On Monday, the Supreme Court justices returned to the bench, gearing up for another dramatic legislative term, with a line-up that promises to touch on a fresh batch of contentious and highly-anticipated issues. If the last term was anything to go by — think blockbuster decisions on gay marriage, lethal injection, confederate flags, and religious freedom — you'll definitely want to tune into this one, which just so happens to coincide with a presidential election year. Here's a list of what to look out for on the current docket and what's likely to make it on the program in the near future.
This term, the justices are set to assess the same case on race-based university admissions that was brought before them nearly two years ago by Abigail Noel Fisher, a white woman who claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas in favor of a less-qualified minority applicant.
In 2013, SCOTUS sent the case back to the lower court to be reheard after determining it was too deferential to the school, which claimed it had "narrowly tailored" the program to meet diversity goals and constitutionally consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reexamined the case and ruled again in favor of the university, putting the case back in the hands of the Supreme Court.
Date: A date for oral arguments has not yet been set, a decision is expected by June 2016.
What the experts are saying:
University of Colorado Boulder Constitutional Law Professor Melissa Hart writes: "This case lacks the constitutionally requisite 'case or controversy' because Abigail Fisher never had standing and any claim she might theoretically have possessed is now moot."
"The evidence in the record shows that Fisher never had a claim. Based on her grades and SAT scores there was no way she could have been admitted to the University of Texas in 2008 — no matter what her race," Hart said. "She has now graduated from college — three years ago — and can never be admitted to the University of Texas undergraduate program… I am left with the conclusion that the Court took this case to hold that universities may not consider race in admissions — even as part of a holistic, individualized review process."
Public Service Unions
The issue of mandatory union dues moves to the SCOTUS floor from California, where schoolteacher Rebecca Friedrichs and fellow Orange County educators have banded together to fight compulsory payment of collective bargaining fees by non-members of the union. The petitioners claim that because bargaining is essentially equivalent to lobbying, being forced to pay dues is a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The teachers want the Court to overrule its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in which justices permitted an "agency shop" arrangement where every employee, regardless of whether he or she is a union member, is required to pay a service charge for representation. They also want workers to be automatically excluded from being charged money that will be used in political campaigns, rather than having to expressly opt-out, as is the current practice.
Dates: The case could hit the court in December or January.
What the experts are saying:
Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, Charlotte Garden, writes: "A holding for the petitioners in Friedrichs would invalidate agency fee provisions in countless longstanding contracts, undermine public workplace relationships, weaken unions' abilities to represent workers, and destabilize settled law."
"It is an exaggeration to say that public-sector unions will cease to exist if the Friedrichs Court holds that agency fees are unconstitutional," she said. "At the same time, it is certain that disruption and discord will result within otherwise stable bargaining relationships as unions attempt to compensate for inevitable free riding."
Evenwel v. Abbott looks at redistricting in Texas, where petitioners are challenging the current method of districting based on total population, rather than eligible voting population, which they say puts political power in the hands of undocumented immigrants. A rule in favor of petitioners and their proposed "one person, one vote" lawsuit would portend significant shifts of power from Democratic-leaning urban areas to Republican-dominated rural areas.
Date: A hearing for oral arguments could be held in December or January.
What the experts say:
Professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, Richard L. Hasen, writes: "Evenwel should be seen for what it is: not a conservative case but an attempted Republican power grab in Texas and other jurisdictions with large Latino populations… Urban areas are much more likely to be filled with people who cannot vote: non-citizens (especially Latinos), released felons whose voting rights have not been restored, and children. With districts redrawn using only voters as the denominator, there will be more Republican districts."
The abortion issue has featured heavily in headlines in 2015, and that trend doesn't look be slowing any time soon, and a challenge to restrictive abortion laws looks likely to make it to the Supreme Court this term.
In recent years, lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation that requires doctors who perform abortions to obtain privileges from hospitals located near to the clinic that would allow them to admit any patient to that facility without approval from other doctors. Challengers to the laws say that hospitals frequently deny these staff-like privileges to abortion doctors because they want to avoid become absorbed into the abortion wars, thus forcing many clinics that provide women safe abortions to close.
Admitting privilege requirements have been challenged in courts in at least six states in recent years. The Supreme Court has been asked to review two cases — one in Mississippi and another in Texas — and the justices are expected to review at least one.
In June last year, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked provisions of the Texas law, including another that required abortion clinics to comply with the same standards as hospitals and surgical centers — which would require costly and some say medically unnecessary renovations — until a decision on whether to review the full case is made.
Watch VICE News' documentary The Fight for the Muslim Vote: