For Women and Girls, an Important Year at the Supreme Court

AAUW staff and supporters protested Hobby Lobby's case at the Supreme Court.

AAUW staff and supporters protested Hobby Lobby's case at the Supreme Court in 2014.

October 29, 2015

It’s a brand new term for the U.S. Supreme Court, but the stakes for women and girls are awfully familiar. This year, the court will see a serious challenge to affirmative action, new threats to contraceptive access, and a potential watershed case for reproductive rights. In a year when the rights of women and girls are front and center, it’s more important than ever to stay informed. You can also listen to a recording of our Supreme Court wrap-up call.

Fisher v. University of Texas Brings Affirmative Action Back

If you’ve been following the Supreme Court for the last few years, you’ll recognize Fisher v. University of Texas. Fisher first came before the court in 2012, but the justices sent it back to the lower court for rehearing. This term, however, the court will hear the case, its first major affirmative action case since 2003.

Under the university’s admissions policy, Texas high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class are automatically admitted without any consideration of race or other factors. That 10 percent policy fills most of the spots in each entering class. For the relatively small number of spots that remain, Texas uses a holistic, race-conscious admissions policy.

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. University of Texas, is white. She applied to the University of Texas, and, because she was not in the top 10 percent of her Texas high school class, her application was evaluated under the race-conscious admissions policy. Fisher was denied admission and went on to attend and graduate from a different school. She filed suit against the university, challenging its use of race-conscious admissions.

Because the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision,  advocates for educational access are concerned that the court’s agreement to hear Fisher suggests that at least some of the justices want to further limit the use of race-conscious admissions policies. The court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas in December.

Fallout from Hobby Lobby Continues

In last year’s disappointing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations can’t be required to cover contraception through their employee health insurance plans. Despite Justice Alito’s assurance that the Hobby Lobby ruling would have limited reach, fallout from the decision could seriously threaten even more employees’ access to preventative health care.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the government created (and AAUW supported) an exemption to the contraceptive care requirement for religious organizations and an accommodation for religiously affiliated nonprofits. Under the accommodation, religiously affiliated nonprofits simply fill out a form that explains their religious objections to contraception, and the government arranges for coverage of their employees’ contraceptive care instead of the nonprofit. But a small number of religious nonprofits filed lawsuits objecting to the accommodation. They argue that even having to fill out the accommodation form is an impermissible infringement on their religious liberty because it triggers contraceptive coverage for the employees.

Several of these cases were filed in different states, and until recently, all the circuit courts to rule on such cases had held that the accommodation was fair. However, last month the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of one of the nonprofits, creating a circuit split and making it more likely that the Supreme Court will take at least one of these cases. Hobby Lobby’s legacy could mean that even more employers will be able to restrict their employees’ access to contraception.

Threats to Reproductive Rights

Although we’ve talked a lot about reproductive rights and the Supreme Court in the last few sessions, this could be a truly defining term when it comes to access to abortion care and the right to choose. In the last few years, a number of states across the country have passed so-called TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws in an attempt to restrict and even eliminate women’s access to legal abortion. While many anti-choice laws impose restrictions on patients, TRAP laws are designed to prevent doctors from performing abortions altogether. TRAP laws are passed under the guise of protecting women’s health, even though the provisions generally do nothing to increase the standard of care — the laws make it more difficult for women to find good reproductive health care.

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether it will hear two challenges to TRAP laws — one from Texas and one from Mississippi. Either case could become the most direct challenge to reproductive rights that the court has heard in years.

Stay tuned for our e-newsletter LAF Express for updates on these cases and more as the year progresses. E-mail laf@aauw.org to subscribe to LAF Express.

Mollie Lam By:   |   October 29, 2015

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