Eight cases remain to be decided at the Supreme Court this month, but all eyes are on the Big Three. With the tumultuous 2015-16 term marked by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death winding down, decisions on access to abortion, the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants will determine whether the evenly divided court tilted liberal or conservative.
Other cases still pending before the eight-member court include one involving former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell that could set a higher bar for public corruption and another that could affect drunk drivers who refuse breath or blood tests.
Last week, the court issued eight rulings, including one that lets police seize evidence from an unconstitutional search if they first discover the suspect has an outstanding arrest warrant, and another that allows companies doing business with the government to be sued for fraud if they fail to disclose significant legal or regulatory violations.
The court has struggled at times with an even number of justices, prompting several tie votes, some compromise rulings on divisive issues and more caution in granting cases for next term.
Here’s a look at the big three cases:
A former white student’s challenge to the University of Texas’ use of racial preferences in admissions dates back the longest. The case was heard in early December, after being returned to the Supreme Court for a second go-round. In 2013, the justices demanded tougher judicial scrutiny of the school’s use of race, but an appeals court again sided with UT.
Unlike the other cases, this one will be decided with just seven votes, because Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself after working on it as U.S. solicitor general. Without the risk of a tie, advocates and opponents of affirmative action anticipate a ruling for or against the policy — perhaps with repercussions for other universities as well. The betting line tilts against UT.
Another case from Texas challenges a state law that imposed major restrictions on abortion clinics, ostensibly to protect women’s health. The law requires clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and forces doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals — rules that threaten to leave only nine fully functioning abortion clinics in a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age.
Two lower federal courts have upheld the law, but abortion rights proponents say it places too great a burden on women seeking abortions, without a justifiable health benefit. They may have a winning hand if Justice Anthony Kennedy joins the court’s four liberals against one or both restrictions. A substantive ruling could represent the most significant abortion decision by the court since 1992.
Case No. 3 from Texas is President Obama’s effort to overturn lower court rulings that have blocked him from offering more than 4 million undocumented immigrants a chance to remain in the country without fear of deportation. It represents his last chance to help the parents of those brought to the country as children who have already won such a reprieve.
Texas led a group of 26 states against the plan, complaining that it would have to pay for driver’s licenses if the parents dodge deportation proceedings. Obama’s best chance appears to be the hope that a majority of justices will decide the cost of licenses does not give Texas sufficient standing in court. Otherwise, a 4-4 tie would uphold the verdict of the lower courts, and the program would be dead.