What you Need To Know About Today’s Supreme Court Rulings
The Supreme Court issued two important rulings this morning: one that makes it harder for women to exercise their right to choose, and a second that effectively eliminates a President’s ability to make recess appointments and could imperil unions down the road as a consequence. The remaining decisions this session are expected to come next Monday, including Hobby Lobby (can owners of a for-profit, secular corporation impose their religious beliefs on their employees?) and Harris v. Quinn (are public sector unions’ fair share fees that ensure all employees, regardless of whether they are members of the union, receive the collectively bargained-for benefits constitutional?)
The decisions today were both handed down unanimously by the High Court. Here’s more on what the implications are for each:
McCullen v. Coakley
The decision: The Court struck down a Massachusetts’ law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion providers, ruling in favor of anti-choice protesters who argued that being required to stay that far away from clinic entrances is a violation of their freedom of speech. The decision rolls back a proactive policy intended to safeguard women’s access to reproductive health care in the face of persistent harassment and intimidation from abortion opponents.
The argument: The Justices argue that the 35-foot zone in the Massachusetts law restricts “access to ‘public way[s]‘ and ‘sidewalk[s],’ places that have traditionally been open for speech activities.” Therefore, the opinion states, the law burdens “substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests.” The justices do not categorically deny the right for states to set up buffer zones protecting abortion clinics, but do effectively remove the Massachusetts law and threaten other similar safety measures around the country.
The implications: The decision is a blow to women. Since 1993, eight clinic workers have been murdered. There have been 6,400 reported acts of violence against abortion providers since 1977. According to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which closely tracks threats and violence against abortion providers across the country, buffer zones have had a measurable impact improving safety in the areas where they’re in place.
BOTTOM LINE: The Supreme Court itself has a buffer zone around it’s 252-by-98-foot plaza, preventing protesters from demonstrating too close to the entrance. Surely it can see the need for abortion clinics, the subject of frequent and sometimes violent intimidation from their opponents, to have a reasonable buffer zone as well.
National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning
The decision: The Court effectively eliminated the president’s power to make recess appointments in all but the most unusual circumstances. It limits the president’s constitutional duty to appoint leaders that keep our country working for all Americans, from making sure our elections are fair to protecting workers’ and consumer rights.
The argument: Prior to Noel Canning, a federal appeals court — the highest legal authority to weigh in on the question — confirmed that a president does indeed have the power to make recess appointments. Specifically, it ruled that sham sessions known as “pro forma” sessions held by the Senate every three days in order to defeat a president’s attempts to make these appointments were in fact not enough to stop him. Every single justice on the Supreme Court, however, disagreed with that ruling and voted against recess appointments today, although the Court split 5-4 on rationale. Five justices, overturning the appeals court, opined that these “pro forma” sessions were in fact enough to block a president from making recess appointments because “the Senate is in session when it says it is.” The four conservative justices went even further, with an opinion that could have retroactively invalidated thousands of recess appointments made by presidents past if it had garnered just one more vote.
The implications: The impact of this ruling goes beyond a legal technicality. President Obama took the risk of making recess appointments in the first place to fill a minimum number of seats on the National Labor Relations Board, a government agency with exclusive authority to enforce much of federal labor law. NLRB members serve five year terms, and unless at least three seats on the board are occupied, it is powerless to act. Therefore, the fullest impact of this decision will likely be felt in 2018, when the five year terms of the NLRB’s current slate of members expire. Even if the president at that time supports allowing federal labor law to function in 2018, he or she will be unable to keep the NLRB functioning if a majority of the Senate is determined to shut down federal labor protections.
More broadly, the decision underscores the importance of the Senate’s action last November to allow executive nominees to receive an up or down confirmation vote. Without last year’s change to the Senate rules, today’s decision would have empowered a small, but vocal minority, to use arcane procedure to block the government from being able to function properly.
BOTTOM LINE: In a technical ruling, the Supreme Court took away the president’s power to make recess appointments. While today’s court decision will have little immediate impact, its long-term effects remain unclear and could threaten the rights of workers across the country if the NLRB is dismantled. The House and Senate must find new ways to ensure that the politics of obstruction and shutdown do not limit the ability of our nation to function properly.
Stay tuned for more Court decisions on Monday. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, RSVP to join a rally hosted by NARAL in front of the Supreme Court that morning.