Overview Of US Supreme Court’s October 2016 Term – Analysis


By Elizabeth Slattery and Tiffany Bates*

The Supreme Court’s 2015–2016 term featured high-profile cases involving racial preferences in college admissions, immigration, abortion, the Obamacare contraception mandate, and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R) bribery conviction, among others. Will the upcoming 2016–2017 term prove to be as newsworthy? On average, the Court hears roughly 70 cases out of the nearly 7,000 petitions for review it receives each term. It has already agreed to hear 31 cases and likely will add more to the schedule following its September 26 “long conference.” This term, the Court will hear significant cases involving property rights, a state’s exclusion of churches from a grant program, and the President’s ability to fill vacancies without Senate approval, in addition to the possibility of taking up cases involving bathrooms and transgender high schoolers, the Washington Redskins’ trademarks, and yet another challenge to President Obama’s signature health care law.

October 3, 2016, marks the beginning of a new Supreme Court term. The 2015 term included challenges to the use of racial preferences in college admissions, the Obama Administration’s immigration “executive action,” Texas’s law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, the Obamacare contraception mandate, and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R) bribery conviction, among others. The defining feature of the past term most certainly was the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. In his nearly three decades on the Court, Scalia helped revolutionize how the Constitution and laws are interpreted—by looking to the text and original public meaning rather than legislative history or other sources. His passing in February resulted in a handful of cases where the remaining eight justices were unable to reach a majority decision, most notably in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (free speech and public employee unions) and United States v. Texas (the Obama Administration’s immigration executive action). It is safe to say with the passing of this legal titan, the Court will never be quite the same.

Each term features plenty of cases involving legal housekeeping issues, such as when lawsuits must be filed to be timely and how cases must be litigated or settled. Generally, the Supreme Court does not consider major legal issues until such matters have been considered by the lower courts. After the Court does address a major legal issue, its decision may lead to a host of related questions on which the lower courts, the academy, the media, and Congress have the opportunity to reflect and opine.

For example, in Zubik v. Burwell, the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Christian groups’ challenge to the Obamacare requirement that nonprofit employers provide employee health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs and devices, the Supreme Court issued an unusually brief order, instructing the parties and the lower courts to go back to the drawing board. It ordered them to come up with a solution that accommodates the groups’ religious exercise while providing the mandated health insurance coverage.

In Utah v. Strieff, the Court held that a valid pre-existing arrest warrant attenuates the taint of evidence seized following an illegal stop; thus the state could use evidence seized during that stop at trial. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that this ruling will eliminate the deterrent effect of the exclusionary rule (that evidence seized in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights cannot be used at trial). Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissented, claiming this decision will lead to an increase in police arbitrarily targeting minorities. This ruling will undoubtedly come up in many cases in the future.

Now the focus turns to the 2016–2017 term.

Cases on the Supreme Court’s 2016–2017 Docket

On average, the Court hears roughly 70 cases out of the nearly 7,000 petitions for review it receives each term. It has already agreed to hear 31 cases and will add more to the schedule at its September 26 long conference. Nineteen cases have been set for oral argument in October and November, and many more will be scheduled in the coming months. The upcoming term includes challenges involving property rights, a state’s exclusion of churches from a grant program, and the President’s ability to fill vacancies without Senate approval, among others. The following cases are just a few of the next term’s likely highlights.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley. In Locke v. Davey (2004), the Supreme Court held that a state could refuse to give publicly funded state scholarships to students studying theology. The issue in Trinity Lutheran is whether under this doctrine, a state can exclude a church from a state-funded grant program to install rubber playground surfaces solely because it is a church. The State of Missouri gives grants to nonprofits to install rubber surfaces made from recycled tires in order to make playgrounds safer. When Trinity Lutheran Church applied for one of these grants, the state denied its application because Trinity Lutheran is a church.

Despite Trinity Lutheran’s highly rated application, Missouri claimed that it was required to exclude Trinity Lutheran because Missouri’s constitution states that “no money shall be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” Dozens of states enacted similar laws or constitutional amendments barring the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools in the 19th century (known as Blaine Amendments), which were intended to single out Roman Catholics for disfavored treatment.

Trinity Lutheran has challenged its exclusion from the recycled tire program, arguing that where there is no valid concern about violating the Establishment Clause, a state may not exclude a church from a grant program solely because it is a church, and that doing so violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the federal Constitution. The lower court disagreed, holding that the Locke case instructed states to withhold public benefits from churches. Now that the Supreme Court will review this case, will the Justices acknowledge the discriminatory history that accompanied states’ Blaine Amendments?

