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The New Supreme Court Term

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Adam Liptak has a useful roundup, noting that the Court does not have any “blockbusters” comparable to last year’s Second Amendment, death penalty, and war powers decisions. There are, however, some cases that indicate the likely direction of the Roberts Court and why many of his holdings will matter more than you might think. In particular, it’s important not to focus excessively on whether the Court explicitly announces the overturning of precedents. There are two examples that are instructive:

  • Standing. “In Summers v. Earth Island Institute, the court will consider who has standing to challenge environmental regulations.” As we’ve already seen with respect to church and state issues, by narrowing standing rules the Court can nominally keep important precdents on the books but make it exceptionally difficult to actually enforce them by declaring that most people don’t have standing to challenge potentially unconstitutional state actions. Moreover, this narrowing of standing rules is likely to be a one-way ratchet; plaintiffs advancing claims that conservatives find sympathetic are unlikely to see their ability to bring suits affected. These cases seem technical, but substantially affect the substantive rights of individuals as well as areas like environmental policy.
  • Pre-emption. Wyeth v. Levine, concerns only implied pre-emption and is perhaps the most important business case of the term. Wyeth, a drug company, seeks to overturn a Vermont jury award of more than $6 million to Diana Levine, a musician who lost much of her right arm in a medical disaster caused by the injection of a Wyeth anti-nausea drug. Wyeth argues that it cannot be sued because it had complied with federal safety standards.” Again, business cases of this sort tend to attract less attention, but making it more difficult for states to punish corporate malfeasance in the courts is a potentially very important outcome. For several of the court’s conservatives, their alleged commitment to “federalism” will clash with business interests, and (especially for Roberts, Alito and Kennedy) I know how I’m betting. Also look for Breyer, at a minimum, to vote with Wyeth.

Another trend Liptak brings up: “The court will also return to an emerging theme of the Roberts court, which has repeatedly turned back general, or “facial,” challenges to laws in favor of more focused, or “as applied,” attacks.” Again, this seems tehcnical, but in any number of areas — including aboriton — it will make the enforcement of rights more difficult. Given the formal “minimalism” of the Court, many of its important decisions will fly under the radar — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

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