Supreme Court cases shouldn’t be overlooked

Freedom New Mexico

The U.S. Supreme Court’s docket this year so far does not contain the kind of blockbusters on core constitutional issues — such as the meaning of firearms rights or habeas corpus rights — that peppered its last term. However, there are a few interesting cases that may have more resonance than is widely expected.

This dearth of big cases may reflect Chief Justice John Roberts’ stated goal of taking cases where it is possible to get unanimous or near-unanimous rulings on narrow grounds. It may simply reflect a certain natural ebb and flow among the kinds of decisions appealed to the high court. Or it may reflect the likelihood that whoever is elected president next year will be in a position to change the court substantially, so it would be prudent to avoid unnecessary controversy, at least until after the election.

A case to be heard on Election Day, Nov. 4, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox TV Stations, while potentially titillating, should be decided on narrow grounds. During a couple of awards shows in 2002 some D-List celebrities dropped f-bombs during live broadcasts. The FCC fined the broadcaster, and the case was appealed. But it won’t be decided on broad First Amendment grounds, but on the rather technical issue of whether the FCC has the proper power to punish “fleeting expletives” the broadcaster didn’t broadcast intentionally.

Still, according to John Eastman, dean of Chapman University’s law school, some cases are not without significance. Federal courts, for instance, have issued injunctions forbidding the Navy from using sonar in training exercises off the Southern California coast on the grounds that it harms marine mammals. In Winter v. National Resources Defense Council, the court will decide whether the president’s wartime powers trump environmental regulations.

A case called Iqbal v. Ashcroft will determine whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be sued for the way certain Muslims were rounded up and interrogated immediately following 9/11.

A case heard Monday, Locke v. Karass, will decide whether unions that charge nonmembers an “agency fee” for the costs of representing them in collective bargaining can use some of that money to support bargaining by a different union.

Pleasant Grove City v. Summum will decide whether a Utah city that has a monument in a city park with the Ten Commandments on it was correct to refuse permission to a group called Summum the right to erect a 2-ton monument inscribed with its own “Seven Aphorisms.”

There are several Fourth Amendment cases on police searches that are likely to turn on particular circumstances rather than broad principles. A case from New York will decide whether state employees are immune from lawsuits brought under federal civil rights laws.

As Ilya Shapiro, who edits the Cato Institute’s Supreme Court Review, reminded us, however, “the last time Court watchers protested this much about the ‘boring’ nature of the docket, October Term 2000, we ended up with the case of Bush v. Gore.” So we may see some surprises.