per eligible person — and increase the number of uninsured by about 8.2 million people nationally.

To read the full article, visit Policy Watch’s main page here.


marriage amendmentEarlier this week, State Senate President Phil Berger and former House Speaker Thom Tillis filed a petition for review at the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to overturn the October decisions by federal district court judges in North Carolina rejecting the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The federal court rulings followed the July decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Bostic v. Schaefer, overturning a similar Virginia ban.

Tillis and Berger then intervened in two North Carolina cases for purposes of appeal after state Attorney General Roy Cooper refused to move forward, saying that the courts had now settled the question.

A third district court judge in North Carolina has also rejected the state’s marriage ban, but did not allow the lawmakers to intervene for purposes of appeal. That case, along with the two now before the nation’s highest court, is winding its way through the Fourth Circuit but is not part of the petition for review.

In October, the nation’s highest court refused to take several appeals overturning state marriage bans, likely because at that time all of the underlying decisions reached the same conclusion and no circuit split existed.

Since then, though, the Sixth Circuit has upheld bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, creating the necessary split of authority on the issue.

The justices have been considering petitions for review in cases out of each of those states and may decide as early as this Friday which, if any, they will take. If they do hear any of the appeals, argument will likely be in April with a decision expected near the end of the term in late June.

Notably, the justices did refuse on Monday to take a case out of Louisiana which, like the North Carolina cases, had not yet been reviewed by the circuit court of appeals.

As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston notes:

The Court’s denial of review in the Louisiana same-sex marriage case is not a reliable indicator of the Court’s current interest in the authority of the states to ban same-sex marriage. The couples in the Louisiana case had asked the Court to bypass the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and take on the case without waiting. The Justices’ response probably indicates a desire not to intrude into the review by the Fifth Circuit, which held a hearing on the Louisiana case, and two others, just last Friday. The Court seldom chooses to bypass appeals courts, although it clearly has the authority to do so.

State Rep. Tim Moore, sworn in as the new House Speaker yesterday, will now take the place of Tillis in the petition. Moore has long opposed gay marriage and has said that he and his Republican colleagues “owe it to the voters” to take all steps to uphold the state’s ban.

Recent polling shows, however, that most state residents now favor gay marriage.

The petition, though filed on January 9, was not docketed by the court until Tuesday. Read it in full here.


Gay marriage 3Regular NC Policy Watch contributor Charles Beem weighs in this morning with is thoughts on the painfully slow process of finalizing America’s embrace of marriage equality.

The waiting game: Marriage equality and the Supreme Court
By Dr. Charles Beem

It has been nearly three months since the triumph of marriage equality in North Carolina, and it appears that the institution of heterosexual marriage has survived intact. For the LGBT community in North Carolina, it is the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal couple of years, which has seen this state slide from purple to red and all the attendant regression in health care, education, and civil rights that has accompanied the slide to the right.

Most notorious, of course, was the passage of Amendment One, a sucker punch thrown at the electorate in a May 2012 primary election in which a whopping 34% of registered voters participated, which, from hindsight, was sort of like a state passing a law prohibiting interracial marriage on the eve of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia (1967). After a federal appeals court declared the amendment unconstitutional last October, we witnessed the spectacle of conservative legislative leaders spending your tax dollars to try to defend the amendment, which reminds me of the soldiers who fanatically defended Hitler’s bunker from the Russians after he was dead!

Yet despite the momentous gains made for marriage equality in 2014, there is still cause to worry. Quite unlike the Warren Court that ruled unanimously in Loving in 1967, the current U.S. Supreme Court is quite obviously divided on an issue that a majority of Americans are coming to believe is a natural and logical, if not inevitable, progression of civil rights. Read More