Bold Justice: SCOTUS wraps up 2019 term


Welcome to the July 13 edition of Bold Justice, Ballotpedia’s newsletter about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and other judicial happenings around the U.S. If you—like us—are despondent because SCOTUS is on recess until October, don’t worry! Stay up-to-date on political news by following us on Twitter or subscribing to the Daily Brew.

Join the Ballotpedia Team July 23 as we review the most important aspects of the Supreme Court’s 2019-2020 term. Register for the briefing to learn more about the pandemic’s impact, the decision trends we’re seeing, and the latest data on reversal rates.

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Opinions

SCOTUS has issued 14 opinions since our June 29 edition. The court released a total of 62 opinions this term and is now on recess until the start of the 2020-2021 term on October 5. Click here to read more about SCOTUS’ current term. Click here to read more about SCOTUS’ upcoming 2020-21 term.

Click the links below to read more about the specific cases SCOTUS ruled on since June 29:

June 29

  • USAID v. Alliance for Open Society International was argued on May 5, 2020.

    The case: The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 required U.S. and foreign organizations that fight HIV/AIDS overseas to explicitly adopt a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. This was known as the policy requirement. In the 2013 case Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the government to require U.S. organizations to adopt this policy. The current case concerned whether the policy requirement was constitutional for foreign-based affiliates of U.S. organizations.

    The outcome: In a 5-3 ruling, the court held the policy requirement is constitutional for the foreign affiliates of U.S.-based organizations that receive federal funds to fight HIV/AIDS abroad. The court reversed the 2nd Circuit’s decision.

    Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.

  • June Medical Services LLC v. Russo was argued on March 4, 2020. It was consolidated with Russo v. June Medical Services.

    The case: June Medical Services, a clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, challenged Louisiana Act 620 in court. Act 620 required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals. While that lawsuit was ongoing, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that a Texas law similar to Act 620 was unconstitutional.

    After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Whole Woman’s Health, a divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit declared Act 620 was constitutional. June Medical Services appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The outcome: In a 5-4 decision, the court reversed the 5th Circuit’s ruling and held that Act 620 was unconstitutional.

    Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh each filed dissenting opinions. Justice Samuel Alito also dissented, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh joined in part.

  • Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was argued on March 3, 2020.

    The case: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an independent agency that exercised executive powers and had a director protected from at-will termination by the president, issued a civil investigative demand to the California-based firm Seila Law. Seila Law refused to comply, so the agency petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, asking it to enforce the demand. Seila Law argued the CFPB violated the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. The district court rejected Seila Law’s argument and ordered it to comply. Seila Law appealed to the 9th Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s order.

    The outcome: In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional. The majority held that restrictions on the president’s ability to remove such agency leaders violated separation of powers principles. The decision affected part of the agency’s structure, but did not eliminate the agency altogether.

    Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the court that consisted of three parts, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Roberts also wrote an opinion, labeled part IV, joined by Alito and Kavanaugh. Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, joined by Gorsuch. Justice Kagan wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

June 30

  • Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was argued on January 22, 2020

    The case: A 2015 Montana law established a tax credit scholarship program that matched—up to $150 a year—taxpayer donations to organizations that issued scholarships for private school students. To ensure compliance with the Montana Constitution, the state Department of Revenue established Rule 1, which barred recipients from using the scholarships at religiously-affiliated private schools. The plaintiffs, three mothers whose children attended religious-affiliated private schools, challenged Rule 1. The Montana 11th Judicial District granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, prohibiting the rule’s enforcement. On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court reversed the 11th Judicial District’s ruling, holding the law violated the Article X, Section 6 of the state constitution.

    Article X, Section 6 probits using public funds to aid religious schools.

    The outcome: The court reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling in a 5-4 opinion. The court held Article X, Section 6 violated the free exercise clause. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said: “A state need not subsidize private education…but once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

    Chief Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Kagan. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Kagan as to Part I. Justice Sotomayor also filed a dissenting opinion.

  • United States Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V. was argued on May 4, 2020.

    The case: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied Booking.com’s applications to trademark the name Booking.com. The PTO said the name was generic and not a protectable mark. Booking.com appealed the PTO’s decision. After several appeals, the 4th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that Booking.com was not generic and therefore eligible for a federal trademark. The PTO appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The outcome: The court affirmed the 4th Circuit’s decision in an 8-1 ruling, holding a “generic.com” term is not a generic name for a class of goods or services if consumers do not recognize the term as generic. In those circumstances, “generic.com” (or, in this case, “Booking.com”) is eligible for federal trademark registration.

    Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. Justice Breyer dissented.

July 6

  • Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. was argued on May 6, 2020.

    The case: In 2016, the American Association of Political Consultants, Inc. and three other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court against the U.S. government. The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the government-debt exception to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The government-debt exception allows robocalls relating to collecting government debt.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit ruled against the U.S. Government, directing the government-debt exception to be separated from the remainder of the TCPA. The government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The outcome: The court affirmed the 4th Circuit’s decision in a 6-3 opinion, holding that the government-debt exception added an unconstitutional exception to the law. The court also held that the exception is severable from the remainder of the TCPA.

    Justice Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion. Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment and dissented in part, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. Justice Gorsuch concurred in the judgment in part and dissented in part, joined by Justice Thomas as to Part II.

  • Chiafalo v. Washington was argued on May 13, 2020.

    The case: Washington state law required Democratic Party-appointed presidential electors to vote for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine in the 2016 election, but the electors voted contrary to that law. The Washington secretary of state fined the electors $1,000 each for failure to vote for the nominee of their party. The electors challenged the penalties’ constitutionality. After litigation in state courts, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the fines.

    The outcome: The court affirmed the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in a unanimous ruling. The court held that a state may enforce an elector’s pledge to support their party’s nominee and the state voters’ choice for president of the United States.

    Justice Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

  • Colorado Department of State v. Baca was argued on May 13, 2020. It was originally consolidated with Chiafalo v. Washington. The court later considered the cases separately.

    The case: Presidential electors in Colorado did not cast Electoral College ballots for the winner of the popular vote, which violated state law.

    The outcome: In an 8-0 per curiam decision (Justice Sotomayor did not participate), the court reversed the 10th Circuit’s ruling for the reasons outlined in Chiafalo v. Washington. A per curiam decision is issued collectively by the court without authorship indicated. Click here for more information.

July 8

  • Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania was argued on May 6, 2020. It was consolidated with Trump v. Pennsylvania.

    The case: The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, requires some employers who provide health insurance to their employees to offer insurance plans that cover contraceptives (the “contraception mandate”). After several years of litigation, including two U.S. Supreme Court decisions surrounding regulatory accommodations for religious and moral objections to contraception under the ACA, the Trump administration issued regulations allowing for exceptions to the contraceptive mandate. Several states filed lawsuits against the Trump administration and lower courts blocked the rules from going into effect.

    The 3rd Circuit upheld a nationwide injunction that kept the rules from going into effect. The Little Sisters of the Poor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the 3rd Circuit wrongly denied the organization standing to appeal the court’s decision against the contraceptive mandate exemption rules.

    The outcome: The court ruled 7-2 that the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury had the legal authority to create the challenged exemptions and that they followed proper procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act. The majority also held that the Little Sisters of the Poor had standing to participate in the case.

    Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor.

  • Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru was argued on May 11, 2020. It was consolidated with St. James School v. Biel.

    The case: In both cases, two Catholic school teachers filed discrimination claims in U.S. district court against their former employers after they were not offered contract renewals. The district court ruled that the ministerial exception to the First Amendment barred the claims. That meant the employers were protected religious organizations exempted from anti-discrimination employment laws. On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling. Our Lady of Guadalupe School appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The outcome: The court reversed the 9th Circuit’s decision in a 7-2 ruling, holding that the schools are protected religious organizations and the First Amendment’s religion clauses prevent the adjudication of the defendant’s employment discrimination claims.

    Justice Alito delivered the majority opinion. Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg.

July 9

  • McGirt v. Oklahoma was argued on May 11, 2020.

    The case: A jury in Oklahoma’s Wagoner County District Court found Jimcy McGirt guilty of three counts of sex crimes. He was sentenced to 500 years in prison and life in prison without parole. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA), the state’s court of last resort for criminal matters, denied McGirt’s petition for appeal. McGirt appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing Oklahoma courts lacked jurisdiction to hear his case because of his membership in the Seminole/Creek Nations of Oklahoma and because the alleged crimes occurred on a reservation.

