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The 10 Most Important Supreme Court Decisions of This Term

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The Supreme Court's October 2015 Term was truly historic. This term saw the death of Justice Scalia, which was immediately marked by politicized fighting over his replacement, even before the memorials had begun. It saw Justice Thomas speak during oral arguments, for the first time in a decade, and Justice Sotomayor find her voice as one of the Court's great dissenters. It saw Justice Breyer yelling on the Late Show and Justice Ginsburg writing her first book in decades.

Somewhere between all that, cases were decided -- important, landmark cases, some of them. And as controversial as the term might have been, what mattered most were those decisions. Here they are.

1. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin: Colleges Can Consider Race in Admissions

What It Said: The University of Texas's consideration of race as one factor among many in college admissions survives strict scrutiny and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.

Why It Matters: Besides giving birth to the hashtag #BeckyWithTheBadGrades, Fisher II (Fisher I had been decided in 2013) meant that public colleges and universities can continue to use affirmative action admissions policies, an issue the Court has struggled with since 1978's Bakke decision. Further, Fisher II marks the first time Justice Kennedy has ever voted to support race-conscious admissions. If Justice Kennedy is truly in the midst of a swing to the left, Fisher II would be highly symbolic of that transformation.

2. Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt: Upending Texas's Restrictions on Abortion Clinics

What It Said: Restrictions on abortion providers must be based on convincing medical evidence and their burdens cannot outweigh the restriction's health benefits without unconstitutionally unduly burdening a woman's right to abortion.

Why It Matters: Whole Woman's Health represents the Court's recommitment to a woman's constitutional right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. The ruling will prevent many of Texas's abortion clinics from being closed and will likely result in the repeal of similar laws in many other states.

3. Betterman v. Montana: No Right to a Speedy Sentencing

What It Said: The Sixth Amendment doesn't guarantee a right to a speedy sentencing after conviction.

Why It Matters: The Court's ruling in Betterman split protections afforded during criminal proceedings into three distinct phases: arrest and charge, trial, and sentencing. The Sixth Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause only applies to the middle phase, the Court ruled, though due process considerations could limit excessive delays in sentencing.

4. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.: Challenging Clean Water Act Determinations

What It Said: Property owners can bring suit to challenge "jurisdictional determinations" that their lands are subject to the Clean Water Act.

Why It Matters: Jurisdictional determinations are made before Clean Water Act enforcement begins, allowing land owners to know with some certainty whether their property is covered by the act. Under Hawkes, property owners who disagree with the determination can sue, likely leading to a large increase in clean water litigation.

5. Foster v. Chatman: Discrimination in Jury Selection

What It Said: Prosecutors discriminated against Timothy Foster when they removed all black potential jurors from his jury pool, on account of their race, violating the Equal Protection Clause.

Why It Matters: Batson exists! The Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky held that prosecutors' preemptory strikes could not be used to remove potential jurors because of their race without violating a defendants' equal protection rights. But proving a Batson violation has become extremely difficult. Foster, as such, is an important reminder that, in at least a few cases, Batson still has some bite.

6. Welch v. United States: Extending Limits to 3-Strikes Law

What It Said: The Court's ruling in Johnson v. United States was substantive and can be applied to those convicted under the Armed Career Criminal Act's invalidated residual clause before Johnson was decided.

Why It Matters: Johnson held that the federal three strikes law's residual clause, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving "a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," was unconstitutionally vague. Now, those sentenced under that clause can also benefit from the ruling, potentially undermining thousands of criminal sentences.

7. Evenwel v. Abbott: Who Counts as One Person for "One Person, One Vote?"

What It Said: States can draw legislative districts based on total population, not just registered voters.

Why It Matters: The principle of "one person, one vote" seems clear enough, but implementing it can be difficult in practice. When drawing legislative lines, who counts as one person? Children, who can't vote? Prisoners? Only those who are registered? Petitioners in Evenwel wanted the Court to say the latter -- that lines must be drawn based on voters, not all people. It was a proposition the Court wholeheartedly rejected, even while leaving the principal of "one person, one vote" somewhat vague.

The Non-Decisions

Because of Justice Scalia's death and the ongoing lack of a replacement justice, many of the Court's most important decisions this term weren't really decisions at all.

8. Zubik v. Burwell: Obamacare's Contraception Mandate

What It Said: Work it out amongst yourselves.

Why It Matters: Religious nonprofits from across the country have challenged Obamacare's contraception mandate exemption procedures. They argue that participating in the distribution of contraception, even if it's just by notifying the government that they will not participate and allowing others to take over that role, violates their religious beliefs. Instead of settling the issue, the Court sent the case back down, urging the parties to find a compromise solution.

9. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: Public Union Dues

What It Said: Nothing.

Why It Matters: Friedrichs was the Court's first major split decision of the term. While many had expected the Court to act to limit the ability of public unions to collect dues from nonmembers who nonetheless benefited from union contracts, the Court was instead deadlocked. The deadlock leaves the Ninth Circuit's opinion supporting dues in place, but the constitutionality of such a program remains an open question.

10. United States v. Texas: Immigration Reform

What It Said: Nothing.

Why It Matters: In the most important split decision of the term, an equally divided Court summarily approved a Fifth Circuit ruling upholding an injunction against President Obama's signature immigration reform plan, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. As a result, millions of immigrants whose deportation proceedings could have been paused under DAPA may now see themselves removed from the country.

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