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Illustration by Alex Williamson (supreme court illustration); Shutterstock.com (flag); Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (justices)

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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.4

NCSS: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

JS EXPLAINS

Why Everyone’s Talking About the Supreme Court

The nation’s top court is currently considering a number of important cases that could reshape life in America. 

When it comes to our nation’s laws, many Americans believe that Congress and the president have the most influence. But the U.S. Supreme Court actually has the final say on the country’s rules and regulations.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Its nine members, or justices, determine whether laws and government regulations are constitutional—meaning permitted under the U.S. Constitution. The Court hears about 80 cases during its annual term, which lasts from October to June. The decisions it makes on those cases have a lasting impact on the nation’s laws and the lives of Americans.

Many Americans believe that Congress and the president have the most influence on our nation’s laws. But the U.S. Supreme Court actually has the final say on the country’s rules and regulations.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It has nine members, or justices. They determine whether laws and government regulations are constitutional—meaning allowed under the U.S. Constitution. The Court hears about 80 cases during its annual term, which lasts from October to June. The decisions the Court makes on those cases have a lasting impact on the nation’s laws and the lives of Americans.

How the Court interprets the Constitution often reflects the mood of the country. Today, the United States is starkly divided, with liberals and conservatives often strongly disagreeing over how to address important issues such as immigration, guns, and gay rights. The justices are divided on such issues as well.

The Court’s newest member, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, took his seat in late 2018. President Donald Trump appointed Kavanaugh, a conservative, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired. Kennedy had often been a swing vote between the Court’s four liberal and four conservative justices—meaning he didn’t consistently vote with one group or the other. 

That helped balance the power between them. Now, for the first time in decades, the Court has a majority of five strongly conservative justices. That is likely to have a significant impact on how the Court rules on cases it hears.

Here’s what you need to know about three key cases the Court is expected to decide in the coming months—and how the justices’ decisions could affect all Americans.

The way the Court interprets the Constitution often reflects the mood of the country. Today, the United States is starkly divided. Liberals and conservatives strongly disagree over how to address important issues. These issues include immigration, guns, and gay rights. The justices are divided on such issues as well.

The Court’s newest member is Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative. He took his seat in late 2018. President Donald Trump appointed him to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired. Kennedy had often been a swing vote between the Court’s four liberal and four conservative justices. This means he did not consistently vote with one group or the other.

That helped balance the power between them. Now, for the first time in decades, the Court has a majority of five strongly conservative justices. That is likely to have a major impact on how the Court rules.

Here is what you need to know about three key cases the Court is expected to decide in the next few months—and how the justices’ decisions could affect all Americans.

Illustration by Alex Williamson; iStockPhoto/Getty Images (LGBTQ flag); Shutterstock.com (all other photos)

Does federal law protect people from being fired because they are gay?

Bostock v. Clayton County

For 10 years, Gerald Bostock worked for a government program that helped neglected and abused children in Clayton County, Georgia. “My employer loved the job I was doing,” Bostock says. “I got favorable performance reviews.”

Bostock says that began to change in January 2013 after he joined a gay softball league. He began to hear negative comments at work about his sexual orientation. That June, Clayton County fired Bostock, claiming he had mishandled county money. Bostock denies this. He says the real reason he was fired is that he is gay. He sued the county.

Bostock says his firing violates federal law—specifically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That legislation states that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

The wording is important. When the Supreme Court has ruled on sex discrimination in the past, it has mostly been because the justices believed an employer showed bias based on whether someone was male or female. In this case, the Court must decide whether the Civil Rights Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Lawyers for Clayton County claim it doesn’t.

Over the past two decades, the Court has expanded the rights of gay people. For instance, in 2015 it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Yet in many states, businesses are still able to fire—or refuse to hire—people because they are gay. If Bostock wins his case, the Civil Rights Act will protect all Americans from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

For 10 years, Gerald Bostock worked for a government program. It helped neglected and abused children in Clayton County, Georgia. “My employer loved the job I was doing,” Bostock says. “I got favorable performance reviews.”

Bostock says that began to change in January 2013 after he joined a gay softball league. He began to hear negative comments at work about his sexual orientation. That June, Clayton County fired Bostock. It claimed he had mishandled county money. Bostock denies this. He says the real reason he was fired is that he is gay. He sued the county.

Bostock says his firing violates federal law. It specifically violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That legislation states that it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

The wording is important. The Supreme Court has ruled on sex discrimination in the past. When it has, it was mostly been because the justices believed an employer had shown bias based on whether someone was male or female. In this case, the Court must decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Lawyers for Clayton County claim it does not.

