Because many rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States affect core Unitarian Universalist principles and justice priorities, we’re spotlighting some we’re following closely this term (and linking sources for more in-depth exploration).
As we reported with the court’s 2022–23 session, many upcoming rulings will heavily affect the lives of vulnerable communities, including BIPOC, disabled, pregnant, and LGBTQIA+ people.
Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo
Loper Bright involves fishing corporations challenging the authority of the National Marine Fisheries Service to require them to pay the cost of observers who monitor companies’ compliance with federal fishery rules. This seemingly narrow legal question actually could have far-reaching implications because the justices have opted to re-examine a 40-year-old precedent the court established in Chevron Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council. That precedent, widely known as the Chevron Doctrine, states courts should defer to federal agencies’ interpretation of law when laws are ambiguous or leave discretion regarding implementation.
Chevron effectively says the civil servants with expertise in their field and who are accountable to an elected president should decide how to implement Congress’ mandates, rather than judges. Reversing this precedent would do enormous harm, stripping many federal agencies charged with protecting civil rights, consumers, and public health and safety; limiting pollution and environmental harm; and much more. Stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to limit carbon emissions is one obvious industry target.
Dozens of corporate and far-right advocacy groups are pushing the court to overturnChevron and anoint federal courts as the arbiters of which federal regulations are proper. Such a ruling would invite floods of lawsuits challenging rules that limit or regulate corporate activities. Workplace safety rules, product safety regulations, and limiting emissions to abate the climate crisis are among the obvious targets.
Congress is ill-equipped to manage the day-to-day administration of legislation it passes and necessarily must empower federal agencies to turn its broad directives into specific actions based on good-faith interpretations. Those actions remain subject to judicial oversight if any agency truly exceeds its authority. Accordingly, SCOTUS should uphold theChevron precedent and sustain the ability of civil servants to do their jobs effectively.
Origin and Status: The case came on a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In October, the court also agreed to hear a second challenge to theChevron Doctrine, Relentless v. Department of Commerce, which will be argued simultaneously with Loper v. Raimondo. No oral argument date was set as of writing.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association of America
In another aggressive attack against civil service agencies, the payday lending industry seeks to abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal watchdog that protects people from predatory lenders and financial services rip-offs.
In 2008, due to irresponsible and corrupt practices, the financial industry set in motion the “Great Recession,” a financial crisis that decimated the wealth of millions of Americans whose primary financial asset was their home. In the aftermath, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which included creating the CFPB as an independent agency within the Federal Reserve. Enforcement of federal consumer protection laws regarding finance was thus consolidated into one agency.
"To insulate the CFPB from partisan interference, Congress funded the agency through the Federal Reserve instead of Congress. The Federal Reserve is funded through the fees it charges depositors rather than congressional appropriations."
CFPB rules exist in large part to protect people from predatory lending practices, especially people living in poverty or who are from marginalized communities. To insulate the CFPB from partisan interference, Congress funded the agency through the Federal Reserve instead of Congress. The Federal Reserve is funded through the fees it charges depositors rather than congressional appropriations.
A group of corporations sued the CFPB, arguing it did not have a legal right to operate without direct appropriation of funds from Congress.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has long supported both past and current iterations of the Poor People’s Campaign, advocating for the rights of lower-wealth Americans. The UUA applauds the CFPB’s work to protect people from exploitation and recognizes that the judgment of our elected representatives and civil servants should not be subject to constant challenge by corporate interests unless actual constitutional principles are violated.
Origin and Status: Oral argument for Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association of America occurred on October 3 and gave no clear indication of the likely outcome. The case is one of five rulings from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where far-right judges are advancing their agenda with little regard for legal precedent or constitutional grounding. Notably, Donald Trump appointed six of the seventeen current Fifth Circuit judges.
Alexander v. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP
Everyone involved in this dispute agrees that Republicans in South Carolina gerrymandered the previously competitive 1st Congressional District to lock in GOP control. Of course, this denies residents a meaningful vote in general elections, but in 2019 ( Rucho v. Common Cause), SCOTUS declared partisan gerrymandering lies beyond the power of federal courts to address.
