State and Local Issues to Dominate U.S. Supreme Court Docket

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear cases this term related to campaign finance, affirmative action, public prayer and unions. The court’s ruling in these cases could make state elections much more expensive and change the way state and local governments hire and interact with their employees, especially their unionized workforce.

The most politically-charged case on the 2013-2014 docket is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, a case related to the amount individuals can contribute to candidates and political parties. Should the court agree with the plaintiff’s argument that the two-year aggregate campaign contribution limit violates the First Amendment, they would expand upon Citizens United by increasing the threshold for individual contributions directly to candidates or political parties from $123,000 every two-year election cycle to $3.6 million. The court will be asked to agree with an amicus curiae brief presented by the Republican National Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and do away with direct contribution limits altogether.

Race-based policies have drawn  a skeptical response from the Supreme Court in recent years, and states like Oklahoma, Nebraska and Arizona have responded by approving constitutional amendments banning affirmative action. Against this backdrop, the justices took up Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary, a Michigan affirmative action case with a 10-year history. In 2006, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to ban affirmative action in higher education and public sector hiring, and consequently, minority enrollment at the University of Michigan plummeted. A federal appeals court in 2012 ruled that the voter-approved referendum itself was discriminatory, and opponents of the referendum point out that all other state admissions policies are set by a popularly-elected board of regents. The state could take away the regents’ power to set admissions criteria or could enact another system that promotes diversity. To do so, however, minority groups would have to embark on the costly and challenging process to re-amend the state constitution with a second referendum. The vote for affirmative action in 2003 was 5-4; justices stressed at the time the intended temporary nature of the programs.

The high court will consider the constitutionality of prayer in legislative settings in Greece v. Galloway. In Greece, New York, a local preacher has traditionally opened town meetings with a prayer. The town argues that the meetings are open to anyone who wants to give a prayer, but the invocations are consistently Christian in nature and often ask non-Christians to participate.  The appeals court ruled the activity an endorsement of a certain religion. In a recent brief issued by the White House, the Obama administration stated, “So long as the goal of the government-backed prayer is not to recruit believers or criticize a given faith then the practice should be supported.”  Depending on the breadth of the ruling, the decision’s impact could seriously affect religion’s role in the public sphere.

SCOTUS also granted certiorari to a number of cases related to employment law. The court’s decisions last session could be characterized as pro-employer, and court watchers expect this trend to continue in the 2013-14 term.

The Illinois case Harris v. Quinn promises to have great repercussions for the future unionization of state and municipal workers. The plaintiffs claim that SEIU’s collection of non-political dues from non-member home health care workers employed by the state constitutes a violation of their First Amendment rights of association and petition. Also at issue in this case is whether workers paid through Medicaid but employed as independent contractors can be considered state employees. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim, but the Supreme Court could find in their favor. According to Gabriella Khorasanee, a blogger for FindLaw, SCOTUS may even nullify its previous decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education to argue that non-union members cannot be forced to pay non-political portions of union fees laid out in collective bargaining agreements.

In another union related case, the Eleventh Circuit found in Florida case Mulhall v. Unite Here Local 355 that union arrangements with management to ease the process of unionization in exchange for its neutrality can constitute a bribe. They argued that the employee contact list that the management of Mardi Gras Gaming turned over to UHL was a “thing of value,” but the union claimed that these kinds of agreements are regular features of labor relations, and to make a change now would “wreak havoc” with labor law.

The decision in an Indiana case could “rein in the Department of Labor’s efforts to alter the Fair Labor Standards Act without formal (i.e., legislative) changes,” according to Sara Eber of employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP. In Sandifer v. US Steel, SCOTUS will decide whether the time spent “donning and doffing” protective gear should be paid. The Department of Labor argues that it should, but the Seventh Circuit found in favor of US Steel.