Spread: Four important SCOTUS cases you should know about


Illustration credit: Ella Chen.

Zoe Sokatch and Sofia Arango

The 2021-2022 Supreme Court term rattled the nation. With controversial and historical rulings such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the term demonstrated a shift in power with conservative-leaning justices having the majority vote. This term caused what Constitutional Law teacher Kristjiana Gong described as “an erosion of trust” throughout the United States, and the 2022-2023 term is also predicted to be contentious. This new term, which commenced on October 3, will consider cases with implications for millions of Americans. The topics challenge the meaning of the Constitution, civil rights and our democracy. The following is a breakdown of some of the most important cases. 

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina & Harvard University 

Date of hearing: October 31 

These two cases, both filed by the same plaintiff in 2014, argue for abolishing affirmative action, or what is known as race-conscious admissions to universities. Plaintiffs allege affirmative action is discriminatory towards Asian American and white students and is in violation of the Constitution. Affirmative action is protected under the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, in which the Supreme Court held that considering the race of underrepresented minority groups in the college admissions process while still looking at the student holistically did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause states that the state should govern impartially, “not draw distinctions between individuals solely on differences that are irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objective,” according to Cornell Law School.

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the non-profit organization suing the universities, believes that affirmative action does violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The SFFA website states, “that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” In the initial hearing that occurred in 2014, SFFA argued that Harvard holds Asian American students to a higher academic standard than other applicants making it unjustly difficult for them to gain admission. In the original case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), also in 2014, SFFA argued that the university discriminated against white applicants in the admissions process. 

SFFA is run by Edward Blum, a politically conservative legal strategist with a vendetta against affirmative action. In an interview with The Washington Post, Blum explained his opposition. Although he said that certain racial and ethnic minority groups have experienced oppression, he does not believe affirmative action is the best way to remedy the inequalities of our world. “The way we don’t [fix inequality] is to say, ‘Well, we’re going to treat this person differently because of what you may have experienced and what historically may have happened to you decades and decades ago.’” SFFA’s website claims this opinion is shared by their 20,000 members. Harvard and UNC argue that race is just one factor out of many for admissions that they are entitled to consider. In addition, the universities say that a diverse classroom is integral to productive learning, and the only way to pursue that is through race-conscious admissions. They also argue that overturning Gutter would have sweeping effects on the nation; Affirmative action is not only used in college admissions, but is also used in workplace hiring practices. The conservative-leaning court is predicted to rule in favor of SFFA, reversing an over 50-year precedent of race-conscious admissions. 

Moore v. Harper

Date of hearing: December 7

In 2021, the Republican-dominated North Carolina state legislature pushed a redistricting map designed to secure congressional seats for their party, a strategy known as partisan gerrymandering. “[Partisan gerrymandering is] the practice of dividing a geographic area into electoral districts, often of highly irregular shape, to give one political party an unfair advantage by diluting the opposition’s voting strength,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary. 

Prior to the attempted redistricting, Republicans held an 8-5 congressional seat advantage. With the newly drawn map, Republicans hold the advantage in 10 districts.

In February, voters outraged by the gerrymandering attempt brought the case to North Carolina’s Supreme Court, where the new map was struck down. In her opinion for the Court, Justice Robin Hudson wrote, “We hold that the enacted maps violate several rights guaranteed to the people by our state constitution.” 

Following the rejection of their redistricting proposal, two Republican state legislators appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, centering their argument on “the independent state legislature theory,” which is a specific interpretation of the Elections Clause of the Constitution. 

The Election Clause gives states power over elections for U.S. senate and representative seats. In the traditional interpretation of this clause, it is understood that a state legislature does not have complete control over elections; rather, they are subject to the checks and balances of other branches of government. The theory put forward by the Republican legislators would give complete control to state legislatures. “[The interpretation of the clause] renders the state courts and state constitution powerless in matters relating to federal elections,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.  

If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the legislators, it would set a dangerous and harmful precedent. All state legislatures, Republican or Democratic, would be able to manipulate congressional maps to further their political agenda. Some even fear that states would be able to overturn elections with outcomes they do not agree with, upending fair democratic electoral processes. 


Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

Date of oral argument: October 3, 2022. Still pending (the court has not made a decision)

Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) argues whether the United States Court of Appeals or the Ninth Circuit established the correct parameters to determine what defines a “water[way] of the United States.” This definition is based on the Clean Waters Act (CWA), which has caused a major controversy between environmental protection groups and legislative bodies throughout the United States.

Sackett v. EPA originated when an Idaho family buying a vacant lot near a lake in 2007 was notified by the EPA that their lot contained “wetlands and navigable waters.” Thus, their lot was subject to comply with EPA ordinance, which required the family to halt their ongoing construction until further notice. Instead of receiving a permit, the family received an administrative compliance order from the EPA in 2007. The administrative compliance order required the Sackett family to adhere to the EPA. However, the family sued on the grounds of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), arguing that the EPA doesn’t have jurisdiction to prevent construction. 

The EPA website states that “the Administrative Procedure Act governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations.” It has the ability to issue licenses and permits, and generally work with lower level federal legislative bodies to implement legal ordinances. The act is a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating all divisions of American agencies, meaning one procedure and code of conduct is intended to fit numerous contexts. Regardless of the fact that APA itself could be argued to be flawed due to its overarching, one-size-fits-all approach, the EPA is an agency. Thus, it is subject to compliance. 

The lower courts—local and state level legislative bodies—ruled that the EPA is not bound to comply with the APA, however, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) reversed this decision in 2012. This hearing limited the EPA’s freedom in regards to regulating federal oversight over American waterways. SCOTUS unanimously decided to hold the EPA accountable for what it deemed to be an ‘unjust’ implementation of the CWA. 

The 2012 SCOTUS suit, however, had nothing to do with the CWA—it was centered around the mishandling of the family’s lot.

The new case is set to determine whether or not a wetland can be considered a “waterway,” and thus be subject to CWA regulations. The EPA stated that its mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” It hopes to use the CWA to achieve this, but faces opposition from consumer advocacy groups, or groups generally associated with commerce, as they have all stood by the Sackett family. 

If the Supreme Court was to side with the EPA and support the wetland sale regulations, the American ecosystem would not deteriorate as fast. Disrupting ecosystems with profit-based motivation has been detrimental, often doing more long-term harm than short-term good—take deforestation, for example. Eradicating and building on wetlands is considered more profitable than protecting them, but doing so also has its consequences.


303 Creative LLC v. Elenis

Date of oral argument: December 5, 2022

303 Creative LLC v. Elenis aims to establish whether anti-discrimination laws in Colorado are in violation of the First Amendment. Lorie Smith, owner of 303 Creative LLC, is a practicing Christian living in Colorado. Her business is to create websites, and she wanted to shift her market towards wedding announcements. She put a notice on her website in order to let LGBTQ+-identifying customers know that she would not make websites for them, as it did not align with her religious values. Smith argues that her notice was created as an act of courtesy, trying to let the LGBTQ+ community know that they should find business elsewhere.

Smith’s actions went against anti-discrimination laws passed in 2008 by Governor Bill Ritter which prohibited companies from discriminating against members of the LGBTQ+ community. More specifically, the anti-discrimination bill prohibited sexual-orientation-based discrimination in public accommodations. Smith sued the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in 2016 in an attempt to block enforcement of the bill. The District Court waited for the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission to move forward, hoping the ruling would provide a guideline for how they should approach Smith’s case. 

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in essence, is the same as 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, but differs in context. In 2018 it was ruled that the baker who refused an LGBTQ+ couple a wedding cake would not be forced to make the couple a cake. This ruling was supported under the First Amendment’s clause for the protection of religious freedom. 

One of the Faculty Advisors of Urban’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, Ricco Siasoco, said,“[303 Creative LLC v. Elenis] sets up the [precedent for contention] of states rights vs federal policies.”  Siasoco also mentioned that in liberal-leaning states such as California, legislature could be enacted to combat legal discrimination.

303 Creative LLC v. Elenis is being heard this term because it was granted the opposite decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals as the 2018 cake case. Masterpiece Cakeshop was allowed to continually refuse service to couples of the same sex due to the freedom of religion clause in the First Ammendment. The same logic could, in theory, be applied to the 303 Creative case. However, because it originally was not, it is set to be heard by SCOTUS. The ruling of this case comes down to one thing: Smith and her business are not allowed the same use of the First Amendment that Masterpiece Cakeshop had. The outcome of this case will dictate future interpretation of the First Amendment.