Supreme Decisions

By Smith, Patricia | New York Times Upfront, October 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Supreme Decisions


Smith, Patricia, New York Times Upfront


On October 7, the Supreme Court will begin a new term. Of the more than 7,000 cases expected to be submitted for its consideration, the Court will likely to hear about 80 over the next nine months. Already on the docket are three that could have important effects on American life.

Freedom of Religion

Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, regularly attended town council meetings in their hometown of Greece, N.Y., where they sat through an opening prayer, usually given by a Christian chaplain. After they complained and the town refused to change its policy, they sued in federal court. While the town maintains that anyone is welcome to give the prayer, Galloway and Stephens say the prayer runs afoul of the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit sided with the plaintiffs, but the town appealed the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, to the Supreme Court. David Cortman, a lawyer for the town, points out that "The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution's Bill of Rights." Greece's practices, he says, are consistent with that tradition.

The Obama administration also cited historical precedent in a brief supporting the town. "So long as the goal of the government-backed prayer is not to recruit believers or criticize a given faith, then the practice should be supported," the brief argues.

But Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group behind the lawsuit, disagrees. "A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," he said in a statement. "Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others."

Campaign Finance

In recent years, the Supreme Court has been leery of campaign finance restrictions on the principle that political spending is protected speech under the First Amendment.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v, Federal Election Commission that limits could not be placed on campaign spending by corporations and unions--as long as their contributions went to independent political action committees, * and not directly to candidates. The result: a record-breaking $6 billion was spent on the 2012 election cycle.

A case before the Court this year could have an even greater impact on political campaigns. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission challenges the overall cap on how much a person can contribute to candidates (currently $46,200) or committees ($70,800) in a two-year election cycle on the federal level. (The case does not directly affect the more familiar $2,600 limit on how much a person can contribute to a single candidate or committee.)

In 1976, the Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that contributions may be strictly regulated because of their potential for corruption. If the Court rules against the caps in this year's case, it could lead to a fundamental reassessment of that principle.

The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, a political activist in Alabama who contributed to 16 different candidates in federal races in 2011-12, as well as to various Republican committees. He had wanted to donate even more, but doing so would have violated the overall caps. McCutcheon contends that the limits are unconstitutional because they limit his free speech.

If the Court agrees, it could be the start of "chipping away" at individual contribution limits, says Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. "If you're worried, like I am, about corruption and political inequality, it's very worrisome," he says.

But Hans von Spakovsky, an election law expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sees it differently. "Everyone complains that candidates have to spend too much of their time raising money," he says. …

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