    The outcome: The court reversed the OCCA’s decision in a 5-4 ruling, holding that under the Indian Major Crimes Act, lands reserved for the Creek Nation in eastern Oklahoma constituted a reservation. As a result, the state of Oklahoma could not legally try a Creek citizen for criminal conduct in state court.
    Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas joined in part. He also filed a separate dissenting opinion.

  • Sharp v. Murphy was argued on November 27, 2018, during the court’s 2018-2019 term. After oral arguments, the court announced it would rehear the case in the 2019-20 term. That announcement indicated a 4-4 split among the justices. (Justice Gorsuch recused himself because of his previous tenure on the 10th Circuit.)

    The court never scheduled rearguments for Sharp v. Murphy. Instead, the justices agreed to hear McGirt v. Oklahoma, which concerned the same legal issues.

    The outcome: The court affirmed the 10th Circuit’s decision in a one-page per curiam ruling. The court’s affirmation was based on the reasons stated in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

  • Trump v. Vance was argued on May 12, 2020.

    The case: In 2019, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance (D) opened an investigation into President Trump’s business dealings. Vance issued a subpoena to the president’s accounting firm, Mazars USA. The president challenged the subpoena in U.S. district court, arguing the subpoena violated presidential immunity. The district court dismissed the president’s complaint. On appeal, the 2nd Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal of the complaint. The president appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The outcome: The court affirmed the 2nd Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings in a 7-2 opinion. The court held that Article II of the U.S. Constitution and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting president.

    Chief Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.

  • Trump v. Mazars USA was argued on May 12, 2020. It was consolidated with Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG.

    The case: U.S. House committees issued subpoenas requesting financial documents from the president, his children, and affiliated businesses. The president, acting in his individual capacity, challenged the subpoenas. The case concerned whether issuing the subpoenas exceeded the House’s constitutional authority.

    The outcome: The court vacated the D.C. Circuit’s decision in a 7-2 ruling and remanded the case. The court held that the lower courts did not adequately consider whether congressional subpoenas requesting information from the president raise separation of powers concerns.

    Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the court. Justices Thomas and Alito each filed dissenting opinions.

Opinion authorship

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch wrote the most opinions this term. Compared to the previous term, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the same number of opinions and Justice Gorsuch wrote less.

Justices Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh all wrote more opinions last term than this term. However, several of this term’s cases were postponed to the upcoming term due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Federal Vacancy Count tracks vacancies, nominations, and confirmations to all United States Article III federal courts in a one-month period. This month’s edition includes nominations, confirmations, and vacancies from June 2 to July 1.

Highlights

  • Vacancies: There have been two new judicial vacancies since the previous report. There are 73 vacancies out of 870 active Article III judicial positions on courts covered in this report. Including the United States Court of Federal Claims and the United States territorial courts, 79 of 890 active federal judicial positions are vacant.
  • Nominations: There have been two new nominations since the previous report.
  • Confirmations: There have been three new confirmations since the previous report.

Vacancy count for July 2, 2020

A breakdown of the vacancies at each level can be found in the table below. For a more detailed look at the vacancies on the federal courts, click here.

*Though the United States territorial courts are named as district courts, they are not Article III courts. They are created in accordance with the power granted under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution. Click here for more information.

New vacancies

Two judges left active status, creating Article III life-term judicial vacancies, since the previous vacancy count. As Article III judicial positions, the president must make a nomination to fill the vacancy. Nominations are subject to confirmation on the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate.

U.S. District Court vacancies

The following map displays U.S. District Court vacancies as of July 1.

New nominations

President Trump has announced two new nominations since the previous report.

  • James P. Arguelles, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
  • Taylor McNeel, to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

The president has announced 262 Article III judicial nominations since taking office January 20, 2017. The president named 69 judicial nominees in 2017, 92 in 2018, and 77 in 2019. For more information on the president’s judicial nominees, click here.

New confirmations

Between June 2 and July 1, the Senate confirmed three of the president’s nominees to Article III courts.

Between January 2017 and July 2, 2020, the Senate confirmed 200 of President Trump’s judicial nominees—143 district court judges, 53 appeals court judges, two Court of International Trade judges, and two Supreme Court justices.

Need a daily fix of judicial nomination, confirmation, and vacancy information? Click here for continuing updates on the status of all federal judicial nominees.

Or, if you prefer, we also maintain a list of individuals the president has nominated.

We’ll be back August 10 with a new edition of Bold Justice.




About the author

Sara Reynolds

Sara Reynolds is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

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