Impact Equality

What's Legal, What's Not in the SCOTUS Summer Throwdown

Immigration, free speech, and religious freedom are all on the table.

by Kimberly Lawson
May 18 2017, 4:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Phil Roeder

Now that Justice Neil Gorsuch has broken in his new robe, he and the rest of the Supremes are getting down to business. For many voting rights advocates, SCOTUS has already delivered a huge win—or averted a huge disaster, depending on how you look at things—when it announced Monday it would not hear an appeal after a lower court found that North Carolina's voter ID law discriminated against African-Americans. It's one of the first in a slew of opinions in cases argued over the last six months that will be issued from the high court now through July.

Sure, there's a lot of pomp and circumstance around the court, and the advanced ages of the justices certainly don't make it must-see TV, but what happens over the next few weeks will have very direct implications on individual American freedoms. Here are a few of the big issues they'll weigh in on before the end of the summer.

Free speech

In Lee v. Tam, an Asian American band goes up against the US Patent and Trademark Office, who denied their application to officially register their "disparaging" name: The Slants.

"For me, it's about the right for marginalized communities to say what's best for themselves and not have some government agency make that decision for us," Simon Tam, the founder and bassist of The Slants told Crosscut. According to the LA Times, how the Supreme Court rules in this case could affect a pending case against the Washington Redskins; the trademark office has made efforts to revoke the football team's name.


There are half a dozen immigration cases set to be decided this term, and with the Trump administration's hard-line attitude on deportations, plus a controversial travel ban, the way the justices decide in these cases could impact the president's "America First" agenda.

Among them is Jennings v. Rodriguez, which weighs the constitutionality of immigrant detention and whether undocumented immigrants, criminal or not, should be afforded bond hearings. Another case, Maslenjak v. United States, looks at whether a naturalized American citizen can have her citizenship revoked for lying during the immigration process. In a more complicated matter, Hernández v. Mesa asks justices to decide whether constitutional rights should be extended to an immigrant (15-year-old Mexican national Sergio Hernández) shot and killed on foreign soil by a Border Patrol agent on the other of the border, and thus create legal grounds for a suit.

Religious Freedom

Last month, the high court heard arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, and while it may have started off being about a Missouri church's application for a state grant to pay for recycled tires to resurface its daycare playground, the case escalated into an ugly battle about the separation of church and state.

According to Cornell University's Legal Information Institute, a ruling in favor of the church, which in effect would allow public entities to offer money to religious organizations without scrutiny, could open the door to discrimination against, for example, same-sex couples. On the other hand, religious freedom advocates believe a decision in favor of the state would allow states to discriminate based on religion.

The infamous case of a Colorado baker's refusal to provide a cake for a gay couple's upcoming wedding returns for SCOTUS review a third time on Thursday. Once again, Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission boils down to religious freedom versus legalized discrimination.

It's impossible to predict when these opinions will come down, but when they do, they are largely unchangeable. As the final court of appeals, decisions here become the law of the land. You can follow the action here or even take a trip to DC and check it out.