Federal Courts and Nominations

The New Supreme Court Term: Blockbusters? Maybe Not. Significant? No Question.

Some legal observers predict the new Supreme Court Term will be a snooze because the docket lacks hot button social issue cases — the fate of marriage equity, for example, or a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. From my perspective, that’s a narrow view that ignores the social, political and economic import of many cases confronting the justices this term.

Every case the high court hears is significant because, as the final arbiter of the law, its decisions have an impact on entire classes of people, businesses or government. This term, the court will grapple with a number of issues that couldn’t be more relevant to the American experience in the second decade of the 21st Century. Racial bias in the criminal justice system, the growing political power of minority voters, and the accountability of predatory banks are at the center of this term’s most interesting cases.

The court may also be hamstrung in some instances by the absence of its ninth justice. The Senate’s unprecedented refusal to consider any nominee of President Obama to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia may well result in some tie votes that will delay justice for all affected by the issue in question. The court was unable to resolve four cases after Scalia died in the middle of the last term, and just yesterday, deepened its dysfunction by refusing to re-hear one of those cases, an appeal regarding the president’s immigration actions, leaving millions of people in legal limbo.

Looming over all of this is a tumultuous presidential election, the results of which may well determine the ideological direction of the court for generations to come.

How could anyone think this mélange portends a boring term?

Two cases scheduled for oral argument in the first two weeks of the term revolve around racial bias in the criminal justice system, even as Americans struggle to reconcile recent police shootings of unarmed African Americans. These cases will give the Supreme Court not one but two opportunities to keep the specter of racism from haunting the jury box and poisoning decisions that, under the Constitution, must be free from racial bias.

One of those cases, Buck v. Davis, will be argued Wednesday. The circumstances involve an “expert” witness called by Duane Buck’s own attorney who testified during the sentencing phase of Buck’s criminal trial that Buck was more likely to be dangerous because he was African American. That testimony fed into long-standing and persistent stereotypes of African American men as dangerous and violent, and Buck was sentenced to death rather than life in prison. Buck is asking the Justices for the opportunity to make the argument in the courts below that he was deprived of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.

The case of Peña-Rodriquez v. Colorado turns on racist comments allegedly made by a juror during deliberations. The juror allegedly said he did not trust Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez or his alibi witness because they were Mexican. The jury reached a guilty verdict. The high court’s ruling will determine for the first time whether evidence of racial bias against a criminal defendant is so compelling that it justifies piercing the veil of secrecy that usually surrounds jury deliberations.

The court’s decisions will have lasting impact on how legislative districts are drawn, who gets elected, and thus who makes the laws that affect us all.

The growing political power of minorities is at issue in two cases involving redistricting of state and federal legislative districts in the electoral battlegrounds of North Carolina and Virginia. In these cases, challengers are asking the Court to hold that use of a fixed racial quota to over-pack minorities into certain districts — diluting their influence in other districts — violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

Oral arguments in the case of Bank of America v. Miami will bring renewed attention to some of the same predatory lending practices that led to the 2008 financial catastrophe and the Great Recession that followed. The question is whether the city of Miami under the Fair Housing Act can sue banks that allegedly engaged in a decade-long practice of predatory mortgage lending that targeted vulnerable minorities for costly, high-risk loans.

The court will hear cases this term on many other important issues as well, including class action lawsuits and the filling of senior positions in the federal government. Decisions in these cases could have far-ranging repercussions for the progress and promise of our justice system as well as our nation’s founding principles. That’s nothing to snooze over.

More from Federal Courts and Nominations

Federal Courts and Nominations
January 17, 2024

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Sign-On Letter Prioritizing Diverse Judges

Dear Senator, On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the...
Federal Courts and Nominations
July 31, 2023

Liberal justices earn praise for ‘independence’ on Supreme Court, but Thomas truly stands alone, expert says

Fox News
Some democrats compare Justice Clarence Thomas to ‘Uncle Tom’ and house slave in ‘Django Unchained’
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, By Brianna Herlihy
Federal Courts and Nominations
July 7, 2023

In Her First Term, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ‘Came to Play’

The New York Times
From her first week on the Supreme Court bench in October to the final day...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, by Adam Liptak
Federal Courts and Nominations
July 8, 2023

The Supreme Court’s continuing march to the right

Major legal rulings that dismantled the use of race in college admissions, undermined protections for...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, by Tierney Sneed
Federal Courts and Nominations
June 25, 2023

Federal judge defends Clarence Thomas in new book, rejects ‘pot shots’ at Supreme Court

A federal appeals court judge previously on short lists for the Supreme Court is taking the rare...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra
Federal Courts and Nominations
May 1, 2023

Supreme Court, done with arguments, turns to decisions

Roll Call
The justices have released opinions at a slow rate this term, and many of the...
By: Brianne J. Gorod, By Michael Macagnone