(The Hill) – The Supreme Court’s decision season is in full swing. The justices in the coming weeks will hand down major rulings on student debt relief, affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, with opinions in 30 remaining cases expected to be released by June 30.
Here’s a preview of the major decisions.
Student Debt Relief
The fate of President Biden’s student debt relief plan rests with the justices, who are weighing two separate challenges: one from six Republican-led states, the other from two individual borrowers. At stake is whether more than 40 million Americans will receive debt relief — as well as a major Biden campaign promise.
The plan, currently on hold, would cancel up to $20,000 in loans for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for other borrowers, if the individual’s income is less than $125,000. The income limit is doubled for married couples.
The conservative-majority court during February’s oral argument cast doubt that the administration had the authority to unilaterally cancel hundreds of billions of dollars worth of student debt.
It’s possible, however, that the court throws out the challenges without reaching the merits. Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett during oral argument joined the court’s three liberals in fiercely questioning the challengers on whether they had legal standing to sue in the first place.
Decades of affirmative action programs in college admissions may soon be coming to an end. The Supreme Court is considering challenges to the admissions policies of both Harvard University’s and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The rulings will have nationwide impacts. The justices are explicitly being asked to overturn a landmark 2003 decision that allowed race to be considered as one of many factors in college admissions.
Affirmative action survived another challenge before the justices in 2016, but the addition of former President Trump’s appointees in the years since has turned the court to the right. It makes the twin cases now before the justices the greatest threat yet to affirmative action programs; at oral argument, the court signaled skepticism about upholding race-conscious admissions policies.
Voting Rights Act
The justices are poised to decide when states must draw minority-majority districts as the court resolves a dispute involving Alabama’s congressional map. The opinion could further narrow the Voting Rights Act, a decade after the court disallowed another provision — which controlled which state and local governments were subject to federal preclearance before changing their voting laws — due to being unconstitutional.
In Alabama, state Republicans are asking the justices to reverse a lower ruling that found their map violated Section 2 of the law, which remains in effect. Alabama’s map includes one majority-Black congressional district out of seven total, despite the group accounting for 27 percent of the state’s population.
A three-judge panel ruled the map violated Section 2 by impermissibly packing Black voters into one district and spreading them out throughout others. The GOP-led state argues their design was race-neutral, and that following the opposing arguments would prioritize race above traditional redistricting principles.
In a 5-4 vote last year, the court temporarily reinstated Alabama’s map as it took up the case. Several conservative justices seemed open to raising the legal bar for Voting Rights Act map challenges, but even if Alabama comes out victorious, it’s unclear exactly how broadly the court will rule.
American Indian adoptions
The Supreme Court may soon prompt a major shift in how foster care placements and adoptions are handled for thousands of American Indian children. The justices are hearing a constitutional challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which Congress enacted in 1978 to combat the common practice of separating Native children from their family and tribe.
The ICWA imposes minimum standards for removing Native children and establishes default preferences for their adoption and foster care placements. Several couples that sought to adopt or foster Native children are suing over the law, contending it institutes racial classifications that violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
They are joined by Texas and a parent whose Native biological child was adopted by one of the couples. The parties further argue that Congress exceeded its authority in enacting the law.
Several tribes and the Biden administration defended the ICWA before the justices, insisting the law’s references to “Indian child” and tribes are political-based distinctions, not race-based ones.
First came the cake baker. Now comes the website designer. Various wedding vendors who oppose same-sex marriage and say their products amount to pure speech have challenged public accommodation laws that require them to provide equal services regardless of a customer’s sexual orientation.
Taking up a challenge to Colorado’s law, the high court may put its thumb on the scale this term. In 2018, the court avoided weighing in on the hot-button issue by resolving cake shop owner Jack Phillips’s challenge to Colorado’s law on narrow grounds.
A few miles away from Phillips’s shop, website designer Lorie Smith wants to create wedding websites. But Colorado’s law would require Smith to offer those services to same-sex couples.
She’s asked the justices to decide the question they never reached five years ago. At oral argument, the court’s conservatives signaled support for Smith.
Independent State Legislature Theory
An appeal from North Carolina Republican state lawmakers may upend legal challenges to congressional maps and other federal election rules. It could also be a dud. The case involves the so-called “independent state legislature” theory, which contends that the Constitution gives state legislatures near-total authority to regulate federal elections, removing all other state-level bodies from the process.
Following that argument would prevent state courts and state constitutions from hearing claims such as partisan gerrymandering in congressional redistricting.
Last year, Democratic-majority North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state’s Republican-drawn congressional map. It prompted the state lawmakers to appeal to the nation’s highest court and argue that the state court had no authority, urging the justices to adopt the theory.
The justices appeared to search for a middle path during oral argument in December. But now, they might not need to reach the merits at all. After Republicans regained control of the North Carolina Supreme Court in the midterms, the new majority granted a rare rehearing of the case and overturned the earlier decision.
The justices in Washington have since questioned whether they still have authority to move ahead, since they are hearing an appeal of a ruling that effectively no longer exists. Dismissing the case could also punt the issue to the 2024 election cycle.