The South Carolina NAACP chapter sued to stop the scheme, alleging it deliberately weakened the voting power of Black citizens, thus violating 14th and 15th Amendment protections against race discrimination and the Voting Rights Act, and making the actions subject to federal review. To the surprise of many, SCOTUS upheld a related complaint in its last session (Allen v. Milligan), forcing Alabama to redraw districts in a manner that empowered Black voters
In redrawing districts to seize more power in South Carolina, the GOP moved 62 percent of Black voters in Charleston County from the 1st Congressional District to the 6th, which already leaned toward Democrats. A federal district court panel found the GOP did use racial criteria, which rendered the new district maps unconstitutional. The ruling found the GOP’s stated goal was “effectively impossible without the gerrymandering of the African American population of Charleston County.”
Factual findings of federal district courts are not subject to alteration by higher courts absent any “clear error,” but some justices appeared ready to discard that longstanding norm during oral argument on October 11.
SCOTUS’s ruling on the South Carolina case will demonstrate whether theMilligan ruling earlier this year represented a genuine intention to uphold constitutional protections of voters or was simply a tactical maneuver by the Court’s regressive majority to blunt public outrage against the Court’s string of anti-democracy rulings.
Status: Oral arguments for Alexander v. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP occurred October 11, and South Carolina has requested a ruling by January to allow ample time to prepare voting maps for its 2024 elections.
Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missour i
Police Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow sued the City of St. Louis for employment discrimination after she was transferred to a different department, which she alleges was due to her sex. Muldrow claims she was involuntarily transferred from her position in the Intelligence Division to a patrol position because her supervisor wanted a man in her position, which she argues violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act says an employer may not “discriminate against any individual…because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled Muldrow suffered no actionable harm since her duties and salary were largely unchanged. A ruling in Muldrow’s favor would make it easier for employees to bring discrimination claims.
Status: Oral argument for Muldrow v. City of St. Louis is scheduled for December 6.
Other Cases to Watch
We’ll report separately in the coming months on Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer, which examines who has legal standing to sue businesses over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Inducing abortion via medication already is more common than surgery. Remote abortion care has continued to increase in the year following the SCOTUS ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, which enables states to effectively force childbirth upon pregnant people."
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals enabled a sole district court judge—deliberately selected by abortion foes to hear the case—to restrict nationwide the availability of the safe and effective abortion-inducing drug mifepristone. SCOTUS was widely expected to accept the appeal by October 12 but had not announced its intentions as of writing.
Inducing abortion via medication already is more common than surgery. Remote abortion care has continued to increase in the year following the SCOTUS ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, which enables states to effectively force childbirth upon pregnant people. In the United States alone, 5.6 million patients have used mifepristone since the FDA found it to be effective and exceptionally safe two decades ago.
If SCOTUS upholds the Fifth Circuit ruling or declines to accept the case, FDA rules enabling people to obtain prescriptions via telehealth consultations and receive the prescription by mail would be struck down. Patients would be required to make three different in-person appointments to acquire the drug, effectively outlawing it for millions of people. The First Circuit ruling also would limit prescriptions to the first seven weeks of pregnancy, a grossly inadequate window.
Government, Social Media, and Free Speech
At the close of October, the court heard oral argument in two among five cases on the docket involving how governments interact with social media and how that relationship impacts free speech and democracy. The first two examine whether a public official violates the First Amendment by blocking someone from following a government-owned social media account. Two other cases involve questions of whether government entities may force social media sites to publish material against their wishes. The fifth case will determine whether a government agency has the right to ask a social media company to voluntarily remove material from public view. The Hill reported on those cases.
United States v. Rahimi
The question in United States v.Rahimi is whether it’s constitutional to limit gun access to a person not yet convicted of a violent crime but who has been deemed by a court to pose a danger of violence to a former partner or a family member. Once again, an extreme right-wing argument—that such restrictions violate the Second Amendment—was turned into law by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that people subject to domestic violence protection orders have a constitutional right to possess a gun.
In 2022, SCOTUS struck down New York’s regulations on concealed carry licenses ( New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen) and demanded that any gun regulations must be “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” Of course, the Second Amendment was written when firing a second shot required minutes to reload a musket and predates automatic weapons by a century. In the same ruling, the court also noted the United States has a “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” The garbled ruling effectively left judges the option to choose which of two wildly different interpretations of the Constitution to follow.
While the UUA has not backed specific firearm policies, it repeatedly has advocated for the right of governments to establish gun safety regulations—a right we know many UUs desperately want to see enacted before the next tragedy.
Oral argument took place on November 7.
We’ll update you on many of these cases as they develop.