Our Selections – Five Most Important United States Supreme Court Cases of 2014
This past year was an eventful one for the United States Supreme Court. The docket was filled with cases that threatened to end affirmative action, limit campaign finance laws, and even change the meaning of privacy when it comes to technology. The justices, however, played their cards close to their vest, leading to some surprises when they actually published their decisions. With so many decisions to choose from, we had a hard time selecting the top five most important Supreme Court decisions of 2014.
Here are our selections:
This case struck down the aggregate limits of monetary donations an individual may contribute to a campaign during a two-year period. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided to eliminate the cap on monetary donations, meaning individual donors have no limit on the total amount of money they can contribute to all candidates or committees in a two-year period.
The Federal Election Commission—the body that monitors and administers campaign finance regulations—was created after the Watergate Scandal in the early 1970s. Up until now, there were separate limits on: (1) the amount a citizen can contribute to individual candidates or committees, and (2) the aggregate, or total, amount an individual may contribute in a two-year period to all candidates or committees. The Supreme Court held in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) that such limitations are Constitutional as long as they are “narrowly tailored” to bring about a “significant government interest.” Specifically, the Court found that although the First Amendment protects the right to engage in democracy through monetary donations to a political campaign, caps on contributions serve to prevent “quid pro quo” corruption.
Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama resident, wanted to contribute more than the current biennial limits would allow (which would only permit him to donate to less than 20 candidates when he wanted to contribute to over 30 candidates), and the Republican National Committee wanted to be able to receive these contributions. McCutcheon challenged the aggregate limits on contributions, arguing that they were a violation of his First Amendment right to political expression.
The current Supreme Court found the aggregate limits do not further the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption. The Court reasoned these aggregate limits intrude upon a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activity of political expression without providing justification for doing so, and, therefore, the aggregate limitations on an individual’s right to contribute to an election campaign are unconstitutional.
This Supreme Court decision of 2014 marked the end to the overall cap on an individual citizen’s monetary contributions, but it did not change how much an individual candidate or committee can receive (there are still limitations upon the maximum amount). Although citizens are still limited to contributing $2,600 or less to a specific candidate, citizens can now contribute to as many different federal candidates or committees as they please.
McCutcheon is just another step in the wrong direction towards allowing unfettered and unchecked contributions to politicians. We believe that this trend represents a serious threat to our democracy.
This case struck down the federal law requiring employers to pay for medical insurance coverage that would provide contraception to women employees.
The Affordable Care Act requires employment-based healthcare plans to provide certain types of preventative care, including contraception. Hobby Lobby is a closely held corporation with chain stores across the nation that sells arts and crafts supplies. Hobby Lobby claims to base its business model upon Christian values and the Bible. As part of its religious philosophy, Hobby Lobby contends that the use of contraceptives is immoral. Objecting to providing health care insurance that includes contraception, Hobby Lobby argued that the contraception requirement violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and religious freedom.
The Supreme Court held that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Protection Act” extends its protection to corporations in their capacity as individuals to achieve their desired end. The Court found that a for-profit company can deny its employees health care coverage for contraception, to which employees would otherwise be entitled, based upon the religious expectations of the company’s owners. Reasoning that because contraception violated Hobby Lobby’s religious principles, the Court held that a less restrictive option would be to allow for-profit religious corporations to fall under the same exemption as the non-profit religious organizations.
Although the Court held this ruling applies only to the mandatory requirement of contraception rather than to all possible objections to the Affordable Care Act, this ruling nevertheless opens the door to many challenges from corporations regarding laws they claim violate their religious liberty. The Hobby Lobby decision creates a number of troubling situations. Could a closely held corporation refuse to include transfusions, stem cell therapy, or psychiatric counseling in its health insurance plan based upon the corporate owners religious beliefs? How far can a for-profit corporation go in imposing the owners’ religious beliefs upon its employees? Is it fair to shield owners from liability based upon the corporate form but yet allow the owners to impose their personal religious beliefs on the employees?
This case upheld the ban against racial and sex affirmative action in higher education. Specifically, state colleges and universities in Michigan can no longer decide to use race, sex, national origin or other protected classes to determine admissions because Michigan’s citizenry voted against such a practice.
