Supreme Court

3 Supreme Court Cases to Watch in Fall 2015

What's at stake in the new SCOTUS term.

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Credit: Library of Congress

The U.S. Supreme Court is back in business today after its summer break and the new term is already shaping up to be another blockbuster. As the Court prepares to rule on some of the most important and contentious issues in American law, here are three cases to watch in the coming months.

1. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

If the name Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin sounds familiar, that's because the Supreme Court has already heard this case once before. In October 2012 the Court heard oral arguments over the use of race in undergraduate admissions at Texas' flagship state university. Eight months later, in June 2013, the Court issued its anticlimactic opinion, which simply kicked the case back down to the lower court for further proceedings. According to the majority opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had erred "by deferring to the University's good faith in its use of racial classifications," but "in fairness to the litigants and the courts that heard the case," Fisher should "be remanded so that the admissions process can be considered and judged under a correct analysis." The correct analysis the Court had in mind is the standard of judicial review known as strict scrutiny, which says that when the government employs racial classifications, that use of race must 1) serve a compelling government interest, and 2) be narrowly tailored to achieve that compelling interest.

Several months later, the 5th Circuit issued its decision on remand, once more upholding the school's actions. Shortly after that, the Supreme Court took up the case once more. In the coming months, the Court is expected to deliver a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of UT's affirmative action policy.

2. Luis v. United States

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to counsel in "all criminal prosecutions." At issue in Luis v. United States is whether that Sixth Amendment right prevents the government from freezing a criminal suspect's non-tainted assets before trial, thereby effectively denying that suspect the right to retain the counsel of her choice.

The case arose in 2012 when Sila Luis was indicted in Florida on charges of operating a complicated scheme that allegedly defrauded Medicare of upwards of $40 million. The prosecutor in her case sought and obtained a pre-trial order freezing all of her assets. The problem with that order is that while the Supreme Court has held that the government may freeze tainted assets before trial—meaning that the government may freeze any assets that can be traced directly back to the underlying alleged crime—the Court has never acknowledged the government's power to do the same thing to a suspect's non-tainted assets. In this case, Luis has some $15 million in undeniably legitimate assets that cannot be traced to any alleged Medicare fraud. She wishes to access those assets in order to pay for her defense.

Needless to say, this case has major implications for both the rights of criminal defendants and for property rights and asset forfeiture more generally. Oral arguments have been scheduled for November 10, 2015.

3. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

In a 1977 decision known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Michigan law that forced public-school teachers to pay the equivalent of union dues to the teachers union regardless of whether or not those teachers happened to be union members. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether or not this controversial precedent should be overruled.

According to lead petitioner Rebecca Friedrichs, a California school teacher, the state's mandatory union-fee scheme violates her First Amendment rights by compelling her to subsidize political speech that she disagrees with. "Just as the government cannot compel political speech or association generally," Friedrichs and her lawyers told the Court, "it cannot mandate political speech or association as a condition of employment." The California Teachers Association counters by arguing that its collective-bargaining stance benefits even non-members like Friedrichs. Forcing her to pay the equivalent of union dues, the union maintains, prevents her from acting as a "free rider."

To say the least, this case presents a major challenge to the legal privileges currently afforded to public-sector unions. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.

Related: Watch Reason TV interview Rebecca Friedrichs below.