A look back at the US Supreme Court’s landmark decisions this year



June 2013 has been a busy month for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Between 13 and 26 June, SCOTUS released rulings on the biggest cases of the year. Some rulings reconsidered the constitutionality of past rulings, such as the case addressing the Voting Rights Act. Others established new precedents, such as the case addressing whether human genes are patentable.

The three most anticipated rulings were those regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Additionally, the Court’s rulings on California’s ‘Prop 8’ and Myriad Genetics’ claim to being able to patent human genes made headlines.

Summaries of these five cases follow.

Human gene patenting

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (ruling delivered 13 June 2013)

Myriad Genetics is the company responsible for isolating the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, whose mutations signal an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Due to the company’s resulting patents on these genes, Myriad Genetics had a monopoly on medical tests designed to identify them.

SCOTUS ruled unanimously that human genes were not patentable. According to the Court’s opinion, According to the ruling, Myriad Genetics did not create anything while isolating specific genes and therefore had no right to patent those genes.

Angelina Jolie is credited in part with the ruling – or rather with the heightened reception of the ruling – due to her recent decision to undergo a preventive mastectomy. After being tested for the BRCA genes, she learned she was at high risk for breast cancer. In a New York Times Op-Ed about her own experience, she advocated for greater accessibility to and affordability of BRCA gene testing.

Affirmative action

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (24 June 2013)

Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin after her application to the university was rejected in 2008. She claimed she was denied in part because she is white, despite being more qualified than some minority applicants.

The University of Texas at Austin argued in defense of its affirmative action policy as part of its application review process. Affirmative action can be loosely defined as a kind of positive discrimination meant to provide employment and educational opportunities to minority groups and also to increase diversity at an institution or workplace.

The Court was expected to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action during this session. The policy of affirmative action in place at many universities originated in the 1960s, when racism was institutionalized and minority groups were widely discriminated against.

However, the Court sent the case back to a lower court on the grounds that the case did not follow proper judicial procedure. Therefore, a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of affirmative action was not reached. Nevertheless, this decision has been seen to be more favourable to universities since it did not require them to end their current admissions policies.

Voting Rights Act

Shelby County v. Holder (25 June 2013)

Shelby_County,_Alabama_CourthouseThe Voting Rights Act of 1965, in part, established the process of preclearance, in which states with a history of discriminatory voting practices were required to seek federal approval of any new state voting laws before enacting them.

In 2006, this preclearance provision was reauthorized. Shelby County, in the state of Alabama, was one of the 16 states covered under the provision for preclearance. The county filed suit, arguing that preclearance was unconstitutional, especially since it was only applied to certain states.

Confusingly, the Court did not rule that the preclearance process was unconstitutional. Instead, it ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions qualified for preclearance was unconstitutional today, even though it had been previously accepted based on a 1970s formula. As such, the Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Prop 8

Hollingsworth v. Perry (26 June 2013)

In 2008, California’s Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages were legal. Later that year, a statewide ballot measure banning same-sex marriage passed. Then a federal appeals court ruled the measure to ban same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

At issue were both the preservation of Californians’ votes (52% supported the ban on same-sex marriage) and the constitutionality of banning gay marriage. Ultimately, the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in this case. But it did rule that the proponents of Prop 8 (those against same-sex marriage) did not have standing to appeal the district’s court invalidating the ban. Therefore, same-sex marriage is once again legal in the state of California.


United States v. Windsor (26 June 2013)

This case, as in the Voting Rights and Prop 8 cases, also dealt with the chasm between federal and state laws. Same-sex marriage is legal in some states; however, same-sex marriage was not recognized federally before the release of the Court’s ruling for this case.

Before 26 June, the federal government operated under DOMA, which defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Legally, a same-sex couple married in a state where gay marriage was legal was still denied tax, health, and pension benefits at the federal level.

In this landmark decision, the Court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional because it denies the equal liberty of persons protected by the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.  While same-sex marriage is not legal at the federal level, those married in states where it is legal will be privy to federal benefits reserved for married couples.

Receptions to the rulings varied. The public largely sided with the Court in the Myriad Genetics case, agreeing with their opinion that human genes are not free to be patented by the first company to profit off of them.

The affirmative action ruling was widely considered to be a throwaway event, as the case was relegated to a lower court instead of being ruled on.

While many states, primarily in the south, may celebrate their new freedom from federal approval when it comes to changes to voting procedures, many Americans disagreed with the Court’s decision to strike down the preclearance formula in the Voting Rights Act. They worry that voting discrimination will resurge in certain states without federal oversight to prevent it. Some members of Congress agreed that new legislation should be passed to rewrite the formula, but they stipulated that it should apply to all fifty states and not those that have historically been discriminatory.

The issue of same-sex marriage is an incredibly charged issue among the American public. While many disagree with the Court’s rulings on religious and political grounds, many others rejoiced as it seems the fight for marriage equality is moving forward.


Until next year, SCOTUS!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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