The U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded its 2020-21 term. The Court decided several major cases, with many of the more significant decisions released earlier this summer.
Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. was one of the Court’s most anticipated First Amendment cases this year. It involved a high school cheerleader who was suspended from her cheer team for a profanity-laden social media post. By a vote of 8-1, the Court overturned the cheerleader’s suspension in Mahanoy. Although the Court interpreted the First Amendment to provide public schools with the power to regulate some off-campus student speech, the justices found that this cheerleader’s speech was protected. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority how a public school “has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus. America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”
Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta was another First Amendment case decided this summer. The justices voted 6-3 that a California requirement that non-profit organizations disclose their donors’ identities violates the First Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts explained for the Court that “when it comes to the freedom of association, the protections of the First Amendment are triggered not only by actual restrictions on an individual’s ability to join with others to further shared goals. The risk of a chilling effect on association is enough.”
The Court decided multiple cases interpreting the First Amendment’s freedom of religion over the last few months. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Court unanimously struck down Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with a Catholic foster care agency unless the agency agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court, holding the law in question violated the Free Exercise Clause by burdening religion: “so long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.”
In another freedom of religion case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Court ruled by a vote of 5-4 that New York State could not ban in-person attendance at religious worship services. A per curiam opinion declared the following: “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
The Court issued several noteworthy constitutional law decisions outside of the First Amendment. One was Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, where a 6-3 majority found that a California law granting labor unions a right of access to farmworkers at their worksites violated the property rights of agricultural employers under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts again wrote for the Court, explaining for the majority that the “access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property. It therefore constitutes a per se physical taking.”
Jones v. Mississippi saw the Court rule 6-3 that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment does not require a finding that a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a sentence of life without parole. Justice Brett Kavanaugh clarified for the Court that while a finding of incorrigibility is not required, there remains a requirement that “a sentencer consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence.”
Finally, in California v. Texas the justices by a vote of 7-2 held that plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s minimum essential coverage provision lacked standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution. Writing for the Court, Justice Breyer emphasized that since Congress repealed the penalty for not carrying that health insurance coverage, “the plaintiffs in this suit failed to show a concrete, particularized injury fairly traceable to the defendants’ conduct in enforcing the specific statutory provision they attack as unconstitutional.”
Next year, the Court is again expected to rule on important constitutional questions, including reviewing laws on abortion and affirmative action. As is typical, next year’s most anticipated decisions are expected in June.
Eric T. Kasper is a professor of political science and the director of the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies at UW-Eau Claire. He also serves as the municipal judge for the city of Rice Lake and is a member of the Wisconsin Bar Association.