National Labor Relations Board v. SW General, Inc. Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution requires the President to obtain the Senate’s “advice and consent” before appointing “Officers of the United States.” Congress has long allowed the President to temporarily fill vacancies with acting officers, but the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA), passed in 1998, significantly limits whom the President may appoint as an acting officer and how long that person may serve in order to curtail any attempt to circumvent the Senate’s advice and consent. For example, the law generally prohibits the same person from serving as the acting officer and being nominated as the permanent officer, with limited exceptions. The law makes clear that actions taken in violation of it “shall have no force or effect.”

This case involves a challenge to the service of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon, who was responsible for prosecuting unfair labor practices. President Obama appointed Solomon as Acting General Counsel in 2010 and also nominated him for the permanent post in 2011. This issue came up in the course of an unfair labor practice charge against SW General, Inc., a company that provides emergency medical services to hospitals; the company asserted that Solomon was serving in violation of the FVRA. The NLRB claims that SW General misread the statute and Solomon was allowed to serve as the acting official and the permanent nominee.

The lower court held that the FVRA’s plain text prevents such a nominee from serving in an acting position. Much like the 2014 decision in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the outcome of this case could have broad and long-reaching effects for the separation of powers and on federal agencies’ actions if their high-level officials were appointed in violation of the FVRA.

Murr v. Wisconsin. This case involves four siblings who own two adjacent waterfront properties in St. Croix, Wisconsin. Their parents obtained the two lots separately in the 1960s, building a cabin on one for the family’s use and leaving the other undeveloped. Fast forward to 2004, the Murr siblings were exploring the possibility of developing or selling the second lot and learned that due to zoning regulations enacted in the intervening years, the two lots could not be sold or developed separately and were now considered to be one. The Murrs brought an action in state court against Wisconsin, arguing that the state had effectively “taken” their second property by rendering it unusable without paying any just compensation. Indeed, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992), the Supreme Court held that when the government renders property economically useless (effecting a “regulatory taking”), it must compensate the property owners under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Purporting to follow the Supreme Court’s instruction in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York (1978) that courts consider the “parcel as a whole” in regulatory takings cases, the Wisconsin court determined that there was no taking here. But in Penn Central, the Supreme Court considered whether to segment the air rights from the rest of the property, not whether to combine two separate properties into one for a regulatory taking inquiry. Now the Supreme Court will determine if two properties that are adjoined and have the same owners should be treated as one in a regulatory-taking analysis.

Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. Cheerleading uniforms have sparked numerous controversies throughout sports history, but this term, lawyers at the Supreme Court have called them the “most vexing, unresolved question in copyright law.” In this case, Varsity Brands, an athletic uniform manufacturer, sued Star Athletica, another athletic wear vendor, for selling cheerleading uniforms with color blocks, stripes, and chevrons that looked similar to Varsity’s copyrighted designs. Star Athletica fired back, arguing that Varsity’s copyrights were invalid since their uniform designs were not “physically or conceptually separable from the uniforms” themselves, which cannot be copyrighted.

Under Section 101 of the Copyright Act, a person or entity may not copyright “useful articles”—items with an “intrinsic utilitarian function” such as a bike rack, a brief case, a chair, or a uniform. Although a useful article’s component parts are generally not copyrightable either, they may be copyrighted if the design “incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works” that are separate or independent from the article’s “utilitarian aspects.” Varsity argued that the color blocks, stripes, and chevrons on their uniforms were “purely aesthetic” and therefore copyrightable, and the lower court agreed.

Other circuits, however, have concluded the opposite in similar cases, holding that uniform designs may not be copyrighted because they are not separable from the uniform. To make matters worse, the lower courts, copyright scholars, and the Copyright Office have created a total of ten different tests to evaluate the question of separability, leaving this area of copyright law in disarray. The Supreme Court will have a chance to clarify what test is appropriate to determine when part of a useful article may be copyrighted and make sense of an area of law that lower courts have called “a mess.”

Moore v. Texas. The Supreme Court has shown considerable interest in capital-punishment cases in recent years. Two terms ago, the Court held that Oklahoma death-row inmates had failed either to show that the state’s use of certain lethal-injection drugs created a “demonstrated risk of severe pain” or to identify an alternative with a lesser risk of pain. Last term, the Court considered four cases dealing with capital sentencing, ruling against Florida’s bifurcated sentencing scheme while upholding convictions of three Kansas inmates who challenged the level of proof required for mitigating evidence. This term, the Court will look at how states determine if a defendant is ineligible for capital punishment due to having an intellectual disability.

In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Court held that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute severely mentally disabled criminal defendants but did not mandate how states were to determine whether defendants had an intellectual disability. Then in Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court struck down Florida’s requirement that defendants must show they have an IQ score of 70 or below before presenting evidence of an intellectual disability. Now the Court considers a claim by Bobby James Moore, who was sentenced to capital punishment for the 1980 murder of a supermarket clerk in Texas. Following the Atkins decision, Moore filed a state habeas petition alleging he has an intellectual disability. The Texas court disagreed, basing its decision on a definition of intellectual disability that Moore challenges as “outdated.” Moore contends that courts should be required to use a more recent clinical definition, while Texas points out that the Atkins Court allowed states flexibility in complying with that decision.

