Obama's Disappointing Year at the Supreme Court

From recess appointments to warrantless cellphone searches to Obamacare, the White House lost big this term at SCOTUS.


The U.S. Supreme Court went out with a bang on Monday, ending its 2013-2014 term with Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., in which the Court held that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violated federal law by placing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when it required two "closely held" private corporations to cover certain forms of birth control in their employee health plans.

It was a painful legal defeat for the Obama administration—and it was not the only such defeat in recent days. In fact, in the past month alone, the White House has suffered a series of embarrassing losses at the Supreme Court, where it failed to prevail on issues ranging from the scope of the Fourth Amendment to the limits of executive power. To make matters worse, the president lost all but one of those cases by a vote of 9-0. Here's a quick recap of Obama's dismal finish this year at the Supreme Court.

Bond v. United States

Obama's troubles began on June 2 with the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Bond v. United States. At issue was the criminal prosecution of a woman named Carol Ann Bond, who was sentenced to six years in federal prison under the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act for smearing two toxic substances on the mailbox, door knob, and car door of a woman who had been carrying on an affair with Bond's husband. The victim suffered only a minor burn to her hand.

According to the Obama administration, however, federal prosecutors were fully justified in treating this soap opera-like crime as a chemical weapons attack thanks to the executive branch's broad power to make and enforce treaties with foreign governments, including the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But the Supreme Court practically laughed that view out of court. In the words of the Court's unanimous opinion, the White House's "boundless" interpretation of the chemical weapons law "would transform the statute from one whose core concerns are acts of war, assassination, and terrorism into a massive federal anti-poisoning regime that reaches the simplest of assaults." As the Court put it, "There is no reason to think the sovereign nations that ratified the [Chemical Weapons] Convention were interested in anything like Bond's common law assault."

Riley v. California

Three weeks later, on June 25, the Supreme Court once again ruled 9-0 against the Obama administration, this time rejecting the White House's sweeping view that the police should not be required to obtain a warrant before searching the cellphones of individuals they have placed under arrest. "Although cell phones can contain a great deal of personal information," the Obama administration told the justices in one legal filing, "so can many other items that officers have long had authority to search, and the search of a cell phone is no more intrusive than other actions that the police may take once a person has been lawfully arrested."

The Supreme Court took the opposite view, endorsing a robust vision of the Fourth Amendment as a key safeguard in our increasingly hi-tech age. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple," declared Chief Justice John Roberts, "get a warrant."

National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning

Just 24 hours later, the White House found itself on the receiving end of yet another unanimous Supreme Court benchslap. At issue in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning was President Obama's three purported recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012. The problem with those appointments was that the Senate was not actually in recess at the time—Senate Republicans were then holding pro forma sessions precisely so that Obama could not legally invoke his recess appointment power. But the president went ahead and made the appointments anyway, triggering a constitutional clash between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

In its June 26 decision, the Supreme Court came down 9-0 against the president's one-sided actions. "In our view," declared the majority opinion of Justice Stephen Breyer, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, "the pro forma sessions count as sessions, not as periods of recess." Therefore, "We hold that, for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says it is."

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Which brings us to Hobby Lobby, Obama's final defeat of the 2013-2014 Supreme Court term. Here, by a vote of 5-4, the Court rejected the administration's claim that Hobby Lobby did not suffer a "substantial" injury under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when the arts-and-crafts retailer was forced to cover four methods of birth control in its employee health plans that it finds objectionable on religious grounds, such as the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B.

Furthermore, the White House failed to persuade seven members of the Court to take its side on the related question of whether for-profit corporations should be allowed to raise religious objections to federal laws in the first place. Although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor did agree with the president on that point, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan did not. Instead, Breyer and Kagan filed a separate dissent which declared, "We need not and do not decide whether either for-profit corporations or their owners may bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993." Put differently, the White House was beaten by a vote of 5-2 on that critical question.

In sum, the Obama administration lost big on some of the biggest legal issues of the day, failing to garner even a single vote in cases dealing with prosecutorial overreach, the Fourth Amendment, and executive power. To say the least, it has been a supremely disappointing performance from the former constitutional law lecturer who now occupies the White House.