Supreme Court 2020: Major Rulings on Abortion, Trump’s Tax Returns Still to Come

June 26, 2020by David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Nov. 30, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is nearing the end of its term and ready to release major decisions on abortion, religion and the separation of powers between the president and Congress — specifically, whether House Democrats or a New York grand jury can obtain President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

The court has already handed down a pair of surprises by extending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ employees and by blocking Trump’s repeal of the Obama-era program that protects the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted with the four liberals in both cases, triggering dismay and dissent among his colleagues on the right.

The chief justice also figures to hold the deciding vote in the biggest cases yet to be decided. A Louisiana dispute over doctors who perform abortions has taken on added significance because it will be the first abortion ruling since Trump’s two appointees took their seats and because it will signal whether the more conservative court will stick with its precedents on abortion.

Trump is counting on the court to protect him from subpoenas issued by three House committees and a New York grand jury that seek financial records held by his accountant or by Deutsche Bank, which made large loans to Trump’s properties. Trump sued to block the subpoenas but lost in three lower courts.

Usually, the court hands down its final decisions by the end of June and goes on recess for the summer. But the coronavirus shutdown delayed the arguments in several cases, including the dispute over Trump’s taxes, which in turn could push the last decisions into early July.

Here’s a look at the major cases still pending, and the significant rulings so far:

PENDING CASES

— Abortion and clinic doctors

May a state require that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles?

In states where few doctors are willing to provide abortions, doctors often travel from out of state to perform them. Louisiana lawmakers say the rule is a matter of health and safety, ensuring that patients facing an emergency can be admitted quickly. Abortion rights supporters say it is a sham because it has no real health benefits and would shut down all but one of the state’s clinics. They also say it conflicts with the court’s 2016 ruling that struck down the same rule in Texas.

Four years ago, the court struck down a Texas law that required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The court decided then the harm of this rule outweighed its minor health benefits because it had the effect of closing more than half of the state’s abortion clinics. The key vote was cast by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired in 2018 and was replaced by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

If it is upheld, the law is expected to leave Louisiana with only a single abortion provider in New Orleans. The justices are also well aware that a dozen Republican-led states have enacted limited or total bans on performing abortions. All those laws are on hold, pending further rulings from the high court. (June Medical Center v. Russo)

— Trump and taxes

May a House committee or a New York grand jury require Trump’s accountants and bankers to turn over records revealing his personal tax returns and financial dealings?

The president says his status as chief executive gives him an “absolute immunity” from such demands, while House Democrats say Congress has a nearly unlimited right to demand confidential information so as to carry out oversight and investigations. And New York prosecutors who are looking into Trump’s alleged hush-money payments said grand juries have very broad authority to subpoena records.

In the past, the court stood strong and united against presidents who claimed immunity when they faced charges of wrongdoing. President Nixon lost unanimously in 1974 when he tried to shield the Watergate tapes from investigators, and President Bill Clinton lost unanimously in 1997 when he sought a temporary immunity from responding to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

But the justices did not sound united during the arguments held in May. Rather, their questions and comments hinted the court might hand down a mixed decision or an opinion that’s not a clear win for either side. (Trump v. Mazars USA and Trump v. Vance)

— Religion and schools

May a state exclude church schools from a state-sponsored tuition aid program that supports students in other private schools, or does that exclusion amount to unconstitutional discrimination against religion?

The Montana Supreme Court says its state constitution, like those in three-fourths of the states, forbids spending tax funds on churches or religion.

But advocates for religious liberty say the state’s rule violates the 1st Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion.

The Roberts court has looked favorably on religious liberty claims. Three years ago, the chief justice said Missouri’s refusal to give a grant to a church to improve the playground of its preschool amounted to “odious” discrimination against religion. (Espinoza v. Montana)

— President and independent agencies

Did Congress violate the separation of powers and the president’s executive authority when it created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 as an “independent bureau,” which would be led by a director who was appointed by the president but could not be fired except for “neglect of duty or malfeasance in office”?

Business interests have fought the CFPB from the start, and Trump’s lawyers say the director’s semi-independent status conflicts with the president’s power over executive agencies. They believe in so-called “unitary executive” theory, which holds the president has the power to hire and fire all top officials who wield executive authority.

If so, the independent agencies could be deemed unconstitutional.

Defenders of the CFPB counter that Congress has the authority to structure the government, including by giving a degree of independence to agency heads. (Seila Law v. CFPB)

— Religion and birth control

May the Trump administration exempt employers who cite religious or moral objections from part of the Affordable Care Act that requires providing no-cost contraceptives to employees?

Under President Barack Obama, the government exempted churches and religious employers from the contraceptive requirement, but said their health insurers could step in to provide the coverage. The Trump administration wants to shield more employers and not require insurers to provide the contraceptives.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity, agreed with the administration and argued that requiring them to participate in any way violated their right to religious liberty. Pennsylvania’s attorney general sued, and the Trump regulation was put on hold. (Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania)

— Religion and teachers

Are the Catholic schools in Los Angeles entitled to a religious exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws because the duties of their elementary teachers include teaching religion?

Two former teachers who were fired filed lawsuits alleging discrimination, but the church’s lawyers say those suits should be tossed out because the church has a right to decide who teaches the faith. One of the teachers was fired after disclosing she had breast cancer. She alleged discrimination based on her illness.

Lawyers for the teachers said they taught fifth-grade classes that included just a daily workbook exercise on religion and therefore they should not be exempt from federal discrimination laws in the same way a priest would be.

Federal civil rights laws do not include a broad exemption for employers in hospitals, colleges or schools that are affiliated with a church, but the Supreme Court has recognized a “ministerial exception,” which holds the government may not interfere in the hiring or firing by a church or religious body of people who will carry out its religious mission. (Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel)

— Electoral College and states

May a state require its appointed electors to cast their presidential ballots in the Electoral College for the candidate who won the most popular support in the state?

Under the Constitution, the winner of the presidency is the candidate with the most electoral votes. Usually electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state on Election Day.

But last year, an appeals court in Colorado ruled that electors had a free speech right to defy the wishes of their states and vote for the candidate of their choice. Many states have laws or rules that require the electors to vote in line with the wishes of their state.

In a very close election, a few “faithless electors” could tip the balance if they were permitted to vote as they wished. (Chiafalo v. Washington and Colorado v. Baca)

ALREADY DECIDED

— LGBTQ and workplace rights

Do the federal civil rights laws protect LGBTQ employees from discrimination in the workplace nationwide?

Yes, the court said in a 6-3 ruling citing the words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says employers may not fire or refuse to hire employees based on their race, religion, sex or national origin. And the court decided that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is discrimination based on sex.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the court’s opinion. He agreed that lawmakers in 1964 may not have intended to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer employees, but he said the court relies on the words of the law, not the aims of the lawmakers. (Bostock v. Clayton County)

— Dreamers and immigration law

Has Trump lawfully repealed the Obama-era order that shielded the young immigrants who were brought to this country as children?

No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling written by Roberts. He said that while the president had the legal authority to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, his administration was required by the Administrative Procedure Act to explain valid reasons for ending a policy that encouraged about 700,000 immigrants to register with the government and obtain work permits and avoid deportation.

Trump’s aides had relied on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his claim that the policy was illegal from the start. (Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California)

———

©2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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