Cases on the Horizon

Attempting to predict what the Supreme Court will or will not do is a gamble. The Court receives more than 7,000 petitions for review each term, and the justices agree to hear less than 1 percent of those cases. In addition to attacks on voting laws from several states (including North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin), the following cases have a good chance of being reviewed by the Supreme Court in the near future.

Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse. When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Trial and Appeals Board cancelled six Washington Redskins’ trademarks for being offensive to Native Americans, football fans everywhere showed a newfound interest in trademark law. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act (the disparagement clause) prohibits a person or entity from registering a trademark that “may disparage…persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Five Native Americans challenged the Redskins’ trademarks pursuant to that section, claiming that when the trademarks were issued between 1967–1990, a “substantial composite” of Native Americans believed the term disparaged them. The trial judge agreed, and an appeal is currently pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Redskins argue that the disparagement clause violates the First Amendment and the cancellation of their trademarks decades after they were issued violates due process. Though the appeals court has not yet heard the case, the Redskins have also petitioned the Supreme Court to grant review now so the case may be heard together with Lee v. Tam, another case raising the issue of whether the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause violates the Constitution.

The legal issue is not whether the term “Redskins” is viewed as disparaging by Native Americans today, and in fact, a Washington Post poll earlier this year found that nine in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the name. Rather, the question is whether “Redskins” was viewed as disparaging by a “substantial composite” of Native Americans at the time the six Redskins trademarks were issued, starting in 1967. When plaintiffs brought an almost identical suit in 1992, a judge reversed the Patent and Trademark Board’s trademark registration cancellation because its finding of “disparagement” was not supported by substantial evidence.

Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. In 2014, the Gloucester County School Board implemented a policy limiting the use of school bathrooms and locker rooms to corresponding biological genders while providing single-stall unisex bathrooms available to any student. G.G.—a biological female who identifies as a male—sued the school board, alleging this policy violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX forbids federally funded schools or education programs from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” When the Department of Education issued regulations implementing the law, however, it specifically allowed for separate bathrooms and locker rooms for men and women. In 2015, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights interpreted the bathroom regulation in regards to transgender individuals, stating that “a school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.”

Under the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision Auer v. Robbins, if a regulation is ambiguous, the courts will generally defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation so long as that interpretation is not “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” In this case, a federal district court in Virginia dismissed G.G.’s Title IX claim, declining to accord Auer deference to the Department of Education’s interpretation. It held that Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination “on the basis of sex” is not ambiguous. It “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and not on the basis of other concepts such as gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, however, holding that the statute is ambiguous and the agency’s interpretation is entitled to Auer deference. The Supreme Court granted a stay of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, pending the school board’s petition for certiorari.

House v. Burwell. Finally, there is yet another challenge to Obamacare. This time it is a battle between the U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama Administration over the payment of subsidies to insurance providers for providing cost-sharing reductions to certain policyholders, even though Congress explicitly refused to appropriate funds to pay for these subsidies. Section 1402 of the law mandates that insurers offer a reduced rate to certain policyholders. The federal government will then reimburse insurance companies for those added costs. This provision of the law stated that cost-sharing offsets must be funded by annual appropriations, but the House never appropriated such funds. Nevertheless, the Administration claims that the House had permanently appropriated funds and began making the payments.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution provides: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The House sued the Administration for spending unappropriated funds, and a federal district court ruled that although Congress provided a permanent appropriation for Section 1401 (which gives tax credits to individual taxpayers to make their insurance more affordable), Section 1402 lacked such an appropriation. The judge even pointed out that the Administration’s 2013 budget request asked for an annual appropriation for the Section 1402 payments to insurers; thus the Administration itself seemed to acknowledge that there was no permanent appropriation. The Administration has announced it will appeal this ruling to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, so the case could reach the Supreme Court in its 2016 or 2017 terms.


The Supreme Court’s upcoming term begins on October 3, 2016. The justices will hear cases involving property rights, a state’s exclusion of churches from a grant program, and the President’s ability to fill vacancies without Senate approval, among others.

The cases this term may be hard-pressed to match the excitement and media flurry that accompanied highly anticipated rulings in recent years, such as cases involving same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion, and President Obama’s signature health care law. But the upcoming term has the potential to become an important year for property rights, the separation of powers, and copyright law.

*About the authors:
Elizabeth H. Slattery
is a Legal Fellow and Appellate Advocacy Program Manager, and Tiffany H. Bates is a Legal Research Associate, in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

This article was published by The Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation

Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution—a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

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