Civil and Human Rights

4 Big Supreme Court Cases You Probably Haven’t Heard About

In the coming weeks, the Court could make important decisions on racial discrimination, access to the courts, and Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

Now that the Supreme Court has heard its final oral arguments of the 2015-16 term, everyone is waiting to see how it will decide the blockbuster cases remaining on its docket. From abortion and affirmative action, to immigration and contraceptive coverage, hot button issues have dominated the Court this year. But there are many other incredibly important cases that could be decided before the term ends in June, on issues ranging from access to the courts and racial discrimination in jury selection, to judicial conflicts of interest and the severe financial crisis in Puerto Rico.

Consider Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, which the Court heard back in November. The basic question in the case is whether Congress may give individuals the right to sue for damages in federal court when a federal law has been violated. Spokeo involves a law enacted to prevent companies from disseminating false credit information, and that alone is reason enough for consumers to sit up and take notice. But the Court’s decision could affect numerous other laws that Congress has passed. The Framers of our Constitution created the federal courts to ensure that where there is a legal wrong, there is a place where people can go to get a legal remedy. If individuals can’t sue in court when they’ve been injured by a company’s violation of the law, it hurts not only that individual, but everyone else as well, because it decreases companies’ incentives to comply with the law. The Roberts Court has a bad track record when it comes to consumer rights, often siding with big business over the individual, but in two other consumer protection cases this term, the Court upheld the rights of the individual, suggesting that business interests may have finally asked the Court to go too far. Any day now we should find out whether business interests have done the same in Spokeo.

Or consider another case that the Court heard in November, Foster v. Chatman. In Foster, the Court is being asked to decide whether prosecutors violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause when they struck all four black prospective jurors from a death penalty case in which a black defendant was charged with killing an elderly white woman. Although every state allows prosecutors to strike a certain number of potential jurors without giving their reasons for doing so, prosecutors cannot dismiss potential jurors because of their race. The Court made this clear 30 years ago in a case called Batson v. Kentucky. In Foster, there’s no question that the prosecutors were motivated by race because the defendant’s lawyers actually obtained the prosecutors’ jury selection notes, which made clear the role that race played in their challenges. Indeed, the discrimination was so blatant that a group of former prosecutors filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the defendant, arguing that the “evidence of racial discrimination in this case is overwhelming.” At oral argument in Foster, the justices spent a great deal of time discussing certain procedural hurdles that could prevent them from reaching a decision on the merits, but if the Court does reach the merits, this could be an important win for criminal defendants. And coming on the heels of some other wins for criminal defendants earlier in the term, it could be a sign that the Court is willing to take at least some steps to address the continuing and significant inequalities in our criminal justice system.

Foster isn’t the only case still pending at the Court that raises questions about the fairness of our judicial system. In February, the Court heard oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, which asks whether it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause for then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review a lower court decision concluding that lawyers Castille supervised while Philadelphia district attorney engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by suppressing evidence. This case should be an easy one: It’s a fundamental principle of our justice system, recognized by James Madison at the nation’s founding, that “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause.” The Supreme Court has previously held that the Due Process Clause requires “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal.” Nonetheless, Castille refused to recuse himself from the case; instead, he voted to reverse the lower court’s grant of relief and wrote a separate opinion in which he excoriated both the defense attorneys and the lower court that granted the relief. The American people’s confidence in our justice system depends on whether they can trust the judges who make up that system. The Court’s decision in Williams should have much to say about that.

Finally, there’s Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust. In this case, the Court is being asked to decide whether Puerto Rico can restructure the debt it owes to its creditors to ensure that local utilities can keep operating. In 1984, Congress (with no explanation) took away from Puerto Rico the right to file for federal bankruptcy protection, a right retained by all 50 state governments. The question in the case is whether that federal bankruptcy law nonetheless prevents Puerto Rico from dealing with its debt issues on its own. At oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed disturbed by the suggestion that it would, asking, “Why would Congress put Puerto Rico in this never-never land?” It may seem like a dry question, but it’s one of incredible importance to Puerto Rico and its residents. As Puerto Rico’s attorney explained at oral argument, “this is … a flesh-and-blood situation in Puerto Rico,” and the Court’s decision will determine “[w]hether people in a village in Puerto Rico will be able to get clean water.”

The Court will continue issuing opinions at the start of every workweek (and occasionally on other days) through the end of June. There are many cases at the Court that don’t make headlines, but are nonetheless incredibly important. And that means the Court could be issuing some big decisions sooner than you think.

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