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Year in Review: Top Supreme Court Cases

In our last blog of 2019, we will look at some of the biggest Supreme Court cases of the year:

#1: Department of Commerce v. New York: Decided June 27, 2019 by a 5-4 vote; Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion. The importance of this case lay not necessarily in its law but in the impact of its decision: that the citizenship question proposed by the Trump Administration could not be added to the 2020 Census. The rationale offered by Commerce Secretary Ross—to help enforce the Voting Rights Act—was not plausible. Chief Justice Roberts wrote: “Reasoned decision making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”

#2: Ruch v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek: Decided June 27, 2019 by a 5-4 vote; Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion. The ruling held that federal courts may not intervene to block even the most partisan election maps drawn by state lawmakers. The cases were based on maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans and Maryland Democrats that were blatantly partisan and which openly gerrymandered their party’s districts. The Supreme Court held that the courts cannot interfere because there are other, better ways to remedy these openly political power plays. The Justices had declined to intervene in partisan gerrymandering challenges in Wisconsin and Maryland in 2018; they also let stand the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision striking down the state’s Congressional map because it was decided under the state constitution. Eight states use commissions to draw their district maps; three states have gone that route; two states have adopted other changes to the way district maps are drawn.

#3: Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill: Decided June 17, 2019 by a 5-4 vote; Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion, and was joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Sotomayor and Kagan. Unlike the Ruch case which held that the courts could not intervene in partisan gerrymandering, the ruling in this case held that a federal court ruling which struck down gerrymandering based on race would stand. The Republican side of the Virginia House of Delegates challenged the Democrats’ decision not to pursue litigation against the decision. The Supreme Court held that they would not intervene to overrule the lower court’s decision to strike down election maps where 11 State House districts required at least 55% of voters to be African American.

#4: Gamble v. United States: Decided June 17, 2019 by a 7-2 vote; Justice Alito wrote the opinion; Justice Ginsburg dissented with Justice Gorsuch. The Gamble case involved the separate sovereignty exception to the doctrine of double jeopardy. Terrance Gamble was convicted in both state and federal courts for possession of a firearm while being a felon. He argued that being convicted twice for the same offense violated the prohibition against double jeopardy contained in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court did not agree, and affirmed the separate sovereignty exception to the doctrine of double jeopardy. The Gamble case was watched with intense interest due to the potential of presidential pardons. If separate sovereignty is upheld, then a presidential pardon has the more limited effect of pardoning someone from federal crimes only, leaving open the possibility of being prosecuted for state crimes.

#5: American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc.: Decided June 20, 2019 by a 7-2 vote; written by Justice Alito, with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting. The case centered on the 40 foot cross erected almost a century ago as a WWI memorial. The Supreme Court held that the “Peace Cross” does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Although the Court acknowledged that the cross is a Christian symbol, the Court held that because of the cross’ longstanding history and inclusive intent, and in recognition of the role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, the cross was allowed to stand. Some people hailed the decision as an affirmation of religious freedom, while others said it was a blatant violation of this country’s commitment to the separation of church and state.

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