As the U.S. Supreme Court decision on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate shows, the nation’s highest court has a full docket of important issues this term. Justices will weigh in on cases that could affect people’s right to an abortion, their possession of firearms outside their home, and their free exercise of religion.
The high court last week ruled on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates—a case that had garnered much attention in recent weeks as the omicron variant reignites the COVID-19 pandemic. The court on Thursday blocked one of Biden’s private sector vaccine mandates, implemented amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, while allowing another requirement to stand.
There were two requirements in question, one overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the other through the Department of Health and Human Services and its Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The former, which the high court struck down, required that all companies with more than 100 employees enforce a rule that their workers get the vaccine or else be tested on a weekly basis.
The latter, which the court let stand, requires health-care workers at facilities that get Medicare or Medicaid funding be vaccinated.
Here are the other cases experts are keeping a close watch on this year.
The Mississippi abortion-ban challenge
Atop the list is a challenge to a restrictive abortion law enacted by Mississippi in 2018, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The law bans most abortions after 15 weeks.
The Supreme Court has indicated that it may roll back constitutional protections established by its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed in 1992 in Casey v. Planned Parenthood. Roe v. Wade upheld abortion rights and prohibited states from banning abortions before fetal viability, which is roughly 23 weeks. The court heard oral arguments in the case on Dec. 1, but a decision is not expected until later this year.
“Everyone’s waiting for Dobbs,” says Dan Urman, who teaches constitutional law and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern, “but actually there’s two other areas that are very important: the court’s continued expansion of religious liberty claims; and the federal government’s ability to require vaccines in certain sectors of the workforce during a pandemic.”
A major Second Amendment case
The Supreme Court also will be taking up a major Second Amendment case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, which deals with a New York law that limits a person’s ability to carry concealed guns. Specifically, the law requires that applicants show “proper cause” for a license to possess and carry a handgun outside the home. The courts have since clarified “proper cause” to mean that an applicant must demonstrate “a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession.”
At issue is whether the state’s denial of two petitioners’ applications to carry a handgun on the grounds that they lacked proper cause violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a closely watched case, Urman says, because it has been over a decade since the Supreme Court weighed in on the Second Amendment.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, decided in 2008, the high court ruled on the question of whether individuals have a right to “keep and bear arms” inside the home. In 2010, the court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the finding extended to all states.
“But what the court did then was in some ways more limited than the public thought,” Urman says. “The court held that individuals had a right to protect themselves inside their home with a handgun.”
Urman says that since 2011, there’s been “no Supreme Court case that clarified … whether those same rights exist outside of the home, and if so, what limits the government may set.”
Religious liberty claims
Questions surrounding religious freedom and the separation of church and state also are on the docket this term in Carson v. Makin. In this case, several families are challenging a law in Maine that forbids families from applying for state tuition assistance if those funds would be used to pay for a students’ secondary school education at a school that, in addition to providing academic instruction, taught religion.
In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that states do not have to provide public funding for private schools, but if they do, they cannot discriminate based on the religious status of the institution. At issue in Carson v. Makin is the question of whether public funding can be denied to schools that provide religious, or “sectarian,” instruction.
Decisions in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen and Carson v. Makin are not expected until later in 2022.
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