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12 Reasons To Pay Attention To The Supreme Court This Year

The Supreme Court is back from its summer recess (Nice gig, eh?) and ready to rule on affirmative action, drugs, dogs, and more. Here's why you should care.

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On the first Monday in October, the Supreme Court of the United States begins its new term. Although the court generally hears more than of 70 cases each term, only 39 cases were set to be heard by the court as of the start of this year's term — which began on Monday, Oct. 1. So, there is much still unknown about what will be happening this year at the court, but it's already stacking up as a potentially blockbuster one.

Here's why it matters:


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No, really. The landmark ruling from this June on the Affordable Care Act wasn't the end. Conservative Liberty University has brought its own challenge to the individual mandate in the law, and the Supreme Court Monday asked the federal government for its views on Liberty University's appeal request. A case challenging the law's employer mandate, not at issue in this past term's arguments, also could find its way before the court. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has more.



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On the first day of the term, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case with potentially broad implications for corporate responsibility for international human rights abuses. Dealing with the scope of the Alien Tort Statute, the case brought by a Nigerian national questions whether a foreign national can sue a foreign corporation for acts committed in foreign lands. UPI reported on the Oct. 1 arguments:

Esther Kiobel filed the case in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law, saying her husband Barinem Kiobel was executed by the Nigerian military with the alleged backing of [Royal Dutch] Shell. ...

Shell argued the issue shouldn't be considered in U.S. courts because it's a foreign company facing claims for actions outside the United States. Kiobel is a Nigerian national, though the Alien Tort Statute gives foreign nationals the right to sue in federal courts for alleged violations of international law or treaties signed by the United States with foreign countries.


On Oct. 10, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, one of the highest-profile cases accepted thus far for this court's term. Coming less than a decade after the court last considered race considerations in higher education settings, the case could further limit the tools available to colleges and universities in attempting to diversify their student bodies. Many big names have weighed in on the case, from more than 25 4-star generals arguing that "while this case focuses on university admissions, its impact dramatically transcends academia" to former Attorney General Edwin Meese's contention that the university did not sufficiently consider "race-neutral alternatives" to its adopted plan.


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In this odd little case, the Arkansas Fish & Wildlife Commission is seeking to be paid by the federal government under the Takings Clause, which gives landowners "just compensation" if the federal government takes your land, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "caused six consecutive years of flooding" to the commission's land. Although they initially won, the court of appeals reversed the decision. In a brief asking the Supreme Court to give the commission its money, a trio of conservative legal groups describe the appeals court ruling as concluding that "government flooding of private property can never constitute a taking if it was the result of an 'ad hoc or temporary' government policy because, according to the court of appeals, temporary flooding can never give rise to a taking."



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In two cases to be heard on Oct. 9 — Ryan v. Gonzales and Tibbals v. Carter — the Supreme Court will consider whether a prisoner must be mentally competent as part of any federal review of a state conviction. As Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog described the underlying issue, "[T]he [Supreme] Court has never decided whether an individual has any right, under the Constitution or any federal law, to actually be competent in order to take part in a federal habeas review of his case or to have the case put off indefinitely." These cases will address that issue.


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Adrian Moncrieffe, who legally entered the U.S. with his family from Jamaica at three, was charged under Georgia law with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute more than 20 years later. According to Moncrieffe's brief to the Supreme Court, the "car contained 1.3 grams of marijuana, equivalent to two-and-a-half marijuana cigarettes." The state law, however, encompassed "the social sharing of small amounts of the drug for no remuneration and also the distribution of larger amounts." In translating the offense to one of the three levels of offenses considered by federal immigration authorities, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that existing law and court decisions required the offense to be considered an "aggravated felony," which would mean deportation and grant no authority for discretion to stop that deportation. For a more minor offense, though, there would be an opportunity for the Attorney General to cancel the deportation. On Oct. 10, the court will hear arguments on "whether a conviction under a provision of state law that encompasses but is not limited to the distribution of a small amount of marijuana without remuneration constitutes an aggravated felony, notwithstanding that the record of conviction does not establish that the alien was convicted of conduct that would constitute a federal felony."


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In the course of attempting to execute a search warrant, can police officers stop and detain a person before the warrant has been executed if the person has left the location subject to the search warrant? The U.S. government — and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — say yes. When the Supreme Court hears arguments in Bailey v. United States on Oct. 30, the justices will have their chance to answer the question.


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In a pair of cases to be heard on Oct. 31, the Supreme Court will consider what protections the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches provides against trained drug-sniffing dogs. As SCOTUSblog's Lyle Denniston described the issue:


Police forces across the country have found that dogs, which have a highly developed sense of smell, can be trained to detect specific odors, such as scents from a human body, or the odors given off by illegal drugs. This makes police dogs highly valued partners to police as they search for missing persons, or for illegal narcotics. When a trained dog’s capacity to detect a certain odor has been formally certified by an expert, the evidence that police gain from dog searches frequently is permitted in criminal cases in court. But the Supreme Court several times has had to rule on whether a search by a trained police dog is the kind of inspection that must be done so that it does not violate the constitutional right to privacy of the individual targeted.


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Can a police officer take a blood sample from a person without consent and with no warrant to establish evidence that a driver was drunk? The state of Missouri argues that it can do so under the "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment because of the fact that alcohol naturally leaves the bloodstream in a way that makes obtaining a warrant unreasonable.


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Although there is no case accepted by the court yet on the issue, The New York Times's Adam Liptak wrote this week, "The justices are ... quite likely to take another look at the constitutionality of a signature legacy of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2009, the court signaled that it had reservations about the part of the law that requires the federal review of changes in election procedures in parts of the country with a history of discrimination, mostly the South." As law professor Rick Hasen tweeted recently, "Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is under attack like never before." His extensive coverage of Voting Rights Act developments can be found at the Election Law Blog.


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As BuzzFeed has covered extensively, a series of cases before the court ask it to consider the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex couples marrying, Arizona's decision to stop giving health insurance to state employees' same-sex partners, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Recent action, however, has left advocates and couples waiting — likely until at least late November — for news on which cases, if any, the court will be hearing this term.

Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

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