Over the past two decades, the Court has expanded the rights of gay people. For instance, in 2015 it made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Yet in many states, businesses are still able to fire people because they are gay. They can also refuse to hire someone who is gay. If Bostock wins his case, the Civil Rights Act will protect all Americans from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Illustration by Alex Williamson; Shutterstock.com (all other photos)

Will the Court expand Second Amendment rights?

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York

The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” or guns. Yet federal, state, and local laws have long placed limits on who can own firearms and where they may be carried. For years, Americans have debated whether such laws are constitutional. 

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep a gun in their home for self-defense. Now a case is challenging whether a city can stop people from carrying guns outside their homes. 

New York City has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. One of those restrictions prohibited licensed gun owners from taking their guns to second homes or shooting ranges outside the city. City officials argued that allowing people to carry firearms on crowded streets and subways is a threat to public safety. But gun-rights advocates sued, saying the law violated the Second Amendment.  

The Court’s ruling will affect other gun control laws across the country. For example, if the law is deemed unconstitutional, that could make it much harder for local governments to pass regulations on firearms. That’s what experts say gun-rights advocates hope for.

Although the justices heard the case last December, it’s possible the Court will choose not to make a decision on it. That’s because New York City has already repealed its law. City officials took this action fearing that the Court would strike the law down—and, in the process, put other gun regulations at risk. 

Even so, say many legal scholars, the fight over gun laws is not going away. It’s only a matter of time before the issue reaches the Court in another case—and the justices wrestle again with gun ownership rights in America. 

The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” or guns. Yet federal, state, and local laws have long placed limits on who can own firearms and where they may be carried. For years, Americans have debated whether such laws are constitutional.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep a gun in their home for self-defense. Now a case is challenging whether a city can stop people from carrying guns outside their homes.

New York City has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. One of those laws stopped licensed gun owners from taking their guns to second homes or shooting ranges outside the city. City officials argued that allowing people to carry firearms on crowded streets and subways is a threat to public safety. But gun-rights advocates sued. They said the city’s law violated the Second Amendment.

The Court’s ruling will affect other gun control laws across the country. For example, if the Court says the law is unconstitutional, that could make it much harder for local governments to pass regulations on firearms. That is what experts say gun-rights advocates hope for.

The justices heard the case last December, but it is possible the Court will choose not to make a decision on it. That is because New York City has already repealed its law. City officials took this action because they feared the Court would strike the law down. They also feared a Court ruling could put other gun regulations at risk.

Even so, say many legal scholars, the fight over gun laws is not going away. It is only a matter of time before the issue reaches the Court in another case. The justices will wrestle again with gun ownership rights in America.

Illustration by Alex Williamson; Shutterstock.com (all other photos)

Will young undocumented immigrants be subject to deportation?

Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California

Today, the future remains uncertain for up to 800,000 young people in the U.S. These individuals were brought to this country illegally as children. Even though they grew up here and consider themselves American, they are undocumented. That puts them at risk of being deported. So in 2012, then-President Barack Obama established a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Participants in the program, often called Dreamers, were approved to live and work legally in the U.S.

DACA was controversial from the start in part because it was established by a president’s executive order rather than by federal law. Obama has said that he took this action because he was frustrated that Congress had failed to pass legislation to protect Dreamers. He said young undocumented people shouldn’t be punished because their parents brought them here illegally.

President Trump wants to end DACA. The University of California and two other plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit to try to prevent that from happening.

The Trump administration has called DACA illegal because it wasn’t authorized by Congress. “I do not favor punishing children,” Trump said. “But we must also recognize that we . . . are a nation of laws.” 

Trump’s move to end DACA reflects a belief held by many conservatives: that people who enter the U.S. illegally should not be allowed to stay. 

However the Supreme Court rules, the decision will “directly affect 800,000 lives,” says David Cole of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Today, the future remains uncertain for up to 800,000 young people in the U.S. These individuals were brought to this country illegally as children. Even though they grew up here and consider themselves American, they are undocumented. That puts them at risk of being deported. So in 2012, then-President Barack Obama established a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). People taking part in the program, often called Dreamers, were approved to live and work legally in the U.S.

DACA was controversial from the start. The reason, in part, is that it was established by a president’s executive order instead of by federal law. Obama has said that he took this action because he was frustrated that Congress had failed to pass legislation to protect Dreamers. He said young undocumented people should not be punished because their parents had brought them here illegally.

President Trump wants to end DACA. The University of California and two other plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit to try to prevent that from happening.

The Trump administration has called DACA illegal because Congress did not authorize it. “I do not favor punishing children,” Trump said. “But we must also recognize that we . . . are a nation of laws.”

Trump’s move to end DACA reflects a belief held by many conservatives. They believe that people who enter the U.S. illegally should not be allowed to stay.

However the Supreme Court rules, the decision will “directly affect 800,000 lives,” says David Cole. He is from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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