After a majority of Michigan voters backed a proposal to amend the state constitution to forbid all race-based and sex-based preference in admissions for public institutions of higher education, a number of interest groups evolved, including the Coalition for Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary Coalition. These groups challenged the 2006 ballot action, arguing that it violated citizens’ rights to a public education in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether an amendment to a state’s constitution that prohibits affirmative action in higher education admission decisions violates the Equal Protection Clause, which provides no state shall deny any of its citizens equal protection of the laws.
In this plurality decision, the Supreme Court focused on whether the voters of a state can choose to prohibit the practice of using race preferences in admission decisions, ultimately finding that the voters did have this right. The Court stated that any attempt to define interests based on race could result in another form of racism and that to deny a voter the right to decide on a sensitive topic would be tantamount to denying the voters their right to a democratic process.
As Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent, the majority’s decision effectively undermines the key purpose of the Equal Protection Clause of promoting race-sensitive admission policies for the benefit of minorities who are not always properly represented in the voting citizenry. The Court’s decision, which purports to uphold fair play in regard to democratic engagement, may result in the denial of equal opportunity for minorities.
This case requires police to have a warrant before searching digital information on a cell phone seized from someone under arrest.
Police officers pulled over a driver they believed was involved in a drive-by shooting. The driver’s license had expired, so the police impounded the car. Before impounding the car, the police performed an inventory search of the car for record-keeping purposes. After finding firearms during the inventory search, the police arrested the suspect. While still on the scene, a police officer confiscated the driver’s cell phone and reviewed pictures and videos stored on the phone. This evidence led to additional charges against the driver. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the collection of evidence from the driver’s cell phone violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.
In an unusual show of agreement, a unanimous Supreme Court decision sided with the suspect stating that the warrantless search exception, which is intended to protect officers’ safety and preserve evidence, does not extend to the warrantless search of the contents of a cell phone. The Court reasoned that not only were the cell phones not a threat to officer safety, the cell phones were “minicomputers” that could possibly be filled with a majority of a person’s private information. A search of a cell phone goes beyond the search of a wallet, which may contain only a few pictures. In fact, because so much information is now stored in the “cloud,” a search of a cell phone may even exceed the “single purpose container” exception that allows the police to search a container without a warrant where the container is so distinctive that its contents are a foregone conclusion and can be said to be in plain view. Simply because technology allows for a person to carry all of this information on his or her person does not mean that there is no longer any expectation of privacy for that information. The only time a warrantless search of a cell phone would be permissible is if the government’s interest is “so compelling” that a search would be reasonable.
This decision shows the Court recognizes how significant technology is in the modern era. In this day and age of smart phones, a phone is a virtual diary containing the most private and intimate details of a person’s life and, as such, we have the expectation that such information will remain private and subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
This case determined that the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998, which criminalizes the possession or use of “chemical weapons,” does not extend to a conviction for simple assault that only caused minor burns treated with water.
An employee for a chemical manufacturer learned that a friend was pregnant with the employee’s husband’s baby and decided to take matters into her own hands. Using her connections with the chemical company, the employee contaminated the mistress’s doorknob and mailbox with toxic chemicals. Although the mistress only suffered minor burns, the suspect was charged with several violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act (Act). Faced with determining the scope of the treaty power, the Supreme Court had to answer two questions: (1) whether Congress has the power to enact legislation that goes beyond the original treaty and begins to intervene upon authority typically preserved by the states, and (2) can it be properly said this Act does not extend to ordinary poisoning cases that have been traditionally left to state authority?
The Supreme Court upheld the general rule that federal law typically does not intrude upon the states’ authority in local matters. Although Congress does have the authority to create legislation to enforce treaties, it must do so while respecting the powers of the state. The Court also held that because it cannot be shown that Congress had the original intent of extending the power of the Act over the states, the Act must be read narrowly. The Act was not created nor intended to address instances of simple assault.
The Court avoided deciding if the scope of the Treaty Power trumps state rights. As the law currently stands, the door remains open to the possibility that the Treaty Power may extend to domestic issues and local crimes like those committed by the scorned wife. The significance of this decision lies not in what it did, but in what it did not do. The Court had an opportunity to greatly expand state’s rights but chose not to do so.