June Supreme Court Update

Last month saw several major decisions handed down by the Supreme Court that had an impact on a variety of factors affecting individual sovereignty, including reproductive freedom, the freedom to direct the religious education of one’s own children, and the freedom from state discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The following is a brief synopsis of four of the more prominent cases this term and what they mean for your personal liberty.


Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia

Appearing as one of three cases presenting similar circumstances, this case arose from the termination by the Clayton County, Georgia government of an employee upon discovering that the defendant is homosexual. Gerald Bostock’s participation in a gay softball league allegedly prompted negative comments by members of the community regarding his sexual orientation, and Bostock was fired from his job as a child welfare advocate for “unbecoming” conduct.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court found that discriminating against an individual simply on the basis of his or her sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch examined the text of the act and the traits of one’s sex as we understand it today. Noting that both a gay man and a straight woman share a sexual attraction to men, the Court’s rationale behind affirming the lower court’s ruling is the notion that firing a man for possessing a trait that the employer would likely not have found fault with in a woman violated Title VII.


Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California

More popularly known as “the DACA case,” the Court examined the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, in which around 700,000 individuals brought by their parents to the United States without documentation availed themselves of a removal forbearance and the ability to  apply for permission to legally work in the country in which they were raised.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, finding that the Trump Administration’s attempt at rescinding the act could not be made unilaterally. Though the Obama Administration began the program by way of a memorandum from the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Court found that simply doing away with a policy that prevented peaceful individuals who’ve built a life in the United States from being forcibly caged and callously removed from all they’ve ever known without taking into account the incredible hardships such a rescission would inflict violated administrative rules and equal protection under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.


June Medical Services v. Russo

This case came to the Court as an abortion rights case from Louisiana that was ultimately decided on the grounds of a far different legal doctrine. The state legislature enacted a law in 2014 mandating that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. Pointing to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a remarkably similar statue in neighboring Texas, abortion providers challenged the law shortly after enactment, and they reach the Supreme Court in an appeal to a 2018 federal appellate court ruling favoring the state of Louisiana.

The case rests largely upon whether or not such a statute places an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion, which was a test established in Casey v. Planned Parenthood in 1992. The appellate court found that Louisiana’s law did not impose such a burden on most of the state’s women, but there was some question whether the Court would rule as it did on the Texas statute in 2016 now that Justice Kennedy is in retirement.

Ultimately the Court chose to reverse the appellate court’s ruling, but just barely. In an opinion joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Breyer recognized the Louisiana statute as being an almost verbatim restatement of the Texas statute they struck down four years ago, thus failing the “undue burden” test as well. However, the deciding vote came from Chief Justice Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, who surprised some court watchers and joined with the more liberal wing of the Court when he reversed his vote in Whole Woman’s Health and acted as the deciding vote by concurring in the judgment on the basis of stare decisis, or the legal principle of standing by decisions previously made.


Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

Espinoza is the latest major case the Court has ruled upon this summer. Five years ago the Montana legislature established a tax credit that allows individuals or corporations to donate up to $150 to private scholarships that may be used to fund tuition to K-12 private schools. Though some of these schools are secular in nature, the lion’s share of the recipients of these funds are religiously-oriented schools, which led the state’s revenue department to prevent spending of those funds on such schools. 

The move was challenged in state court, and the Montana Supreme Court reversed a lower-court victory against the state on the grounds that the Montana constitution prohibits such a program as it favors a sectarian purpose. In a 5-4 decision handed down on the last day of June the Court reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s decision and affirmed parents’ rights to be in control of their children’s religious training, noting the long tradition already established in America and its support in the United States Constitution. Chief Justice Roberts was joined by justices Cavanaugh, Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch in chiding the Montana court for its decision to place the state’s no-aid provision above the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.