To little fanfare (nay even one Buzzfeed listicle), the Supreme Court returned to session earlier this month on the first Monday of October, per its tradition. On the Court’s docket for the 2015-2016 term are cases critical to the progressive movement. As YP4 builds a youth movement for meaningful, lasting change, we know understanding the issues before the Court is important. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
- Elections and Voting Rights: In two cases—one from Arizona and one from Texas—the Court’s been asked to weigh in on the apportionment of electoral districts. The Court’s rulings on whether and how to apply the “one person, one vote” principle to redistricting conversations may well shift the political landscape of elections for the next generation.
- Economic Justice: In Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association, the Court is considering a request to overrule a longstanding precedent requiring workers in union shops to pay “fair share fees” that cover their representation by union advocates in collective bargaining agreements. If this goes the wrong way, the Court could effectively gut the right of public sector workers to effectively unionize.
- Affirmative Action: The Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin for the second time. In its second iteration, the Court will consider Fisher’s appeal of a Fifth Circuit decision that upheld UT-Austin’s tailored program to ensure diversity in its incoming first-year classes. A bad ruling by the Court could deal a blow to any public university which employs some version of affirmative action to ensure the representation of diverse backgrounds in its classrooms.
- Access to the Courts: In two pretty technical cases, the Court is considering arguments which would limit everyday Americans’ abilities to join class action lawsuits and to sue in federal court. Though procedural, these cases could constrain your ability to vindicate your rights in a court of law.
- Reproductive Justice: It’s likely—though not certain—the Court will hear at least one case from either Texas or Mississippi considering whether restrictions on abortion providers which caused many clinics to close constitute an “undue burden” on people seeking abortion care. A broad ruling by the Court could add limitations to the constitutional right to seek an abortion, rolling back the precedent of Roe v. Wade.
- Religious Liberty: It’s possible the Court will take up a case addressing objections to the Affordable Care Act’s provisions requiring employers’ to provide contraceptive benefits to their employees. The federal government’s already created a simple form for employers to “opt out” of that provision and allow the Feds to provide those benefits to workers. Yet, some ‘religious’ companies claim that even this form is too much of a burden to the free exercise of their religious beliefs and want it canned.
Taken separately these issues are enough to launch entire regional if not national organizing campaigns; taken together, they cut to the heart of our movement’s vision for an America where each and every person has a fundamental right to participate in their democracy, make decisions that affect their future, and have their lived experiences validated by those in power. That the Court will weigh in on each of these issues before the end of June should make us concerned that media targeting young people have glossed over the importance of the Court this week and ignored the possibility that we might, as young people, care about the impact of its rulings on our generation’s future.
As young progressives, we surely have a positive duty to bend the arc of the moral universe just a little closer to justice. Yet, we also have a clear and present obligation to hold the line—to ensure that the hard-fought wins of the civil and human rights movements of our elders are not undone by pernicious attempts to roll back social progress. To me, taking this responsibility seriously requires that we can’t only engage the Supreme Court as a historical body—that nine-person panel who desegregated schools and paved the way for same-sex marriage—but as a living, breathing institution capable of responding to and addressing our collective needs.
So, while the Court no doubt has the potential to do a great deal of harm on the issues outlined above, we cannot view their consideration of these questions in a vacuum. Make no mistake: the constitutional questions in front of the Court this term have the potential to shape policy for years to come and demand our sustained, critical organizing. What it’s important to realize, though, is that the 2015-2016 term is not an outlier in the long and storied history of the Court. Instead, each and every year, the Supreme Court considers questions of rights, obligations, and constitutional protections which shape the lives and fortunes of over 300 million Americans.
Indeed, the Court’s rulings don’t exist in some abstract space of legal academia and media talking heads. The justices’ determinations in a very real way write the rules of American democracy. Their decisions shape the way everyday Americans interact with the police, the sovereignty we possess over own our bodies and reproductive choices, and the manner in which we participate in public life. In short, the Court plays an enormously important role in governing how we walk through the world as rights-bearing American citizens.
For these reasons, while the 2015-2016 term is set to include at least a handful of landmark cases, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger picture—that of a branch of government often maligned, seldom understood, but intimately important to crafting a progressive vision of American society, one in which all people are entitled to equal justice under law.
For more background, listen to the audio from affiliate People for the American Way’s telebriefing on the upcoming term.