8 Civil Liberties Cases Supreme Court Will Tackle in 2013

Americans’ civil liberties are likely to face some unexpected twists and turns in 2013 as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue at least 10 decisions by June on issues as varied as gay marriage, the role of race in university admissions, federal authority over voting, whether human genes can be patented, whether cops can search for drugs without warrants, and whether corporations can be sued in American courts for human rights abuses committed overseas.

“Civil liberties is a major theme of the cases the justices have agreed to hear,” said Adam Winkler, UCLA Law School professor. “We’ll have to wait for the decisions to know if this term will be a landmark year for civil rights—or for their curtailment. The gay marriage cases, for example, may well be decided on narrow, procedural grounds."

“Perhaps the court will once again skirt striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act,” he continued. “We’ll just have to see. If, however, the court strikes a part of the Voting Rights Act, sharply limits affirmative action, and upholds gay discrimination in marriage, the term will be historic for how it restricted civil rights.”

Here's a summary of the cases that are likely to define the court’s 2013 term.

1. Same-Sex Marriage

The are two cases before the court. The first on whether a California ballot measure that was approved by voters can limit the legal definition of marriage to heterosexual couples, and the second concerns whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act applies to same-sex couples who were legally married under state laws. The California case is being more closely watched because its legal strategy was designed to spur a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality. Constitutional scholars are hesitant to make predictions because they see plenty of precedents that would allow the court to go slow sanctioning same-sex marriage nationwide.

2. Federal Voting Rights Authority

There are two cases before the court that could reshape the national political landscape. In the first, right-wing lawyers have sued the U.S. Department of Justice over its authority under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to nullify state-based changes in voting laws in 16 “covered” states if they undermine minority voting rights. During the 2012 election, the DOJ rejected new laws on voter ID, voter registration drives and redistricting. The attorneys claim, among other things, that laws against voter suppression by race are outdated.

The second case looks at a 2004 ballot measure approved by Arizona voters that requires documentary proof of U.S. citizenship before registering to vote. In most states, including Arizona before it approved Proposition 200, new voters signed a registration form under penalty of perjury attesting to their legal status. Liberal voting rights groups have long said that poor people and minorities often lack original citizenship documents.

3. Race in University Admissions

The issue of affirmative action in university admissions came before the court after a young white woman, Abigail Fisher, who wanted to attend the University of Texas-Austin’s undergraduate program, was not admitted and sued, claiming that its vague affirmative action policy was responsible for her rejection. Like the court’s Voting Rights Act case, her attorneys contend that race-based factors are now excessive and unwarranted. This case was argued in October and legal reporters noted Chief Justice John Roberts’ hostility to the university’s lawyers as they defended their policy.

4. Can Corporations Be Sued For Overseas Human Rights Abuses?

This case, which was argued in October, concerns a lawsuit brought by Nigerians against Royal Dutch Petroleum under an 18th-century anti-piracy law that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for human rights abuses occurring overseas. The stakes are seen as huge by international human rights groups, because should the court void the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, it would prevent activists from trying to hold multinational corporations accountable for their behavior overseas in American courts.

5. Can For-Profit Corporations Patent Human Genes?

This case, which the court agreed to hear this month, contests patents issued to a biotech company for two human genes that the firm identified as being an indicator of breast and ovarian cancer. The suit, brought by liberal constitutional scholars on behalf of medical researchers and women’s healthcare workers, argues that patents cannot be issued for natural processes, such as human genes, but only for manmade inventions. They note that the patent-holders are blocking other researchers from studying the genes, and preventing patients from getting second opinions about cancer test results.

6. Warrantless Drug Searches By Police

There are several cases before the court concerning the rights of police to use dogs to detect illegal drugs without a search warrant. The first examines whether a trained police dog can sniff at the door of a house where cops without a warrant think pot is being grown. The second asks the same question about searches of vehicles that are stopped by police. The difference in these cases is that the courts previously have awarded the highest legal protections to people’s homes, which is not the same as cars and trucks. Lawyers for police have contended they are not searching anything if a dog notices a smell while outside of the home or a vehicle. Of course, that did not stop ensuing searches.

7. Death Penalty Convicts’ Right To Attorneys

There are two cases before the court concerning the rights of prison inmates with death sentences. The first asks if a death row inmate's appeals process should be stopped because he is found to be incompetent to help his attorneys. The second case looks at whether the death sentence process should be stopped while a convict’s competency is evaluated.

8. Do Right-To-Know Laws Stop At State Lines?

Another case that will be closely watched by investigative reporters and public interest groups concerns whether citizens of one state can have access to public records in another state. If states can get away with hiding state government records from out-of-state media or other groups, that will undermine many public-interest efforts to track innumerable issues, such as whether the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is ghostwriting bills that are being introduced in many states.   

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