The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021-2022 term is in session and, as usual, there will be some closely watched cases. The Court now sits at a 6-3 conservative supermajority after the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October 2020. The justices will hear a number of notable cases this term, including ones that could have significant outcomes for abortion access and gun rights.
Here are eight of the most noteworthy cases the Court will hear during its 2021-2022 term.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
On Dec. 1, 2021, the Court heard its most significant abortion case in years, one that has the potential to go against decades of precedent and overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to end a pregnancy before a fetus can survive outside the womb. In 2018, Mississippi enacted the Gestational Age Act, which prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy except in cases of medical emergencies or fetal abnormalities. The law was blocked by the Fifth Circuit, which held that it placed an undue burden on abortion access, a precedent established by the 1992 Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Court will now look at whether all rules restricting abortions prior to viability are unconstitutional. This case is closely watched as it has the potential to critically alter the decades-long battle over abortion access.
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc v. Bruen
On Nov. 3, 2021, for the first time in 11 years, the Court heard a Second Amendment case. The case in question involves a New York state law that requires anyone who wants a concealed carry permit to prove to the licensing authority that they have “proper cause” for carrying the weapon, which can include self-defense. Here, the petitioners are two New York men whose applications were rejected because a licensing officer determined they did not demonstrate a need for self-defense that distinguished them from the general public. The court must decide whether the Second Amendment protects Americans’ right to carry guns outside of their homes.
Separation of Church and State
Carson v. Makin
On Dec. 8, the Court heard Carson v. Makin, a case that centers around whether religious institutions can benefit from state funding. Maine grants tuition assistance to families who live in areas where there are no public high schools so that they can send their children to private schools. Carson and Makin are two families who sued the state after they were denied tuition assistance because they wanted to use it to pay for Christian private schools that would use the funding for religious instruction. In 2020 the First Circuit held that religious schools can be excluded from receiving taxpayer funding if that funding would go toward teaching religion. The Court will determine whether the law violates the religious freedom or equal protection clauses of the Constitution.
United States v. Zubaydah; Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga
There are two cases this term that involve the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to withhold evidence if it threatens national security interests. On Oct. 6, 2021, the Court heard United States v. Zubaydah. The case was brought by Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, who has been detained in Guantanamo Bay since 2006, In 2017, Zubaydah tried to subpoena two CIA contractors to testify in a criminal investigation in Poland regarding his earlier detention in 2002 and 2003 when he was held in a facility there. The federal government cited the state secrets privilege and halted the subpoenas. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit directed the lower court to look again at whether the state
secrets privilege could actually be invoked in this instance. The Supreme Court now has to evaluate whether the 9th Circuit erred in its ruling.
On Nov. 8, 2021, the Court heard Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga. This case was first brought in 2011 by Imam Yassir Fazaga and two Muslim congregants at a California mosque who claim the FBI had an informant infiltrate the mosque in the mid-2000s purely on the basis of their religion. The FBI argued that the claim should be dismissed under the state secrets privilege. The Ninth Circuit determined that, instead of dismissing claims when the government invokes the state secrets privilege, courts should use the procedures outlined in Section 1806(f) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to determine whether the surveillance was legally authorized and conducted. It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the case should be dismissed under the state secrets privilege or whether Section 1806(f) will allow it to continue.
United States v. Tsarnaev; Ramirez v. Collier
There are a number of high-profile cases involving capital punishment that are before the Court this term. On Oct. 13, 2021, the Court heard the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death in 2015 for his part in the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. In 2020, his sentence was converted to life without parole as the First Circuit held there were constitutional violations during his trial and the Supreme Court will now determine whether the death sentence should be reimposed. The ruling in this case has the opportunity to raise broader questions about procedure, particularly jury selection, in capital trials.
On Nov. 1, the court heard Ramirez v. Collier, which the Supreme Court agreed to hear after it stayed the execution of John Ramirez. Ramirez had asked that his Baptist pastor be allowed to “lay hands” on him and pray out loud while he is being executed by the state of Texas. Texas rejected the request and Ramirez filed suit on the basis of religious freedom. The district court and the appeals court declined to halt his execution, but the Supreme Court agreed to do so until it could evaluate his claims.
Shurtleff v. City of Boston
The justices just granted a petition regarding the issue of religion in public places. In Shurtleff v. City of Boston, a Christian group filed a lawsuit after the city of Boston denied their request to fly a flag bearing a cross on a city hall flag pole. The group argues that the city regularly allows other groups to use the flag poles and that the denial of their application violates the First Amendment. Both the district court and the First Circuit ruled for the city. The case is scheduled to be heard in January 2022.
As always, the Court adds new cases to their docket regularly. One case that could come before the court is former President Donald Trump’s authority to invoke executive privilege to shield White House records from the House Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Another case that could potentially end up on the docket involves a 1984 painting of Prince by Andy Warhol. The justices review petitions each week so there is always the possibility that one or more significant cases will pop up later in the term.