It’s been two weeks since the Supreme Court handed down the last decision of the 2011-12 term, the highly anticipated ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Much of the nation is still buzzing over Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision to write the majority opinion upholding most of the law, and speculation and rumors have run rampant over the behind-the-scenes action that led up to the controversial decision.
Did the chief justice switch his vote at the last minute? Was his majority opinion a surreptitious way of reigning in Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause? Was Roberts the real author of the jointly signed dissent by the four conservative justices, one that had initially been drafted as the majority opinion? These are just some of the theories that have been floated in the past fortnight.
The Court tends to jealously guard its secrets, and the truth only emerges after many years — if at all. So any speculation about motivations, intrigues and politicking behind the Court’s closed doors is merely that — speculation.
It’s understandable that the blockbuster nature of the health care case, with its surprise outcome on the day the Court recessed for the summer, would dominate the headlines. But it should not distract us from other Court decisions that week, which have the potential to be as important to the lives of everyday Americans.
On the same day that the Court handed down its health care decision, the justices also ruled on the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a Federal misdemeanor to lie about having received military awards or decorations. In a 6-to-3 decision, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority that the Stolen Valor Act was overly broad and did not meet the high standard of review necessary for laws that limit free speech.
Although the Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, it left open the possibility that Congress could craft a similar measure more narrowly tailored to address the particular goal of preventing the devaluation of military commendations. Just two weeks after the Court reached its decision, Senator Scott Brown (MA-R) and Representative Joe Heck (NV-R) proposed legislation to make it a Federal crime to profit from lying about one’s military record. The case, United States v. Alvarez, was covered in-depth in the March 2012 issue of Supreme Court Debates.
Earlier in the week, on June 25, the Court decided Arizona v. United States, in which it struck down much of a controversial Arizona anti-illegal-immigration law. In a 5-to-3 decision (with Justice Kagan recusing), Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that Federal immigration law preempts State immigration policies. This meant that provisions of the Arizona law requiring aliens to carry immigration papers at all times and making it a State crime for undocumented aliens to work or apply for work in Arizona were unconstitutional. The Court also invalidated a portion of the law allowing police to make a warrantless arrest of anyone they suspected of having committed a crime that would lead to deportation.
The Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of perhaps the most controversial portion of the Arizona law, however: giving Arizona law enforcement officers the power to check the immigration status of individuals they had stopped or detained, if they had reason to believe the suspects were in the country illegally. The Court decided it has to wait until the law goes into effect before it can pass judgment on the constitutionality of the measure, setting up another possible battle in the Court over this immigration law sometime in the future. This case will be covered in-depth in the September issue of Supreme Court Debates.
Also on June 25, the Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision written by Justice Kagan that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Miller v. Alabama was just the latest decision in a string of cases in which the Court has broadened the scope of the Eight Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In the past, the Court has forbidden the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally disabled and of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes not involving murder (all covered by Supreme Court Debates). Although the decisions have been close, it appears Justice Kennedy, joined by the Court’s liberal block, is taking an increasingly broad view of the Eighth Amendment.
Immigration law, Eighth Amendment protections, and First Amendment rights — even without the historic decision on health care reform, that would have been a busy week for the Court. We’ll have further review of the 2011-12 Supreme Court session in the coming days.