The Supreme Court is opening despite the shutdown, and they have some major cases already set. Here are the top five to know so far this session:
1. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (Campaign Finance and First Amendment)
With Citizens United still fresh in everyone's mind, McCutcheon's challenge on the aggregate limit for an individual's federal contributions per two-year election cycle will be top news regardless of the outcome. Current regulations set the aggregate limits at $48,600 for candidates and $74,600 for non-candidates.
The precedent states that contributions are generally protected by the First Amendment as political speech, and that preventing corruption is the only acceptable reason to limit those contribution. This case has the potential to undo limits dating back to the 1970s and allow individuals to donate even more to federal election committees.
2. Town of Greece v. Galloway (Religious Freedom and First Amendment)
Does the fact that a prayer is given before town hall meetings violate the First Amendment's protection against religious freedom?
Galloway, who is Jewish, says her city's public prayer breaches the separation of church and state by excluding non-Christians. The town argues that the prayer is in line with the Supreme Court's ruling in 1983 allowing non-discriminatory public prayer.
3. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (Affirmative Action and Equal Protection Clause)
Michigan amended its constitution to ban preferences based on sex or race in "public education, government contracting, or public employment" - essentially a ban on affirmative action. Is a state allowed to incorporate an affirmative action ban into its constitution?
Schuette argues that the amendment violates the precedent in applying the Equal Protection Clause, which Cato explains "outlaws subtle distortions of governmental processes in a way that places special burdens on the ability of minority groups to achieve beneficial legislation." In other words, Schuette believes the fact that the ban is an amendment places a "special burden" on those who want to achieve the "beneficial legislation" of affirmative action. If the Supreme Court sides with Michigan, then Schuette and affirmative action supporters would need to pass a constitutional amendment in order to lift the ban - a much higher bar than passing a law.
4. McCullen v. Coakley (Abortion and First Amendment)
Massachusetts has a law stating that no person can "'enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk'" within thirty-five feet of the entrance, exit, or driveway of a 'reproductive health care facility'" with the exception of clinic employees - what practically amounts to a 35-foot buffer zone for protesters at abortion clinics. Pro-life protesters argue that the law targets them and restricts their freedom of speech.
In the past, the Court has approved a small buffer zone to balance the First Amendment protection of free speech with the "right to seek an abortion without being subject to harassment, intimidation, obstruction, or violence." If the justices find the restriction in Massachusetts violates the First Amendment and overturns the precedent upholding buffer zones, abortion advocates would experience a major setback.
5. NLRB v. Noel Canning (Presidential Recess Appointments)
President Obama made five recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, two of which are under consideration in this case. These appointees, who usually require Senate confirmation, have been much more frequently blocked in the legislature in recent history as a result of political tensions between Republicans and Democrats. Noel Canning, a corporation the NLRB alleged had an "unfair labor practice," challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB leadership on the basis that President Obama overstepped his authority in making recess appointments to avoid the Senate confirmation process.
The DC Court agreed, concluding that President Obama's recess appointments were unconstitutional and that such appointments should only be made between sessions of Congress when the vacancy occurs between sessions. If the Supreme Court lets the DC Circuit Court's decision to invalidate almost all recess appointments stand, it will reverse a practice that has been in place for almost two centuries.
Bonus: Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice (Abortion)
This case might be headed for the Supreme Court, as well - it will examine "whether states can limit abortion-inducing drugs." For now, the SCOTUS says: "Further proceedings in this case are reserved pending receipt of a response from the Supreme Court of Oklahoma."