What’s at Stake in the Supreme Court This Term?
Federal courts are sometimes the last, best hope for women who have experienced discrimination in education, employment, or health care. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a number of cases that will significantly impact the rights of women and girls.
Listen to the Conference Call
On October 24, AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Program Manager Mollie Lam and Regulatory Affairs Manager Beth Scott hosted a conference call to discuss this term’s most significant cases with AAUW members, and if you weren’t one of the more than 400 AAUW members who registered, here’s what you missed.
Reproductive rights, equal educational opportunity, health care coverage, and separation of church and state are among the issues facing the court this term:
McCullen v. Coakley
Anti-choice activists challenged a Massachusetts law designed to protect patients at reproductive health clinics from intimidation and harassment. They argue that the law, which creates a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics, violates their free speech rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld the Massachusetts law, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. AAUW joined an amicus brief arguing that the law is constitutional.
Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice
In 2011, Oklahoma passed a law that prevented doctors from administering drugs used to end pregnancy in any manner that deviated from the FDA label, even though the FDA label was significantly outdated and best medical practices allowed for off-label uses. Because of the restrictions, the law effectively bans nearly all medication abortions in the state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. Before hearing the case, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to clarify parts of its ruling. The case is on hold until the Oklahoma Supreme Court responds. Under AAUW’s Public Policy Program, AAUW strongly supports reproductive choice and access to reproductive health care.
UPDATE 11/05/2013: The Oklahoma Supreme Court responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s questions, and on November 4 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would not hear Cline. As a result, the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling that the law was unconstitutional will stand. However, a challenge to a similarly restrictive law in Texas is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and that case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sign up for Washington Update and LAF Express for updates on the Texas case.
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action
Anti-affirmative action advocates in Michigan proposed a ballot initiative (Proposal 2) that would ban affirmative action in the state. The ballot initiative passed and created Section 26 of the Michigan constitution, which bars any consideration of race, ethnicity, or gender in public university admissions. In the past, the affirmative action cases before the court typically concerned a challenge to the constitutionality of a particular university’s affirmative action program. Unlike those cases, the question in Schuette is whether a state may amend its constitution to ban affirmative action altogether. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit declared the ban unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on October 15. AAUW supports affirmative action programs to increase equity and diversity in education and joined an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to declare the amendment unconstitutional.
Across the country, a number of for-profit business owners filed lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employee health insurance plans cover reproductive health care, including contraception. The business owners argue that they are morally or religiously opposed to the use of contraception; therefore, the act violates their constitutional right to freedom of religion or, in some of the suits, their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear any of the cases, but it is currently considering several appeals. The court is likely to hear at least one of the contraceptive coverage appeals this term, particularly because the federal courts of appeal are split over the question. In the spirit of our long-standing support for access to contraception and reproductive health care, AAUW signed several amicus briefs in different circuits, arguing that for-profit business owners should not be exempt from providing health care coverage to their female employees.
Separation of Church and State
The Supreme Court will take up the question of legislative prayer for the first time in 30 years in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Although in previous cases the court declared legislative prayer constitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit declared the legislative prayers in Galloway to be unconstitutional because they were largely Christian prayers presided over by Christian clergy. AAUW firmly supports separation of church and state.
AAUW will monitor these cases closely as the Supreme Court’s term progresses. We plan to host another conference call next spring to update AAUW members on the Supreme Court’s rulings. You may listen to the full recording of the October 24 call above.
This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Program Manager Mollie Lam and AAUW Regulatory Affairs Manager Beth Scott.